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Time isn’t the main thing, it’s the only thing


In a nutshell

  1. Being thrown into lockdown and then emerging into a post-COVID world is an unfamiliar situation therefore our sense of time is much slower than it was pre-COVID.
  2. As all the old rules are broken, people start to feel that they must act fast to avoid being left behind or missing out.
  3. In the unfamiliar environment people are looking for reassurance and guidance from organisations that serve them.
  4. Those who can help show the path forward and provide relief from the burden of uncertainty can achieve great gains on organisational objectives.

Being at the bottom of the world can feel like living in a different time, literally and figuratively. The pandemic sharpened this sense. 

Global business and marketing press tell us marketers are focused on adopting timely solutions in a pending, if not already real, recession. They are struggling to know how to be sensitive to people’s lockdown lives and to stay culturally on code with a population whose lives are on pause. 

Being timely in Australasia requires another approach, where the mood of the nation, being culturally on code and responding to changed customer demand, looks very different. Our business and marketing functions are operating in a different reality. We can’t follow the rest of the world, so we need to forge our own path and lead the way. 

In this article, we’re considering time. Specifically finding the balance between timely action and what we know to be timeless. When is being timely in marketing the holy grail? When and where should timeless principles underpin marketing decisions and activity? 

Being timely – flexible, agile, relevant – is a critical success factor for business. But we know that timeless principles are a proven competitive advantage. And some things are universal, no matter what time you’re living through. 

The natural rhythms of days, seasons and years have always defined our existence and how we behave. And our breaking down of these into units of hours and minutes structures much of how our society operates. Work time, playtime, time with friends and family, me-time – our existence is a constant balancing act of prioritising how we allocate this precious resource to achieve fulfilment. At different times we can be looking to speed it up, slow it down or even stop the clocks altogether. We speak of the ravages of time, the luxury of time and above all, the importance of using time wisely. We humans are always seeking some level of control over it. 

Yet what makes time such a fascinating concept to govern our existence is how very fluid and influenceable it is in how we humans perceive it. Yes, at one level it’s a fixed concept: hours are hours, minutes are minutes. But how we actually experience each of these minutes or hours changes all the time. And the experience of time can be inherently different from one person to the next. 

Consider a time when you have been ‘in the zone’ – focused so intently on a task at hand that the hours seem to fly by. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the concept of ‘flow’ to describe such a state and noted how enjoyable experiences can alter our perception of time by speeding things up. Conversely, neuroscientists have also shown that negative emotions, such as fear or grief, can have the opposite effect on our time perceptions, making things feel like they are slowing right down. 

The fact that mood controls our sense of time makes a lot of sense when you think about this from an evolutionary perspective. And it also helps explain why scientists have linked perceptions of time to the familiarity of a situation we might find ourselves in at any given moment. 

When things are ‘known’ and ‘safe’, we tend to turn down our awareness levels – we are less tuned-in to every little signal going off around us. And as such, we notice time in a less attentive way. It can just slip by, appearing to us as ‘fast’. It’s no coincidence that states of flow, as described by Csikszentmihalyi, tend to occur more to people incredibly familiar with, and talented at, the tasks they find themselves immersed in. In these situations our decision-making and behaviour can be characterised as subconscious – running on ‘instinct’. 

However, when we find ourselves in unfamiliar places, or faced with unfamiliar or scary tasks, our awareness levels are turned right up. We become incredibly alert to everything that is going on around us. We search for threats, we observe others looking for social cues, we activate more of our higher-order cognitive decision-making processes. And as a result, time can appear slower to us. We are processing so much novel information, that we effectively make our existence feel like it’s gone into a Matrix bullet-time slo-mo sequence. Think about news reports where witnesses talk about an accident or tragedy, when you often hear things like, “I could just see it all unfolding like it was in slow motion.” 

So, our mood, our past experiences, the familiarity of our surroundings and the situations we find ourselves in all influence how we interpret the passing of time. If this is the case, what then happens to our perceptions of time when something like COVID-19 comes along and completely disrupts everything we normally do? What happens when lockdowns pass and we find ourselves in a state that looks like the old normal, but with everything changed a bit? 

How does such mass societal change disrupt the idea of time? And what does that then mean for the way we behave? And, what do we look for from the organisations that serve us? 

First, we can probably best characterise being thrown into lockdown and then emerging into a post-COVID world as something of a novel and unfamiliar situation. For most of us, this will be our first pandemic. And while we find ourselves in the enviable position of having emerged from widespread shutdowns and restrictions into a highly functioning society and economy, we do so ahead of the rest of the globe – again casting a very large shadow of uncertainty over the situation we find ourselves in. There’s very little in terms of an existing ‘playbook’ for what to do right now, or how to behave. 

Within this construct, we can expect that our sense of time is probably much slower than it was pre-COVID. We can expect, even at this current point of near-normality (or ‘new-mality’), that we are living with a heightened sense of awareness to what is happening around us. Whether we consciously perceive it or not, our uncertainty with our new situation will be leading us to examine our decision situations more rigorously – to take much greater note of the social cues on how to act that are swirling around us. 

This idea that time has slowed down may feel, on the surface, quite counter-intuitive, due to the frenetic energy we can all probably feel around us at the moment. It seems, as we dive into 2021, as if almost everyone in the population has super-charged their behaviour. We hear daily reports of bidding frenzies on houses and baches. New car sales are skyrocketing and artworks are selling like hot cakes. The dominant conversation is less one of timid trepidation and more one of FOMO – people are acting fast, and you need to as well lest you be left behind. 

But what this really shows is just how uncertain we all are. All the old rules are broken, so the feeling emerges that we must act fast to avoid being left behind or missing out. The frenetic energy also highlights just how much we are looking at each other to understand what to do next. 

So what does all this mean for organisations? How should we respond to these ideas? Well, above all, we must be cognizant of just how much people are looking for help to define how they should act. In the unfamiliar environment we find ourselves in, people want reassurance and guidance from organisations that serve them. And they want to see that organisations are tapped into the current context in a very big way – that they are reading the same signals in culture and society and effectively mirroring these back when presenting support and guidance. 

What this means is that, more than ever, it’s critical for organisations to have their finger on the pulse of current culture. That they themselves understand the conversations that are happening and the behaviours being exhibited, and can provide something of value in interpreting these. 

This can all sound quite hard, and it is. But the rewards for aligning with and helping people are potentially immense right now. Never before in this lifetime have people’s antennae been up so high. Never before has decision-making been so open to the potential for change. The opportunity exists to achieve great gains on organisational objectives around connecting with people for those who can help show the path forward and provide relief from the burden of uncertainty. 

Changing perceptions of time means now is the time to step forward. 

 This article was published in the latest issue of Frame magazine.

Frame magazine

Andrew Lewis
Managing Director at TRA

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