In tissues and tumours, cell behaviours are regulated by multiple time-varying signals. While in the laboratory cells are often exposed to a stimulus for the duration of the experiment, in vivo exposures may be much shorter. In this study, we monitored NF-κB and caspase signalling in human cancer cells treated with a short pulse of Tumour Necrosis Factor (TNF). TNF is an inflammatory cytokine that can induce both the pro-survival NF-κB-driven gene transcription pathway and the pro-apoptotic caspase pathway. We find that a few seconds of exposure to TNF is sufficient to activate the NF-κB pathway in HeLa cells and induce apoptotic cell death in both HeLa and Kym-1 cells. Strikingly, a 1-min pulse of TNF can be more effective at killing than a 1-hour pulse, indicating that in addition to TNF concentration, duration of exposure also coordinates cell fate decisions.