Signaling your intentions through talking about time

People are really bad judges of little time.  And they often don't signal their intentions appropriately.  My friend Alexandra Wolfe pointed this out to me recently when she noted that people always say that they are running "5 minutes late" or that they will "be there in 5 minutes."

But what does "5 minutes" actually mean?

My investigation into this mystery has led me to the following answer:  "5 minutes" means anything and nothing.

When you tell someone you will be there in "five minutes," it conveys no information.   It could mean you'll actually show up in 1 minute or mean you will be there in 25 minutes.   The person who gets the message won't know if they should eagerly await you or do a sales call.  

And, by the way, it is the same thing for "20 minutes."  no information is conveyed.  "20 minutes" could actually mean "never."

So instead of saying you'll be five minutes late … tell people that you will be there at 5:06p.   That gives a definite time to the receiver and will ease her anxiety.  Plus, you'll be able to better signal your intentions so that they can follow you.

Also — never say you'll do something "in a sec."   that's likely untrue.   It is possible you'll do it in 16 seconds … but likely you'll do it some time longer in the future.  

3 thoughts on “Signaling your intentions through talking about time

  1. pwb

    I think the problem is that people are over-optimistic about time, knowingly or not. That’s why the best thing to do is say where you are: “just leaving the starbucks at kearney and sutter” or “just got off 101/80 at the 4th st exit” or “looking for parking”, etc.

  2. Abram Catalano

    as it turns out, humans don’t have built in second hands. (ok, so they do, of that other type) Its just not a matter of survival, fights against nature means it usually wins the war (though battles are lost, and .. forgotten). I any case, its usually fun to take on nature to see where the boundaries are. So, maybe its just that societal communication (that specific) isn’t natural (i.e. hasn’t helped the human race in survival, or any lower rung of Maslow’s hierarchy). I’d say “just off the freeway” is a good amount of information – its just spam to say: “I got off the freeway 3 minutes and 26 seconds ago”. Reminds me of the book I read, “Kludge” – the brain, that is. Also, there is a perspective problem. what is the person supposed to tell you, the exact time they’ll arrive? If you find someone who can do that, I’d like to borrow them to get the numbers the ticker tape will show in an hour. I know its an inconvenience to you, but so is not knowing the ticker tape value in an hour. 🙂

  3. James Strock

    I once asked a very smart, highly-accomplished person what was the secret to his success. He said that the most important thing he had learned was how to make use of those small bits of time–two minutes here, five minutes there–that most people cast aside.


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