Some education handbooks, especially those written for classroom teachers, add a "Time it takes" item to their descriptions of activities. I had initially planned to do this, because it is so important as a facilitator to have a realistic sense of how long any given activity might take, or, put otherwise, how much time to give it. No one wants to run out of time just when things get interesting, or find herself standing there with twenty minutes left and nothing to do.

But, as I wrote up the activities the times I was assigning seemed arbitrary. How long does an activity take? It depends on how you do it, how many people are there, what the context is, how the activity goes...

So, rather than assign each activity a time (with a couple of exceptions, like the mosh pit, where having fixed times is part of the process), I want to share some rules of thumb I use when thinking about the use of time.

  • Make a plan with times marked for each activity and give participants an agenda that also makes clear how long each part should take.
  • As you plan walk through each activity... how long will it actually take to do the things you envision happening? It helps to visualize the people you expect to be there, in the space that you will use, and play out the scenario in your head.
  • "If you are in a hurry, take the long way" -- don't rush, give activities and discussions the time needed for them to be useful.
  • Be prepared to cut -- I always have items on my agenda that are in brackets, ready to be cut if I run out of time.
  • Cut from the middle -- I learned this valuable rule from Educating for a Change; if you want to end with an evaluation of the event, but you are running over, don't just let the evaluation go. Cut from the middle so that you still have time for the evaluation.
  • Count participants and multiply by the amount of time it really takes to speak -- planning a ten minute discussion for a group of twenty people really amounts to planning for two or three people to participate. Think about what you are asking: How long would it take for each person to say something meaningful about the topic? Do you want people to be able to speak more than once?
  • Have a timekeeper -- if you are like me and tend to let things go over, this helps keep you honest.
  • When it's over, it's over -- this rule from "open-space technology" is worth remembering. If you reach the end, if the discussion has run its course, stop.