The Way to Act at the Right Time


Have you ever kicked yourself for not acting earlier? Like going food shopping the night before Thanksgiving, only to be greeted by empty shelves, frenzied shoppers, and endless lines? Or buying a shovel the day of a blizzard and noticing the store looks like a scene from the Walking Dead? 

How about with people? Imagine a husband (not me) on a shopping trip who reaches a hunger breaking point and becomes unbearably difficult. There's even a word for this - Hangry = hungry + angry

What about in business? An executive was running a consultancy helping mostly small businesses. One day he received a call from a Fortune 500 company asking for help. He was excited and offered to schedule an appointment first thing the next day. The woman on the phone said, "you don't understand...we will continue to lose a significant amount of money until this is fixed."

 I can be there in a few hours.

"NOW you understand," she said. He cleared his schedule, went to their facility right away and fixed the problem. The new opportunities that resulted helped catapult his business to the next level. 

You snooze, you lose

There are two potential problems with acting too late. First, your action may no longer be effective.

  • The job being offered to you may not be available tomorrow.
  • The ingredients for your favorite Thanksgiving dish may be sold out.
  • You may need to channel MacGyver to fashion a shovel to dig out of the snow. 

In any case, you've missed your chance and the proverbial window of opportunity has closed. 

A second problem is your action may be less effective, resulting in additional pain or cost that could have been avoided. Let's consider the scenario of a shopping trip with a hangry husband (again, definitely not me). You finally stop to get some food, and the irritability abates somewhat, but the overall mood and trip have been ruined. 

So how do we get better at acting at the right time?


I started thinking about the importance of timing during a recent Aikido class. We were practicing a technique defending an attack that looks like a karate chop to the top of the head. Picture breaking a bottle directly over someone's head, just without the bottle.

All Aikido techniques require a high level of connection with the other person. When properly executing a technique, it should feel like both people are moving as one. Imagine the way professional ballroom dancers circle and move.


Recently, I've been thinking about the high level of connection and impressive timing exhibited during Improv comedy. Think about the Drew Carey show, "Whose Line is it Anyway?" I was curious to see if the principles underlying Improv might be applicable to Aikido so I checked out the book Improvisation for the Theater, by Viola Spolin. This is like the bible for improvisation, but don't take it from me. 

Her book is the bible.
~Rob Reiner

There is a connection exercise from the book called, "The Mirror." Player A makes a move (e.g., touching their nose) and Player B mirrors it. It's using movement and not words, but it feels a lot like the type of copying game we all experienced as kids. 

You: I don't feel like going today.

Them: I don't feel like going today.

You: Cut it out, I mean it!

Them: Cut it out, I mean it!

And if this person were feeling especially evil, they might take it up a notch and try to repeat what you were saying AS YOU SAID IT or even get ahead of you and finish your sentences.


As Player A and Player B continue to mirror and their connection strengthens, the lag between their movements gets shorter and shorter. In fact, at times it becomes hard to tell who is the initiating and who is following.

You see this high level of connection in various other areas. Think about the supreme helper who seemingly knows exactly what others need, even before it is verbalized. Or picture teammates who are so in tune they don't even need to talk or point, they just "know" what each will do and react accordingly. For example, watch a well-executed basketball fast break or the uncanny teamwork of the tennis doubles champions the Bryan brothers (who happen to be identical twins).



So we're back in the dojo. My partner is attacking first (like breaking a bottle over my head). I'm defending and my initial movement is to raise my arm to meet his arm. Done properly, our raised arms meet in the space between us like crossed swords,  Zorro style. The later I raise my own arm, the closer the imaginary bottle gets to my head. So it is in my best interests to move as soon as he moves. 

So as soon as my partner raises his arm, I raise mine. I try to make it as simultaneous as possible. I'm not anticipating or moving first, rather I'm trying to minimize the lag. Because the attack and the defense are mirror images of each other, at times he thought I was confused and was attacking when it was my turn to defend. 

So what does any of this have to do with the right time to act, Joe? 

Great question, thanks. I believe this would be the right time for me to get to the point.  

The key to acting at the right time is to connect with others as part of single system, rather than thinking of others as a separate entity.

What I discovered through the mirroring exercise and the Aikido technique is that if you connect with the other person in a way where you begin to function as a unit, your response will naturally be a timely one.  So the feeling is instead of reacting to an external attack I'm mirroring his movement. Again, think basketball fast break or tennis doubles. 

Fortunately you don't need to be identical twins like the Bryan brothers to get into sync with others. And you don't need to be a master of improvisation, either, though I highly recommend improvisation exercises.   

In order to better connect and act at the right time, follow these two EZPZ steps:

Step 1. Pay attention with and practice situational awareness

Let's go back to the executive receiving the call from the Fortune 500 company. Dollar signs must have been running through his head. If he had not understood that he needed to drop everything and leave as soon as possible, he would have lost that opportunity.

Often in life and in business, people will not tell you explicitly what you need to do. They send you signals and expect you to understand. Can you imagine working with someone where you have to explicitly state or write down everything you need them to do? So situational awareness helps you avoid the situation where you realize too late what needs to happen and watch your opportunity vanish like a puff of smoke.


Step 2. Think and move as if you and other person are part of one system.

Now that you are paying attention and are aware, consider what actions you might take working together as a unit. There are times when this comes naturally. Someone sneezes and what do you say? God bless you or Gesundheit. What do you do when you see brake lights? You brake. I hope.

Sometimes it takes a little more thought. You are walking through a door and notice the person behind you has their hands full. If you are in a hurry and only thinking about your own needs, you may just let the door close and keep walking. However, if you are thinking of them like a friend, family member, or even just loosely as part of your community, you may pause and hold the door open for them. To act at the right time change your perspective from one of reaction to one of symbiosis.

I hope this approach will help you (and me) get better at acting at the right time. I don't know about you, but I don't like missing opportunities, shoveling snow with my hands, or getting a bottle broken over my head!

If you have any thoughts about good timing, improv or stories about when timing made a difference in your life, I'd love to hear about it

Last, but not least, an oldie, but a goodie about "really" being in sync.


Next post next Saturday, 6:30 a.m.