Just Thinking You Don’t Have Enough Time (Even If That’s Not True) Negatively Affects Performance

Have you ever had one of those days, where from the moment you squint at your phone and realize you’ve hit snooze one too many times, it feels like you’re running around from one thing to the next like a headless chicken (don’t worry, the link isn’t exactly what you’d think), just trying to keep everything from falling apart?

And sure, sometimes we manage to get through the day without any major mishaps, but sometimes you don’t….and drive through a half-opened garage door in the rush to get the kids to school, or forget to put your violin in the case in your haste to be on time for rehearsal…

Known as time urgency, the pressure to do more in less time has been linked to accidents, increased stress, reduced creativity, and all sorts of other undesirable things.

What’s interesting about time pressure though, is that some of this might be in our heads.

Meaning, whether it’s preparing effectively for tomorrow’s orchestra rehearsal, completing your theory homework before class, or getting the chicken (no, not that chicken) into the crock pot before it’s time to leave for soccer practice, the mere perception that you don’t have enough time might be enough to derail your efforts.

How so?

Show me the money

A pair of researchers recruited 163 students to participate in a decision-making challenge called the Iowa Gambling Task.

Essentially, a participant starts off with $2000 in play money, and is then presented with four decks of cards. Each card is associated with a certain amount of money, so with each selection, they win or lose some amount of money.

Two of the decks are “good” decks, where there are more gains than losses, while the other two are “bad” decks, where the participant will end up losing more than they’ll gain. And the objective is to figure out which are the good decks as quickly as possible to maximize how much money they can earn in the time allowed.

Time pressure?

The control group was told that they’d have enough time to complete the task. And even though both groups would be given the same amount of time, to create the perception of time pressure, the experimental group was told that they’d probably not have enough time to complete the task.

A big difference

As expected, the perception of time pressure did indeed correspond with a difference in performance between the two groups.

While both groups selected more cards from the good decks as the game progressed, the “enough time” group selected 22.49 cards from the good decks overall, compared with only 9.14 cards for the “not enough time” group.

DeDonno, M.A., & Demaree, H.A. (2008). Perceived time pressure and the Iowa Gambling Task. Judgment and Decision Making, 3, 636-640.

Apparently, being worried about not having enough time seemed to keep them from focusing as effectively on the task at hand.

Which seems to make pretty good sense. And as former US Congresswoman Pat Schroeder once said “You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time.”

But what are we supposed to do with this information? Especially when we have real deadlines, and actual time constraints?

Take action

I haven’t come across any silver bullet or foolproof life hacks for dealing with time pressure, but the key seems to center around training ourselves to focus more of our attention on the task at hand, and less on whether we’ll have enough time.

Time pressure in the practice room

Which sounds super obvious, I know. But I think when we are feeling pressed for time, it’s really tempting to dive right in and neglect to take a few moments to clarify our objectives, prioritize our goals, and make a plan for how to achieve them. So we end up spinning our wheels pretty fast and feeling busy, but not actually achieving as much as we could. As someone once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

It also helps to cut down on clock-checking. Checking the clock every minute just wastes time, exacerbates your anxiety, and keeps taking your focus away from what you’re doing. So aim to cut down on glances at the clock by 50% to start. Maybe set a 5-minute repeating timer instead, so you can avoid looking at the clock entirely, and just rely on a gentle nudge every so often to keep yourself moving, if you’re worried that you might lose track of time.

Time pressure on stage

On-stage, time pressure manifests in this weird tendency to feel like you need to get started right away. Especially at auditions, where you sense from the proctor or the silent panel behind the screen that everyone just really wants to get on with things and go home already. So it can be really tempting to succumb to the voice in your head that’s screaming about how awkward the silence is, and just start. Often much sooner than you feel ready to.

But if you rush walking out on stage, rush through tuning, and rush into getting started, chances are, you’ll take that rushed feeling into your performance too.

If you’ve ever watched a great tennis player prepare to serve, it often looks as if they have all the time in the world. Everything is smooth, effortless, and easy. They go through their routine, and if they have a bad toss (or two or three), they just reset and try again.

Like that tennis player, the idea is to focus less on time, and more on the sound and feeling of tuning and getting connected with your sound and instrument. To engage in your pre-performance routine, and hear what you’re going for . And to practice and record your starts and transitions in run-throughs, mocks, and other performances, so you not only get comfortable taking your time, but can prove to yourself from these recordings that taking time only feels awkward, and you’re not actually taking an excessive amount of time.

After all, it’s not like the audience and audition panel can leave. What’s a few more seconds here or there, if it’ll help you get settled and perform even a little bit better?

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


8 Responses

  1. Hi Noa

    Very interesting article! But makes me wonder something that I’ve heard before and I’m not sure if it was from you. Once they recommended this method of practice were you’d spend almost 45 minutes of practice section dividing it into short equal periods; so if you got 3 subjects to study you’d spent 5 minutes on each round until you complete de session. I’ve applied this for some time and it seems very useful by now. But, what you ‘re saying here is also a reality because you might be spending part of my focus time to accomplish this time set. Why do you think about this?

    1. Yes, I think you’re referring to an interleaved or “random” practice schedule. I think the kind of time pressure you get in that scenario (knowing you have to move onto a different passage or piece every few minutes) can be productive, in that it’s a helpful way of avoiding getting stuck on one thing for too long. And I think it feels a little different too, because you know you can come back to the same section a little later in the same practice session.

      The kind of time pressure that might be a little more difficult to deal with is the kind where you have a fixed deadline, and the task needs to be completed by that time. But in either scenario, it helps to practice staying focused on the time at hand until the timer tells you it’s time to move on.

  2. I am very bad with time pressure, and I’m also bad at planning for goals. This is the first article I’ve read that more or less linked the two. I could probably use a guide or an article or something on how to plan things out, because I really am terrible at it, and when I try, my brain goes, “oh but it’ll never work!” My plans also make less sense compared to others who like and are good at planning, so it’s probably no wonder I don’t feel like the plan is going to work. And then on the other side, I’m starting some mindfulness training in the hopes that I learn to keep focused even when my brain’s knee-jerk reaction is to panic.

    Honestly, I’ve carved out time in the day to play an hour or two of video games, and not gonna lie, it helps my time pressure because there is nothing that screams more “look at all the time I have to waste” than video games.

    1. I wonder if it’s ok that the plan doesn’t always “work”? As in, maybe all the plan needs to do is help provide some direction, and then it’s just about tweaking, making adjustments, and changing things as you go?

  3. I recall the following from a TV program (not always a reliable source): When Russians are in a hurry, they will take a minute to sit down and refocus themselves.

    I think this is a time saver in practice- you calm yourself and are less likely to forget something.

    Checklists are useful too: prepare them when you’re not rushed, use them when you are (or anytime).

  4. Oohh boy, does this resonate with me! Like when my boss wants me to come up with a quartet to be sung in 3 days or I find the perfect song that just needs a total key change and the software decides not to be helpful at all…and this song needs to be rehearsed in 4 hours! Best bet is to dive in and go at it and work on what CAN be done, not what SHOULD be done. And a big, deep breath first!

  5. Another thing that works with me because I lived situations when you really don’t have enought time, and it is part of the game (like these exams with too many questions, or some very hard to win games ) : just admit it and stop worrying.
    “Ok, I won’t have enough time, this won’t be finished. Let’s work for the best possible unfinished state, showing the best of myself with this constraint”.
    It can mean simplifying difficult patterns or ornaments, or working only intricate passages and assuming that simple ones will be sight-readed, taking a slower tempo etc
    This way of working forces us to stop wanting everything to be perfect and juat focus on doing one’s best.

    1. For your websesigner: on iphones the rigth part of commenta is clipped so you have to guess the missing letters… it is a bit annoying…

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