Factors that Make a Great Debater 7-Time Management

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Being a great debater requires a lot of work, and work requires time. There aren’t any short cuts in this regard- talent can make you a slightly better speaker, intelligence can make you a better argument constructor, and gritty determination can make you a better researcher. To develop any of these skills beyond the initial slight edge talent gives you takes time. I debated for a long time, and for quite a bit of it I was beyond terrible. Like, stop the fight t-ball 10 run lead rule bad. That’s not an exaggeration. At my first novice tournament a judge stopped the debate after my 2AC. At my last novice tournament a judge repeatedly stopped the debate to pull me and my partner into the hall over how terrible we were (at the time we answered a US-India war disad by saying “bring it on”, were told that was offensive and so in rebuttals we adapted and instead said “come get some”). It didn’t stop there- we had a varsity debate stopped after the 1AR as the judge said it was over. And this wasn’t against a good team- in fact the other team wished to lose so badly they tried to argue with the judge to let the debate continue. In my first college debate the judge interrupted my answer to the first CX question and said “if you finish that sentence I’ll vote against you right now”.


I’d like to think that over time I got better, but that’s the thing- it takes time. Debaters today, perhaps more so than at a lot of times in the last few decades, really WANT to be good. I have kids in my lab every summer who desperately, with every fiber of their being want to be good. This, in and of itself, is not a problem. The problem emerges when they believe there is a short cut to success- a get rich quick scheme approach to debate. As in life, most of these schemes fail or backfire spectacularly. This is something that can be observed in any endeavor where someone wants to improve- I’ve certainly noticed it in everything I’ve ever tried to do from debate, poker, writing, starcraft, playing guitar, cooking etc. We want quick and easy results, like Daniel San in the Karate Kid. But even that isn’t enough- we want to achieve those results int he way we want, by doing things that are fun, rather than things that are difficult.


The first thing we need to manage about time is our expectations. For most of you success will not come over night. This is not the worst thing that can happen. It may seem frustrating and traumatic, but those are your reactions to a lack of success- you create those metrics in your head. Lets look at an example, say you are a junior and you thought at this point in the season you would be fully qualified to the TOC. So far you have gone 3-3 at every tournament with a bid you have attended. Thinking “ok well I’ll just bid at the next two tournaments I go to” is not a realistic goal. There is a big difference between not clearing, and clearing and winning one (or several) rounds to get a bid. This doesn’t mean you are doomed- it is still quite feasible to qualify this year. But the short term demand for success will lead you down a different, and less productive path, than the long term one.


If you set out to get a bid at the next tournament what kind of actions would get you there? Generally you would need to prepare a very small set of arguments that are “cheese”. Cheese is a gaming/starcraft term for a cheap victory. Committee CPs fit in this category- you can read it against everyone, it works because its cheating. You can find one on a wiki and with minimal work get it ready to go. And you know what? You will win some debates with it. Other teams who are bad won’t know how to effectively counter your strategy. A committee CP could be the difference for you between going 3-3 and 4-2 at a tournament. So what’s the problem? Well, most judges hate cheese, and this is going to hurt your points (if you don’t believe me go through the judge wiki’s of your top 20 or so judges and see how many say “OMG I LOVE generic CPS that have nothing to do with the topic- 30’s all around!). If you have bad points, even if you clear you probably won’t get a bid because you will get stomped by the best team at the tournament, or you may just miss on points. The best team at the tournament isn’t going to get fooled by your committee CP- they will see it was your last 6 2NRs in a row and will make the proper strategic choices to beat you. This strategy prepared you for one kind of short term success, but it did not prepare you to actually achieve your goal. TOC bids are like CO2 in the atmosphere, it doesn’t matter when you got them, as long as you get 2 you get to go do the dance. So why devote time to a strategy that is going to hinder your results long term?


Because its easy. It feels good. When you haven’t ever cleared before clearing at your first tournament is amazing. I’m not trying to belittle that. But ask yourself, is that really what your goal is: just to clear? I doubt it. Different people have different goals, so if your’s isn’t to win- do what you like. But be honest with yourself- if you re taking the easy route own up to it and acknowledge that is what you are doing.


The second part of time management is the more literal meaning- organizing your schedule in a way that facilitates success. Every summer I tell my lab that to qualify to the TOC doesn’t take all nighters, or god given talent or luck- it takes 2 hours a day. Every day. From now, until the TOC. That’s it, and it’s not a lot. But most people won’t do it. What do I mean by 2 hours? You need to, every single day, spend 90 minutes cutting cards in which time you produce 10 pages (on average) of evidence. Then you need to spend 30 minutes practicing your speaking ( and I don’t mean 20 minutes prepping a rebuttal and giving it once, I mean actual talking). If you and you’re partner do that, every day, you will qualify to the TOC (obviously assuming you attend tournaments where one can get a bid to the TOC). What percentage of debaters do this? 40%? 50%? Try less than 5. I can already hear the excuses train leaving the station- I have so much school work, I have to babysit my brother, blah blah blah. This is where time management comes in.


This is gonna hurt- but most of you are lying to yourselves. There are plenty of people who are overworked for a variety of reasons and can’t free up two hours a day. Those people are probably not reading this blog. If you are reading this blog you are probably doing it in class when you are supposed to be paying attention. If so, you aren’t managing your time. If you are posting on facebook about how XYZ is preventing you from achieving success, you aren’t managing your time. Every summer with lab kids and every year with students I coach we go through the following breakdown- walk me through your day. Start from when you wake up, and tell me every single thing you did and how long it took you. This usually goes like this


“I got up around like 7, and then I had to leave for school at 7:45. Then I was at school, and I got home around 5 and did some homework and then I went to bed at like 1am”.


At first glance, this may seem perfectly reasonable. I assure you it is not. At this point I start asking some follow up questions like “How long does it take you to get ready for school?” and they will answer “umm, 20 minutes”.


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Do you see what happened there? You just wasted 25 minutes. People waste it in different ways- hitting snooze, checking facebook, watching sports center. Whatever it is, you are wasting time. Now I can already hear someone saying “pff, thats just 25 minutes”. Well you haven’t even been up an hour yet and you’ve already wasted 1/2 of it- so forgive me for assuming the rest of your day isn’t running like a Swiss watch.


School is one of the biggest places people waste time. Usually it works like this “I’m so smart, I don’t have to pay attention in class, so I can play tetris and its cool cause I’m a genius”. You aren’t. Geniuses don’t play 40 year old crappy video games. 100% of the time when I ask students why they have so much homework or why they need to spend all night before a tournament studying for a test the answer is at least partially they screw around in class. I get it- i was the same way, so listen to me when I tell you that you are making a mistake. If you pay attention in class you will get your homework done faster, you will have to spend less time studying, and you won’t have to deal with hassle from teachers and parents. More importantly, if you really are Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting and don’t need to pay attention then it should be really easy for you to get your 90 minutes of card cutting in during that time no?


But for the sake of argument, lets ignore study hall, lunch, passing periods etc. and say 8 hours of the day are truly, irrecoverably lost to school. Your day begins at 3pm. You go to bed at sometime between 10-12. That means you have 7-9 hours of time to work at night. No school in the country is giving you 7-9 hours of homework a night. You may procrastinate and let it build up to 9 hours, but no school is giving you 9 hours a night every night. Now I’m sure for many of you, in your head that 7-9 hours is jam packed full of activity- you play a sport, and you eat dinner with your parents, and you have to do XYZ. Obviously I can’t break it down for each person individually so here is my suggestion- take a week and write down how you spend every minute of that time, in excruciating detail. Don’t lie to yourself. If after a week of doing this you see no places where you wasted time watching netflix or chatting online or staring off into space I wish you well because you will someday be the leader of the free world. As I am writing this article I have stopped to play with my dog like 5 times




Getting a dog was awesome, but from a time management perspective it was a disaster for me. I’m no Warren Buffet, but I spend a reasonable amount of time working. Before the dog, I still had a few hours a day left over to just watch TV, read, or play video games. Now I have the same work requirements, but I also have about 2-3 hours of dog time to subtract between walking him, playing with him, running his instagram etc. I try and make that time more productive- books on tape, political podcasts- but the truth is it creates a direct tradeoff- I either work less, or get less leisure time. I just moved to LA recently and now spend 2-3 hours a day driving in traffic and another hour a day at anger management. Again- I try and make it not wasted time, but it has an impact on what I’m able to do. It forces tough choices- I don’t really get to play video games anymore, I haven’t read a fiction book from start to finish in the last few months etc. I’ve gotta be honest with myself about what the demands on my time are and try to manage them as best I can.


In order to manage your time better, you need to start with an honest, sober, ego-less accounting of your time and the demands on your time. If you can’t take that first step, the rest is meaningless.


So, what are some productive tips for time management?


  1. You can’t multitask. Most people try to work while simultaneously watching TV, talking on the phone, and doing 20 other things. People rationalize this in a variety of ways: it helps me study, its more enjoyable etc. They’re all wrong. Science. In addition to being a drag on productivity, this kind of multitasking actually destroys your attention span. It makes it harder to focus when you do actually sit down to do work without distractions- see debaters who don’t flow but instead check facebook during rounds. Its hard to break yourself of this habit, but like any habit it can be done. The results won’t be short term though…
  2. Planners work. Almost every school I have worked out either gives out or requires students to fill out a paper planner. Like 1% of kids do it. It’s no coincidence these are the students winning all the academic awards. You can’t manage your time if you don’t know what you have to do and how much time you have to do it. A research assignment, or a school paper, is much easier to do in small chunks over a long period of time than all at once in an all nighter.
  3. Teamwork/accountability. Make a google spreadsheet with your partner/coaches/team. On that spreadsheet record your time and hold each other accountable. People are more likely to make and meet goals in a group setting because others help them stay accountable. Obviously people can lie, but you are really only lying to yourself. We know you aren’t spending your time cutting cards when everything you turn out is from a wiki.
  4. Create a productive work environment. If you get distracted by TV, work in a room without a TV. Can’t top checking your email? Download articles and then turn off your wifi or use an app that disables certain websites or only lets you check them periodically.
  5. Set up a reward system. One of the reasons attention spans suck is almost certainly conditioning. Behavior that gets rewarded is likely to be repeated. Constantly checking your email and then finally seeing the email you wanted is excited. Behavior that is rewarded intermittently (not on a fixed schedule, like a slot machine) is the most rewarding. So clicking over to facebook 100 times and only seeing that your post about how you are overworked got a like 5 times out of 100 is actually MORE rewarding than getting a like every single time. There are many things in today’s world that reward in attention, start setting up rewards for attention. Disable your wifi at first in small chunks- 10 minutes or so. Then give yourself 2 minutes to screw around. Try and stretch out the 10 minutes until eventually you can go an hour or more. This may sound absurd to some of you, but again, science. Look it up, it really works. This will not only make you better at debate, but better at school and life in general.



Ultimately, time management is really about honesty. If you can’t be honest with yourself, time management is going to be a problem. It isn’t really something someone else can do for you outside of a strict set of confinements like being in the military. And that’s actually why a lot (obviously not all) people will tell you the military changed their life/turned it around. They weren’t having problems because they didn’t now how to march or salute, their problems were they didn’t know a good way to order their life. The military takes all those decisions away from you and doesn’t give you options. This may seem an absurd example, and I’m not exactly a flag waving pro military hawk, but if you look at schools that have traditionally had a lot of debate success in college and high school… you’ll notice some similarities.


Hopefully with some work you’ll be able to better manage your time without going all Full Metal Jacket, and you can find a middle ground between it and Dazed and Confused.


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