The speed of time
On strategy's most important variable
Time is the strategist's most important variable. It costs nothing. It means everything.
Napoleon once said: “I may lose a battle but I will never lose a minute.”
This essay's less about specific strategizing and more about a way of thinking towards time that'll impact strategy.
I came to the subject when I was 35 years and 10 months old. At the time, in the 430th month of my life, I left for a one-year unaccompanied tour in South Korea. (“Unaccompanied” means you have to leave your family behind in the US for an overseas military assignment.) My younger daughter was 8 months old at the time.
When I came home, the one year that passed seemed miniscule to me in one way. It was 12 months of the 442 months in my life. Only 2.7 percent of my entire life. But to my daughter, I was away 12 of her 20 months, 60 percent of her total time on Earth. To her, I'd been gone well over half her life.
Time is objective. One second is one second. When sprinters step onto a track for a race, they know they'll be measured against a fair standard. (Okay, okay, yes, a physicist would point out the many wrinkles that come with time. Like, for example, that your head is older than your feet—about 90 billionths of a second over a lifetime—because time at a higher elevation, further distant from the Earth's surface, passes differently.) For all that, we still tend to think of time in a straight line. We’re fond of “timelines.”
But we all experience time individually. That year I was gone in Korea, my daughter felt time in a way I did not. It was deeper, must've felt longer, compared to myself. And in turn, others with more years notched on their belts feel this as well. Record-setting long-distance swimmer, Diana Nyad, recently said to a younger interviewer, "You don't know this yet, because you're so young," said the 72-year old to her younger interviewer, but time "actually speeds up as you get older. It speeds up exponentially every month, every day, every hour."
I'm not so sure about "exponentially," but I bet it can feel that way sometimes to some older folks.
On the flip side, time, of course, can pass so slow. While I look back on my year in Korea as a blip—again, less than 3 percent of my life to that point—I recall while I was in it, I was in daily agony, wishing the time would pass faster.
Or when I returned from Iraq after my second year-long deployment in April 2006. I was nearly 26 years old, and counting deployments and my time at West Point, I’d spent almost a quarter of my life in some form of military lockdown. No wonder I was tired and unhappy.
This isn’t all personal. Though I’m sure many readers will be able to recall their own experience with the speed of time.
Knowing time’s impact, and how to nudge it a little, is an important ingredient in the strategist’s toolkit. Not only for strategy-making, but for evaluating and managing them once they’re in play.
Time impacts us all. So there’s (at least) two timescales that matter most to the strategist—ours, and the adversary. The Taliban saying of their Western opponents in Afghanistan, “you have the watches, but we have the time,” has been well-covered. It’s worth repeating. There remains no truer statement of the outcome there.
So how can you leverage time against your adversary?