CoolTimeLife Podcast: Influence as a Productivity and Time Management Power Tool

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Influence as a Productivity and Time Management Power Tool.

When people think about managing time and becoming more efficient, they almost always look at their calendar and ToDo lists to try to figure out how to work faster and how to prioritize. These are good thoughts, certainly, but they miss out on half of their workload problem. It’s not just the work you have to think about – it’s people.

At the end of every request, problem or opportunity, there’s a person waiting for something. Whether it’s a project you have to complete, or a text message you just received, somebody is waiting for something, and this can cause you stress. No one likes to feel rushed or pressured.

Time management is really about people management. It’s about managing expectations, keeping people satisfied by addressing their fear of the unknown, building a personal credit rating, and learning how to exert influence. Let’s look at all four of these.

1. Managing Expectations

A recurring theme in the Cool-Time approach to time management is proactivity. Proactivity means taking charge of an activity or an event before it happens, and consequently affecting the outcome in your favor. Now think about every time someone sends you an email. What are they doing? They have sent something to you and are waiting for a response, for satisfaction. Until they get that response from you, they won’t know what’s going on, and they won’t know when you will reply. This is why many of these people might send a follow-up email that asks, “did you get my last email?”

But what if they have been taught – by you – that you only reply to emails after 1:00 in the afternoon? If they know this about you, then they now have a frame of reference. Even if they send you an email at 9 in the morning, they will know not to expect a reply until after 1:00. They will be – to some degree at least – at peace.

By proactively managing peoples’ expectations, you will be able to carve out more time for yourself and lose some of that stress along the way. Managing expectations means being proactive – making sure people know what to expect from you. How can you do this?

  • By telling them. When you talk or communicate with someone, make sure to remind them about your policies.
  • By using your out of office assistant in email and embedding it in your voicemail greeting.

Anywhere and anytime you have the opportunity, take a moment to proactively inform the people in your life when where and how they can expect a reply from you.

Don’t expect that they will get it the first time. People need repeated notifications for the message to get through – that’s why you see the same ads so often on TV.

If people wonder why you suddenly are replying to emails almost by appointment, you can always blame the changing times. Things are getting faster, times are not what they used to be, and you and your company or department are trying new best practices to do more with time.

The bottom line here is this: you can manage your own time and tasks better by first managing the expectations of the people who are waiting for you.

2. Addressing the Fear of the Unknown

People have an innate fear of the unknown. Imagine you are back in high-school, in first-period gym class, out there on the soccer field on a frosty morning. The gym teacher comes over. You hear one of the two following commands:

“Go out there and give me 12 laps around the field,” or, “Go out there and start running until I blow this whistle.”

Which would you rather hear?

Most people say they would prefer the 12 laps, because it is finite. They know when it will be over and can pull together the resources to get through the effort in front of them.

This shouldn’t be taken lightly. It addresses a fundamental instinctive need that all humans have, to know whether a situation will be a danger. Gym class might not sound so dangerous, but in this scenario, it’s all about knowing how much energy you can spare. Knowing it’s just 12 laps gives you a finite measure – a challenge you can get through.

When you proactively take the time to manage peoples’ expectations, tell them when they can expect a return call, when they can feel “safe” again, you are doing much more than being organized on your end. You are influencing people by speaking directly to their instincts.

3. Bad News Is Better than No News

This is a subset of the Fear of the Unknown principle. Imagine you are running late for a meeting and your phone battery has died. You’re walking – almost jogging – along the sidewalk as fast as you can. You spot a payphone (a rarity these days, I know). Should you stop and call the person you’re meeting, and therefore make yourself even later? Or simply keep your head down and keep on walking?

The answer is to make that call. Even though you’re running late, bad news is always better than no news. That’s because people can start to make other plans or at the very least stand down from their state of anxiety once they know what’s going on.

4. Cialdini’s Six Faces of Influence

Robert Cialdini is one of the foremost experts in influence and he wrote a book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. He describes the six faces of influence that each get people to do what you want them to do, by approaching their psyche in different ways. Those six faces are:

People can either fear you, or they can like you. In almost all cases, liking lasts longer. Robert Cialdini, in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, identifies six ways that you can exert influence over someone. These are:

  • Reciprocity: you give something to me, I feel obliged to give back. This is typical if someone has done you a favor, or if you receive a free sample of something, you feel obliged to buy it.
  • Commitment and consistency: developing and sticking to habits or people that we know and have become comfortable with. People are attracted to consistency because it gives them a sense of comfort. The way you dress, the way you speak, the way you conduct yourself – if you were to change these things radically from day to day, people would not know how to relate to you.
  • Social proof: we decide upon the correct action or opinions based on what others are doing. If I ask you to recommend a good restaurant or a good accountant, if I act on your recommendation, you have influenced my actions through social proof – in other words, another person’s opinions are sufficient to sway my choice.
  • Authority: we believe in and react to the authority of another. I’m the boss. Do this work or you’re fired. You can’t get much more influential than absolute power. But this does not always lead to the type of progress you might be looking for. People don’t tend to put their heart and soul into working for tyrants, which can lead to errors, absenteeism or people simple leaving.
  • Scarcity: we act now out of the fear that the opportunity might not exist in the future. This is used a lot in advertising. “Buy now! Supplies are limited! Weekend blow-out sale! These types of messages try to influence you into buying by making you believe you will b missing out if you don’t at now.
  • Liking: we like to work with people we like. This is by far the most effective. People like to work with those who have shown them respect and who make them feel good.

The bottom line here is that influence is about getting people to do the things you want them to do. It’s more than that, actually. It’s about getting people to want to do the things you want them to do.

Think of the times you have been waiting for someone else to get their work done or show up to a meeting, or on the flip side of this, getting them to leave you alone whether you’re at work, or on personal time. This is all more likely to happen if you can use the tools of influence, most specifically Liking and Reciprocity, to allow them to want to do this.

How to Deploy an Influence Strategy

It has been said by many experts in this field that the secret of success is to spend most of your time in your business, but a certain amount of it working on your business. This is a direct application of the 80/20 rule. Spend 80% of your time doing effective, profitable work, but spend some of the remaining 20% doing things like networking – managing relationships, marketing yourself, listening to others. All of this might sound pie-in-the-sky that add to your existing workloads, but in actual fact, its about building a personal credit rating that helps cut back on work requests, especially those unplanned crises, or simply the pressure of having people bothering you for answers or delaying you because they have forgotten about your deadlines.

People who like you are the people who will find opportunities for you and who will support and guide you.

Influence is about getting people to do what you want them to do. Sure you can command them if you have sufficient authority, but the better approach is to leverage peoples’ natural human desire to collaborate. People are tribal by nature. They want to be part of something, like a group or a team, and most people like to be led by a leader they can believe in.

Influence seems more like an art than a science. It is based on human relationships and interaction. To become more influential:

  • Understand the power of body language. People will tell you more through their body language than they will with their words. You can tell when someone is really engaged, nervous, even lying, by reading their hands, eyes, voice and posture during conversations. But you, too, can use body language as a tool of influence by consciously being aware of what your hands, eyes, voice and posture are telegraphing about you, AND avoiding sending mixed messages through unconscious body language.
  • Practice and demonstrate active listening. Active listening means using your knowledge of body language to demonstrate engagement and interest when you are talking to someone. This is not just about hearing their words; it’s about giving them respect and dignity during the discussion. This in turn translates into greater loyalty and drive from the people you are talking to. Once again, people like to work with – and for – people they like. And his comes largely from a sense of being respected.
  • Network internally. Networking is about getting to know people by taking the time to meet them. At first glance this might seem like a waste of time, especially with all those emails and other tasks you have on your plate. But by budgeting a small amount of time per day to network, to manage by walking around, to talk and to actively listen, you will develop a personal credit rating that pays off. How?

People will read and reply to your emails and work requests more promptly, prioritizing you above other people. They will be more motivated to get their assigned work done more quickly and efficiently. They will be more motivated to show up to your meetings on time.

In short, they will be more willing to do they things you want them to do, through the power of influence.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Influence as a Productivity and Time Management Power Tool. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: Digital Literacy – A Critical Survival Skill

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Digital Literacy – A Critical Survival Skill.

Whenever I give a presentation or a speech, I always start out by giving the Twitter hashtag for the event. This is not merely an act of housekeeping – it’s also a teaching moment that starts with crickets.

Yes – the sound of silence – a room full of blank faces when I ask the assembled audience how many of them use Twitter as a daily tool of professional development. Out of a room of a few hundred, I might get a dozen hands that go up. So, I ask why, and the answer is usually, “I have nothing to say,” or “There’s already someone on our department who does the tweeting for us, or even Twitter is passé. It’s Instagram now.”

Those are good answers – in fact there should only be one person in charge of tweeting on behalf of a company or department. And social media outlets like Instagram have their place. But that overlooks two of the three main benefits of using Twitter. People assume it’s just for outbound activity, sending notes and opinions out to the world. But that’s only useful if you have an established audience. That’s why celebrities and politicians use it.

But there’s a far more valuable use of Twitter that often goes overlooked, and that has to do with inbound information. When properly tuned, Twitter is an excellent tool for keeping up to speed on what’s going on in your business – the facts and development you need to know.

Yes, Twitter is awash with garbage and hate. That’s very sad and says a lot about people in general. But inbound Twitter is an ideal tool for lifelong learning.

Lifelong learning is just what it sounds like. You keep learning every day of your life. That’s not a new concept, but for many of us, such an idea paints pictures of having to go back to school, take formalized courses and write formalized exams and paper to get formalized degrees. These are all still good, of course, but in between those events, other things are still happening: Industry news. Innovations. Events. Opportunities.  Being aware of these developments in real time is what gives people an edge or even a lifeline.

How else can you know what you need to know? It doesn’t matter if you never send an outbound tweet ever. Maybe you don’t need to. But by following a handful of carefully chosen experts, and checking your twitter feed once per day, you will receive vital, career enhancing knowledge without having to wade through all the garbage.

The Knowledge Base

The other reason I promote the Twitter hashtag at my session is that it allows me to talk about its service as a shared knowledge base – something that can and should also later be translated into an internal, intranet-based tool.  When I have a group of people in front of me, there is bound to be someone with something valuable to contribute – maybe a thought, an idea or a resource, like a link to a website or online article or video. But they are unwilling to speak up. Often times, the quietest ones are the ones with the most profound observations.

By tweeting a comment or a link, using the event’s hashtag, every participant, even those who were not there, are able to read ideas and suggestions from people they don’t yet follow, by simply searching for the common hashtag online. This use of Twitter hashtags is a public activity using a public, non-confidential forum – but it represents a powerful way of sharing information and building on synergies that more and more people find more appealing than out-loud dialog. It is the Wiki approach – a shared knowledge base, built out of the contributions of many.

Internal Wikis

As powerful as shared knowledge through hashtags is for public events, it also highlights the power of internal Wikis, that every company should embrace. I come from an age – not that long ago – where policies and procedures were stored in vinyl binders, updated every quarter or so by a new raft of 3-hole punched papers intended to replace the older ones. It’s all we had at the time, and their quality and relevance were dependent on the person or consultant who wrote them.

But when an organization takes on the Wiki knowledge base mindset, capitalizing on the interaction and ubiquitous access that Twitter and Wikipedia offer, the collective wisdom and experience of a wider swath of employees is tapped – and that’s a significant development. People may not always be willing to speak up. But they are often more willing to both contribute and learn, when given the chance.

Centralized knowledge bases give people a renewed opportunity to learn new skills, reaffirm procedures and best practices by enabling employees to look it up online – to read a short article or watch a quick video. Having a Wiki means updates to knowledge bases can happen quickly, helping ensure no-one is referring to an outdated copy of a policy or procedure that has been sitting in a binder for years.

This again, is digital literacy – centralizing knowledge – taking full advantage of the accessibility of online material and ensuring the right message gets through.

The Scuba Diver Factor

An additional benefit of digital literacy comes from social media in general, which is why many employers and HR departments will routinely scan the social media sites of employees and candidates, like Facebook and Instagram, not to snoop, but to better understand the passion that drives employees.

For example, imagine that you discovered through Instagram, that one of your employees was a passionate weekend scuba diver, and in addition, is certified to teach scuba diving? What relevance would that have to the job he/she currently has? Some might note that someone with these passions might be a natural leader with the brains to learn complex procedures and the abilities to teach and lead others. But that might not be obvious as a line item on a C.V. or even on a LinkedIn page.

The potential within every employee needs new avenues to reveal itself. People who make hiring decisions take a huge risk. The cost of attracting, onboarding and training an employee is huge. Knowing more about who they are and what makes them tick – or more precisely how they can best fit into a company culture, is of enormous value. And the information is right there.

In many cases, 90 percent of an employee’s potential goes unseen, untapped and unappreciated. This is serious, especially given the career mobility that professionals of all ages now recognize. People know that there’s something else, something more fulfilling out there. It’s up to HR and hiring managers to know fully and completely who they have at their disposal and where their passions truly lie.

Digital Literacy and Critical Thinking

Finally, there is the vital component of corporate survival: critical thinking. The experts who research and discuss the future of work regularly describe the skills that employers will be looking for, the skills that people will need more and more in the months and years to come. This is especially prescient as artificial intelligence and machine learning take over many parts of many types of jobs and professions.

These skills are very human in nature, not surprisingly. They include – but are not limited to – critical thinking and empathy. People in general are becoming increasingly emotionally disconnected the more their technologies connect them. Think for example, how many of us would prefer to send an email or a text than pick up the phone and talk live, out of the fear of what? Time being wasted? The fear of confrontation? Social awkwardness? Disinterest? Well, these aforementioned skills are coming into high demand very quickly. Here are just two examples:

First, critical thinking as it applies to phishing. Phishing and spearfishing emails are getting much more sophisticated. Cybercriminals have figured out ways to mimic the web pages and two-factor authentication techniques that we have started to rely on as a defense. The truth is that any and every communication that an employee at any level might have, whether with an outside agent like a supplier, customer or job applicant, or even with an internal colleague, must be suspect. That colleague’s email might not actually be from that colleague after all. This is why data breaches are so scary. Impersonation of people is easy once the bad guys have access to the types of personal data that accounts use for verification.

So that’s one reason why critical thinking is so important. The need to not trust anyone. The need to second guess each email when it arrives, and the need to not click out of reflex – these all confirm critical thinking as an essential skill, if only to help keep the company safe.

Then there’s empathy. As one of a collection of social interaction skills, these will come into greater focus as more and more people choose to use video conferencing and telepresence as their ideal method of communication. Video conferencing means body language, facial gestures and eye contact reestablish their prominence in the art of human interaction. Being self-aware is equally as important as being aware of the body language in others, when you can see them through high definition video. Some people shy away from this technology for those very reasons, but as videoconferencing technology becomes more ubiquitous, it will become the norm, in the same way that email replaced physical mail all those years ago.

Conclusion

Digital literacy is not just about known how to install and use an app. It’s about understanding how to parse information and non-information from an infinitely growing ocean of data. It’s about finding meaning and delivering meaning through an understanding of just how these technologies work and how they affect and influence people.  It’s fitting, in a way, to see humanity become the primary skill in a world dominated by technology.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Digital Literacy – A Critical Survival Skill. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: Telepresence Robots and You

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Telepresence Robots and You.

A still from the Big Bang Theory episode: The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS
©2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

If you are familiar with the comedy series called the Big Bang Theory, you might have seen an episode in which Sheldon, seeking ways to lengthen his lifespan by avoiding danger sends his robot to do his work for him at the university. The robot he sends looks a lot like either a Beam or a Double, two of the most popular brands of personal robot. (It’s actually a Textai robot, manufactured by Willow Garage, which was later acquired by Beam). For millions of viewers of the show it was likely the first time they had actually seen one in action.

Of course, the show is a comedy and the use of the robot included some comedic situations, but nonetheless, it was there. If you are not a viewer of The Big Bang Theory, or you missed that episode, no matter.

The point is that these personal telepresence robots are increasingly becoming a viable alternative to physically being in the office in your human form. But I want to look at this seriously as a credible business tool, because that’s what this podcast is all about.

So What is a Telepresence Robot?

If you have never seen a telepresence robot, go to doublerobotics.com or suitabletech.com and have a look at the photos and videos. In essence, a telepresence robot looks like a screen or an iPad mounted on top of a Segway – a pole with two wheels at the base that is self-propelled and self-balancing.

If you want to see one in action, there is a great YouTube video that shows them wandering the offices of LinkedIn. It’s just 3 and a half minutes long.

A telepresence robot is you, or at least the top half of you, on a screen, which allows you to wander the halls drop in on meetings, talk to people, listen to them, and basically interact as you would if you were actually there.

They are a thing now because supporting technology like WiFi make it possible for you to be able to drive one and use one from wherever you are in the world, and mobility and battery power make it possible for them to operates.

“So, do we need them?” People ask, as they do with any new technology that enters their lives, like cars, microwave ovens, personal computers and mobile phones? Why do we need personal robots when you can just teleconference or Skype instead? The answer is something that its users call the Transformational factor.

The Transformational Factor

Yes, instead of using a telepresence robot, you could call into a conference room. Or better yet, get in your car and drive to the office. Or if your office is hundreds or thousands of miles away, jump on a plane and make your way to the office that way.

OK I’m being a little facetious, but people always assess at every new technological development with their eyes firmly fixed on the past. As the LinkedIn video will show, those staff members who chose to start using a robot often used a key word: transformational. This means it changing the way people meet and communicate, even remotely.

Whereas teleconferences and video conferences are good at bringing people together fro wherever they happen to be in the world, this still means scheduling formalized meetings at set times. Such meetings have their usage, of course, at least, when run correctly, but the robot users pointed out that they were no able to capitalize on those ad-hoc meetings and one-on-one discussions simply by rolling their robot up to someone and saying “hi.”

Such reliable two-way communication was not possible up until now, so now is a different time – a transformational time.

The Presence Factor

The other key concept to be aware of here is presence. Presence refers to more than just seeing a face on a screen as you might with a Skype video conference. It’s about being aware of people in three dimensions. Early telepresence experiments involved attending a meeting using VR or AV, to look to your left or to your right and see people who weren’t actually in the room, but who were there in 3D space, virtually. When you add full stereo sound to this scenario, you start to get a sense of presence, known as telepresence.

VR and AR glasses in their current form are bulky and alien, but that does not mean they are out of contention. Sometimes a technology arrives in a shape that is almost embryonic, and does not reveal what the final form will be. It simply hints at what’s to come. If you wanted, you could call this the Segway Factor.

The Segway Factor

When the Segway was being designed and tested (anyone remember “project Ginger?) it was hyped or overhyped as the single greatest invention in human history, a new form of transportation that would change the world. Well It didn’t.  But what it did do, like so many world-changing inventions before it, is pave the way for innovation by providing a useful tool for the next set of inventive hands.

So the gyroscopic technology that allows a Segway to stand and move may not have revolutionized or replaced the act of walking fast, but it has allows this upcoming generation of robots to move more reliably. Misplaced or mistimed innovations often have to wait a little before revealing their benefit. Think, for example, about the 3M Post-it Note, made from a glue recipe that would not stick the way glue is supposed to. Think also about Gorilla glass – the durable glass coating that forms the face and the interface of most smartphones. Gorilla glass was a failed recipe for see through cookware for Corning. The recipe sat on a shelf for decades until the day smartphones replaced flip phones and changed the world.

The WalMart factor

The other thing about robots is that they are already here. There are thousands of YouTube videos that show robots in warehouses, factories, even in prototype restaurant kitchens. Robots are only robots until you get used to them. Then they become appliances, like your dishwasher, your Roomba or your smart home system. “OK Google, show me videos of robots in houses.”

Premium robots are expensive. Some might find the $3000 price tag of a Double to be expensive, even though it will pay for itself by removing one business trip from the budget.

But there was a time, too when an external hard drive for an IBM PC costs thousands of dollars. Now laptops are just a couple of hundred, thanks to worldwide acceptance and the economies of scale. I call this the WalMart factor. A couple of years from now, you or your kids will be picking out their telepresence robot from the robots department at WalMart.

Maybe the robots in the current form will be out of date in a few years, looking as quaint and clumsy as VR goggles currently do, or a 1985 loaf of bread-sized cellphone now does. But they won’t disappear. They will evolve. The question is, will you?

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Telepresence Robots and You. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: Dynamic Email and Calendar Management

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Dynamic Email and Calendar Management. Dynamic Email and Calendar Management

Email is a necessary tool of day-to-day business. But its candid and immediate nature swallows up a lot of time. In this podcast I want to share with you a method for pairing your email and calendar together in a way that will make your day healthier and more productive and will not leave you having to sacrifice your evening to returning all those messages.

So, let’s start with your calendar. Most people see a calendar as something that tells them what to do. But it shouldn’t be that way. That’s backwards. Your calendar should be a menu of choices that you use to decide how to apply your time based on the priorities of the day. It is also a tool of defense against other peoples’ work requests. It’s a dynamic method of proactively managing your time.

Most of us have way too many things to do, yet we believe we can get them all done in a day. That’s a fallacy based on not being fully aware of the total inventory of your day. What do I mean by that? Well, most people only use the calendar for unique and specific events like meetings, dental appointments or a specific task. They never put in the day-to-day regular stuff like email. That never gets accounted for, because it’s a given. BUT even though it still exists, it doesn’t get put in the budget.

The budget? Yes. This is exactly the same as budgeting your take-home pay. Imagine it’s payday – you either get your direct deposit into your bank account from your employer, or you get handed a cheque or an electronic payment from your client. Whatever. Hooray! You’ve been paid. Now, is all that money yours to do what you want with? Maybe buy a guitar or pay for a vacation? No. Not immediately. You know you have payments to make. A mortgage or rent, maybe a car payment, utility bills, food. All these things. They are standard. You have to budget for these things. A whole lot of that money is already spoken for.

So let’s translate that same concept into your calendar. If you flip ahead in your day planner or online calendar to a workday that has no events planned on it, let’s say exactly one year from today, it’s probably an empty page. But you already know, if that’s a regular workday, part of that day is already spoken for, for the day-to-day activities that we take for granted, such as email. Email is something that comes into your inbox randomly and immediately demands your attention. Each one of those emails demands some of your time. So how many do you think you handle on any given day, and how long does it take you to deal with each one? I know that’s an unfair question, but that’s the point. Because it’s such a candid and varying thing, few of us stop to calculate just how much time email takes. That’s why so many of us resort to doing them in the evening because the day got full of other stuff.

So, let’s say you stop and quantify. Just like a professional project manager has to do when planning a road, a building, or a wedding – yes, wedding planners are project managers, too. Nothing is left to chance. Everything is counted, planned and added to the budget.

So, you give it some thought, and yes, ok, you basically deal with 30 emails a day. And by “deal” I mean receiving emails, reading them, replying to them and creating your own. OK? So, 30 a day. Now let’s say you average out the time each one takes based on your past experience. Don’t count the ones that ask you to do something that takes more than a few minutes, like “Please review the attached document, make changes and send back to me.” This particular type of email is actually a task and should be immediately promoted as such as an appointment on your calendar face. OK, so all of your quick emails average about 3 minutes each to handle. So, 30 emails at three minutes each is 90 minutes. 90 minutes! That represents almost 20% of an 8-hour day.

If you want to use your calendar as a proactive tool of time management rather than as a passive list of impossible obligations, my suggestion is to do the following. Schedule three recurring 30-minute blocks for email management and assign them to every day that you work. That’s easier to do on a calendar app, than a day planner, of course. Three per day, perhaps at 10:30, 1:30 and 4:00.

Here are the three reasons why doing mail in blocks like this is way more practical and efficient than just doing them candidly and reactively.

First, they serve as placeholders. Collectively they prove to you that 90 minutes of this day and every day into the future are already spoken for. This is tangible proof of your busyness and will be extremely helpful as a negotiation tool when people ask you for some of your time. You only have so much left to make available, and any time someone pressures you into saying “yes” to a meeting request, the invisible obligations tend to get forgotten. By making them visible in this way, it gives you and the requestor proof of your current obligations while allowing space to negotiate a suitable time.

The point is we are bombarded by work requests and distractions throughout the day. It’s so easy to forget the standing, recurring obligations that you have. But you know what it’s like when you forget to pay a bill, or you forget to put money aside for a scheduled payment. There’s hell to pay, and it’s the same thing here.

Your calendar is a proactive tool of prioritization and defense against attack. Three email returning periods still allow for flexibility. If your first email returning period is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. and someone, a client or your boss really needs you for a meeting at that time, well, OK, it’s not that difficult to slide that 10:30 email returning timeslot down by half an hour like a game of Tetris or Candy Crush. Things can move fluidly across your calendar face. The important thing is that they are there, on the face of the calendar. They are not invisible. Dynamic calendar management is part and parcel of effective time management. So, slide things around slightly. Just do not delete these email returning times. That’s as dangerous as deciding not to pay the phone bill this month.

Flexible, slide-able appointments also make life easier for people who may be trying to schedule meetings with you online. But I will always maintain the conviction that, a.) you should never delete these email returning appointments, and b.) you should always make sure you leave some empty spaces on your calendar for your people to choose from instead.

A big pushback I get when describing this concept is the idea of planning to return emails at these set times rather than dealing with them right away. So, I ask, “Why do you want to respond to them right away?” “Because someone’s waiting for a reply,” they say. “And why is it important that you get back to them right away?” I ask. “Because they’re waiting for a reply. They might be offended.”

So, I ask “what’s really going on here?” Do you know they’re going to be offended? And what can you do to prevent that? The answer is easy. Manage their expectations. Let your people know when and how they can expect a response from you. This is as easy as setting up an out-of-office assistant in your email, or putting it in the footer of your messages or even at the bottom of your email signature – something to the effect of:

“I return emails three times a day, mid-morning, early afternoon and late afternoon. You will receive a reply from me in a couple of hours.” You can phrase this how you like, but this is another example of the power of proactivity. By proactively informing your people of your email response schedule, you are letting them know what to expect, rather than leaving them to flap around in the breeze and form their own assumptions.

Very often, emails that are responded to too quickly simply sit in the recipient’s inbox anyway, or worse beget even more emails that themselves are unnecessary and redundant. And if you think making people wait is bad customer service, I would suggest you redefine this as giving them certainty. You are giving them something tangible to hold on to, and that is a very good thing.

Be aware also that when I schedule email returning times that doesn’t mean “not checking my email.” There’s a big difference between looking to see who just mailed you and actually working on handling those messages. If your job or personality is one that absolutely must know who emailed you the moment they arrive, then do yourself the stress-releasing favor of checking, but unless it is earth-shakingly urgent, leave the reply until your email-returning time.

Here’s another reason why email blocks are worthwhile. It has to do with how your brain works. An email is a surprise attack. Even though we know we are going to receive them, each time an email arrives, your brain and body go into a minor version of fight-or-flight reactive mode. Concentration is broken and you enter a tunnel vision state. If you then go ahead and respond to that email right away, not only will a few minutes of your time be taken up and away from the work you were actually doing, it takes another five minutes or more for you to regain the level of concentration you had prior to the interruption. Your brain and instinct basically must recover from the interruption and until it does, you will be working at a sub-level capacity. If that happens 30 times a day, you can add to those 90 minutes of distraction that those emails take, another 150 minutes – that’s two and a half hours at which you are guaranteed to be working at sub-level capacity. No wonder the day goes by so quickly and you don’t get it all done.

BY contrast, when you consciously choose to enter into an email-returning time block, you do so of your own volition, which removes the “surprise factor and does not set your body back, so there is no recovery required. This removes that 2 and a half hours per day of sub-par performance right there.

Finally, there’s the principle of Parkinson’s Law, which states, “Work expands to fill the time available.” With email, this tends to point to them taking longer than needed, because until the next fixed appointment arrives, such as maybe a meeting at 11:00, emails will simply pour themselves across your calendar like liquid until they bump into the next solid appointment.

But Parkinson’s Law can also work in your favour. If you give yourself only 30 minutes to respond to 10 emails, you will find you can do that by maybe writing shorter emails and getting to the point more quickly and using the momentum of this time period to really get on a roll. You might even find you can shorten your email returning times to 20 minutes each or less.

Email is a technology whose designers never really considered the human aspect of reacting to false urgencies. It can be a useful tool, but only when kept under control, and I think this pairing of email and dynamic calendar management is a highly proactive way of getting more done in a day.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Dynamic Email and Calendar Management. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: Daylight Saving Time and Net 60 – Both Must Go

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Daylight Saving Time and Net 60 – Both Must Go. It explores some long standing anachronisms such as why keyboards still use QWERTY, and why companies take two months to pay suppliers? These are antiquated processes that we hang on to in the same way that our calendar still pays homage to Roman gods.

Twice a year, most of the world manually changes its clocks, meaning that no matter when you read this, no matter when that happens to be, you are no more than six months away from having to do it again. And you will also be reminded by your local fire chief to replace the batteries in your smoke detectors. It’s ironic, really, that the time change that happens in the Fall does so now in November, a month whose name was given to us by the Romans, like all the other months, and which was originally the ninth month of the year, hence its name. Novem is Latin for nine or ninth.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how many things we hold onto despite living in a world of change. There are not many cultures in the world that still celebrate and worship the gods of Roman times. Countries now play host to a range of religions, yet we still hang on to the Roman and Norse names for months and days. Why do we stick with that? Tradition? It can’t be out of loyalty to the Roman gods. They haven’t been in favor for centuries.

Look at the keyboard of your computer or phone. It is still laid out in the QWERTY style of keys that has been around since typewriters first made their appearance in the late 1800s. This layout of keys is far from the most efficient. It was developed to prevent jamming of the letters, which used to be mounted on rods to strike an inked ribbon. The letter combinations that are most commonly used in English are spaced far apart to slow down the typists of the day. There is also an apocryphal story that points out that the word “typewriter” can be typed out using just the top row of keys, meaning that the typewriter salesmen of the day did not have to learn how to type to show off the product to customers. This fact, if true, has a direct echo in the world of commerce today, in the area of electric cars. Stories abound of old-school car salespeople burying their new battery-powered models far back on the lot, unwashed and unloved because they themselves cannot understand them and do not know how to sell them.

In all these cases – the continued use of Roman names, the continued use of the QWERTY keyboard and the reluctance to embrace green vehicles, these all point to that reluctance that is at the heart of change management, as well as to the fact that despite all the progress we have made, there are still some things we want to keep old school.

Look at the other item I mentioned earlier – the thing you’re supposed to attend to each time you change your clocks: the smoke and CO alarm. Most people still use the old-school smoke alarms – those white plastic pucks that say DO NOT PAINT in white on white letters that are impossible to read, and whose batteries always start to fail at 2:30 in the morning, depriving people everywhere of sleep thanks to their incessant chirping.

I did some research on why they tend to fail in the dead of night rather than at a more convenient time during the day. It has to do with the drop in air temperature that often happens in houses during the night, either because of the relative cool of a summer night, or the thermostat being programmed to drop a degree or two when everyone’s tucked in their beds. Whatever the cause, a quick drop of a degree or two is enough to trigger a smoke alarm whose detector has become faulty due to the failing electric current of expired batteries.

Anyhow, the point of that explanation was to say that this need no longer be the case. Smart detectors, connected by the Internet of Things, are now much better able to alert a homeowner and family members of a problem using a clear human voice, messaging to smartphones, and the intelligence of machine learning to distinguish between the heat variations that might happen during the cooking of a meal, versus a real problem. In other words, we might soon be coming to the end of an era where we no longer need a fire chief to remind us to change the batteries twice a year when the device can do it for us.

Time marches on, and innovation marches alongside. It might be viable to play devil’s advocate and state that not everyone in the world can afford an intelligent Internet of Things enabled detector for their homes. That might be true. But the same might have been said about cellphones and smartphones once. Yet imagery from the most desperately poor parts of the world, including African deserts and refugee camps, show people carrying smartphones. They have indeed become universal.

Can We Break Away from QWERTY?

So, did I write all this just to talk about smoke detectors? Not entirely. They represent the types of changes that could and should happen in the world but for some reason do not. Look once again at that QWERTY keyboard. Why do we still have it laid out like that? You don’t even need physical keys anymore. Keyboards could be entirely based on clear glass or on laser projections on a surface. Some already are. And these could be configured to arrange the letters in any way you want. Alphabetic order, vowels on the left, consonants on the right, your favorite letters grouped closely together.

And the argument that you need consistency so that all computers operate the same and that everyone can use them will not be an issue when I can download my personal preferred keyboard layout from the cloud and drop it into any device for as long as I want.

There is another argument that it would take too long to train people to change the way they type but given how quickly humans have learned how to use Facebook without any prior computer programming or data processing education, such a theory stands on shaky ground.

There are just some things that people cannot let go of due to comfort with the past that pushes stubbornly into the future.

Flex time, for example. How can you trust your employees to do work when they’re at home? Well, I for one, look at end results and the nature of the back and forth communication and I balance that against the reality that no one ever puts in a solid eight hours of work, even when they’re in the office. It’s not possible. If an employee must put the laundry in, or go to the gym, or go and pick up the kids from school, so be it. It’s the quality of the work that counts and by and large happier employees are more motivated to make that happen.

Lifelong learning is a similar challenge. It’s difficult for the powers that be to let go of the idea that the only good education is classroom style, when in fact, more can be gained from smaller courses delivered more frequently and delivered in accordance with the individual’s own learning style. And I say that as someone who has delivered classes for years. I welcome its demise, quite frankly.

Why Can’t Clocks Change Themselves?

Back to the clocks for a second. How many clocks do you have in your home, including your car, that you had to manually adjust when the clocks changed? You’ll have to do them all again in a few months, except, for those on your smartphone, computer, or connected to your smart devices. They will have changed themselves through their connection to the Internet of Things.

Now, imagine a world where every timepiece, not just domestic, but industrial, medical, you name it. Anywhere that we keep time – imagine the day when they are all connected to the Internet of Things. You say to me, “Are you suggesting that all these clocks will change themselves?”

Yes, and no. I am not suggesting all these clocks would simultaneously leap forward or backward an hour at the appointed date. That would be simply automating an antiquated process, the digital equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. No! I want to see the day when all clocks adopt a timekeeping system that eliminates the need for the one-hour leap entirely. If it can be proven that we need to adjust the clock at all – something I am still not entirely convinced of, since its reasoning seems to be solely one of economic convenience – if we still have to do it, then why not have all clocks adjust by one second per hour, or 20 seconds per day in some sort of leap second format? I know some devices rely on microsecond timing to keep machinery and medical equipment running perfectly – it might not be as easy as I make out, and surely someone has already thought of this and disposed of the idea. But I cannot believe that a global manual resetting of clocks is in any way more practical.

Imagine if things were the other way around. Imagine if there was no clock adjustment at all, we just lived with the seasons as they are, and someone came along and suggested that every home, factory, and hospital in the world should manually re-set every clock twice a year? It would not fly.

Net-60 Invoice Payment Needs to Die

And this brings me to a final idea connected to these earlier ones by time and tradition. The concept called Net 60. Anyone in small business soon discovers that if you want to do work with large companies, you will have to come face to face with the accounting department, and they do not always move comfortably into changing times.

You will discover that work done today, and invoiced at the end of the month, will then be processed over a 60-day period from the time of receipt of the invoice – a process that in total, from the time of work performed to the time of payment could be three months – longer if your own bank holds the cheque. This places the onus on the small business owner to hold onto enough money to live for three months before payment arrives.

Terms like net-30 or net-60 or even net-90 were put in place to protect the cash flow of large companies, helping them be sure they could cover their own costs and recoup their own receivables before paying off the help.  And to be sure, according to the Golden Rule, which reads “he who has the gold makes the rules,” such a policy has been the way of business for decades and it’s unlikely that any accounting department would be willing to change that up and expose their company to shorter-term financial risk any time soon.

Except for the following, maybe.

In this age, there is now a new alternative. Point of sale and remote payment systems like Square and PayPal mean that suppliers can get paid by customers immediately, securely, and directly without relying on clearing systems like banks or AP departments.

The giants may scoff at this, but what it means in terms of supply and demand, is that the best suppliers, with the best quality and the best price, will go to the best customers, being the ones who pay promptly, as in, within minutes, not months.

This, by extension, means that companies who stick with an antiquated cash flow system may find themselves committed to hiring and using secondary or lower quality suppliers. The best and brightest will have already paired up with equally-minded entrepreneurial companies.

It is said that people always drive into the future with their eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror. We hold on to traditions and procedures because that’s how it was back in the day. But next time you shop online, pay online, call for an Uber or connect to a Skype conference, think about what you’re doing and why you’re not doing it old-school.

Sometimes it makes sense to move forward into the future, and that means more than just adjusting your clock by 60 minutes in the Spring.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Daylight Saving Time and Net 60 – Both Must Go. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: Workaholism, Presenteeism, and Economics 101

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Workaholism, Presenteeism and Economics 101. Are you a workaholic? Do you want to be? Workaholism is not the same thing as being driven or dedicated, and it’s certainly not the same as being efficient and productive. It springs from a dark well of anger, and is an addiction, plain and simple. This episode of CoolTimeLife looks at the triple threat to productivity: workaholism, presenteeism, and the law of diminishing returns, and how becoming aware of these pitfalls will make you more successful in work and life.

Do you know the difference between effective work and Workaholism? Let me ask you this. If you received an email from a client, a customer or a work colleague at 10:30 at night, would you respond to it?

Many people would say yes. We have been conditioned to expect emails at any time of day or night and a many of us crave them.

But hold on for a second. Before succumbing to this temptation, before enjoying the sweet feeling of moving this email into the “done” category, take a moment to think what the person at the other end might be thinking.

Unless this reply is a real life-saver – like they are stuck on a project and desperately need a reply from you in order to get finished – unless it is something like that, then the email is just another message. BUT – by answering it as and when you do, you are sending another message at the same time. That your time does not have great value. You are willing to give it away to anyone, no questions asked.

OR, you are telling the sender your time and life are so disorganized that you are still working at 10:30 at night.

Now keep in mind I am using the idea of 10:30 at night in the context of someone whose workday is supposed to be over by 5:00 or 6:00. If you work a job that has evening hours, simply roll this analogy around the clock face to another time of day. What I am really saying here is, you are replying to emails on your personal time, not business time.

Now think – what does that tell your client or colleague. It might not be as impressive as you would like it to be.

I for one do not want to know that my accountant is working late into the night, especially if it is my file that he or she might be working on. I pay this person good money to do good, accurate work, and I do not believe that can be done at 10:30 at night.

Therefore, your attempt to demonstrate great customer service and agility by replying outside of work hours might actually backfire, painting you as a workaholic or simply overloaded and disorganized, neither of which does wonders for your reputation.

It is so easy to get caught up in your own work and forget how a customer or colleague perceives it. That’s why I am such a proponent on taking breaks and taking time to think. It’s not that I am against hard work, in fact I am very much for it. But hard work without sharp purpose is a waste of energy and reputation.

A customer needs to believe in you. Needs to know you value your own time and reputation. It becomes too easy to erode these things through sheer blind busyness.

Workaholism is an Addiction to Work, not Results.

The same goes for workaholism, which is a bad thing.

There’s a definite distinction between “working hard,” “working overtime,” and workaholism. Working hard is the diligent application of energies and talents into tasks that have been properly identified, prioritized, and scheduled, with minimal distraction or disruption. This allows for maximized productivity without upsetting a healthy work/life balance.

Working overtime means putting in a few more hours than you should once in a while. There are occasions when working overtime has its rewards: meeting a deadline on a “crunch” project, or making some extra cash for the holidays, for example. The key issue remains that overtime should be the exception rather than the norm.

Workaholism, though, isn’t about hard work, it’s about work addiction – compulsive overwork – busywork. Whereas hard workers do what is needed to get a job done, once it’s done, they relax and allow time for family, friends, and reflection. They work long hours on a short-term basis with clear goals. But with workaholics, there’s a preoccupation with work – an inability to turn it off. Most workaholics are not aware that they’ve crossed the boundary into inefficiency. Instead, they simply see themselves as relentless producers, focused on a distant goal that just needs a few more hours of work to complete.

The conditions that make workaholism possible are quite easy to see. The modern work ethic says, “you are what you do.” Portable computers, phones and Internet access make working from anywhere, around the clock, easier than ever, and taps directly into that sense of urgency.

There is also a fear factor: fear of not appearing to be a team player; fear of being left out of the loop; fear of taking a vacation in case you get replaced; fear of being part of the next round of downsizing. A combination of personal, technological, and social pressures conspires to create fertile ground for workaholism to flourish.

What are the signs of a workaholic? For a start, workaholics tend to work long hours, consistently staying late, and coming in on weekends and holidays (or working from home on weekends and holidays), even if they do not have any pressing deadlines. They think about work constantly, even when they are not at work. As Dr. Bryan Robinson states, the workaholic “uses work to fulfill an inner need.”  They rarely have hobbies, except those that are work-related, such as golf with colleagues. And they tend to neglect personal relationships, especially with spouses and children.

Nor are workaholics great team players, since they have trouble delegating. They enjoy taking care of a task themselves, living out a chronic case of the Superhero Syndrome.

In general, workaholics display actions and priorities inconsistent with true productivity. Workaholism is an addiction to work for work’s sake. There is a tendency to gravitate towards time-consuming tasks and to work the longest hours on the least productive or least practical tasks, since workaholism is an addiction to work, not results. Workaholics tend to focus on tasks that are immediately visible, rather than establishing priorities and then focusing on the top-ranked task.

The costs of workaholism: Having a workaholic on staff should be a source of immediate concern. Though they may appear as an archetype of busy-ness, a role model for the rest of the team, in actual fact the opposite is true. A workaholic environment creates stress, burnout and low morale among all staff, since they demand excessive work from subordinates, which bounces back in the form of sick leave and stress-related absences.

Similarly, the adrenaline that fuels much of a workaholic’s activity was never meant to be used that way. Adrenaline is a compound intended for fast escape – the fight-or-flight reflex. It’s acidic, literally. It’s an acid. Over time, it destroys body cells and blood vessels.

If you think you might be a workaholic, the best thing to do is to aim for the win-win. The pleasure you derive from working hard is an asset. But it’s essential to make sure that the efforts you undertake are correctly directed, and that balance is maintained.

Ask yourself:

  • Is the work I’m doing truly top priority, or do I just need to feel busy?
  • Can this work be delegated to someone?
  • Who will see the payoff of this work? Does it contribute to a key project?
  • What am I sacrificing? Family? Health? Exercise?
  • How are my habits affecting my staff? Are they getting frustrated trying to keep up? Is there high turnover?
  • How uptight would I get if I went home with all of this stuff still left to do?

Workaholism is a personality-based addiction, encouraged through the pressures and demands of business. It is not a substance addiction, but the withdrawal symptoms might be similar: intense discomfort, frustration, and stress. If you identify yourself as a workaholic, you will need to admit that fact first, and then seek a pattern of change that you can handle. This primarily consists of a tangible project plan and a written collection of “balance” items such as family, friends and hobbies, and a timeline for change.

It is also a condition that is not always taken seriously, in the context of the modern global work ethic. At least not until the paramedics have to be called.

The bottom line: Workaholism is not productivity, it’s addiction to the sensation of work.

Presenteeism

A similar concept that reflects many of the problems of a high-pressure no-time workplace can be seen in the condition called “presenteeism.” Identified by Manchester University professor Gary Cooper, it refers to a marked reduction in productivity due to stress, injury, or information overload, but in contrast to absenteeism where an employee stays home, presenteeism sees the employee coming to work while sick, because of a heightened fear of losing their job, or simply as a “perverse expression of commitment.”

Obviously, such a condition highlights the schism between what the body needs and what the work schedule demands. It is an impediment to clear thought, productivity, and communication. Yet people still come to work, and occupy space.

Presenteeism is about being physically present but mentally absent at work due to stress & overwork.

Such situations send strong signals (or at least they should) that time and rest are the essential ingredients of productivity. Your body is a strict creditor. It takes back what it needs, regardless.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Economics 101 describes the Law of Diminishing Returns as a point at which any more resources added to a process actually results in lowered production. In other words, there’s only so much energy, money or material you can throw at a problem before it becomes wasteful.

I see this all the time with people at work: Here are just four examples:

  • Perfectionism: in an attempt to balance out the loss of control people feel due to overwork and due to an unmanageable influx of messages and expectations, many people become rampant perfectionists, unable to determine when a task is complete enough or good enough. Time is wasted as they add more to an already appropriate product. It is far more effective to seek excellence, rather than perfection. Excellence comes from planning, preparing, producing, reviewing, and revising, ideally over a time period that includes breaking away from the task and returning to it, refreshed, later.
  • Delegation: people refuse to delegate out of fear (there’s that fear word again) of the task being done to a lower standard by someone less experienced. Although it is correct to recognize that no-one can do your task to the level of expertise that you have attained, it becomes wasted effort when someone exists who could be doing the work, is not allowed to do so. Delegation is an act of education; a multi-step process in which the student takes more of the responsibility for a task with each passing iteration. Delegation takes time, and the willingness to budget one’s own time to come in and finish off, but that finishing-off time becomes shorter and shorter. Without delegation you are stuck doing a task that prevents you from doing a better more lucrative or satisfying one.
  • Email/messaging: the false urgency of email forces people to create thousands of unnecessary emails per year. This energy and time could be better used in either live conversation or in simply reducing the number of emails sent and accepted.
  • Workaholism: this is an addiction, just as alcoholism is. Workaholism is the addiction to busyness, which is not the same as productivity. It’s the need to feel busy, to do things, but not necessarily the right things. Extreme workaholics work until midnight or beyond. They stay late at the office or work from their home office or sofa. They send texts and emails at 1:00 a.m. and expect replies. They work from a wellspring of anger, not of true productivity.

In all of these cases, energy is being poured into activities without yielding satisfactory return. Energy must be conserved. Hunting animals know this. Energy is used in sprint mode, but doesn’t last long, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. The cheetah may be the world’s fastest land animal, but only for short periods at a time. It must choose to expend its energies and abilities wisely.

People who are able to step back and observe their activities in their kaizen-end-of-day moment are better able to see this. They are self-empowered to assign their resources to their best time of day and to decline or delegate those activities that do not yield excellence.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Workaholism, Presenteeism and Economics 101. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: The Value of Your Time

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Value of Your Time. It describes how to place a value on your time so that you don’t give it away. It describes the enormous productive power of the 80/20 rule, how to handle email more effectively, how to break large tasks up over many days using carryover momentum, and the productive power of downtime. Whew! That’s a lot. Are you ready?

The Furnace Repair Story

This is the story of a person whose furnace goes cold. The house is cold, and a couple of presses of the thermostat confirm that the furnace is not working. The homeowner calls the furnace company who sends a technician out. The technician arrives and heads down to the basement. The homeowner listens as the boots clomp down the stairs, and then a single “clang!” The furnace comes back on and warm air starts flowing through the registers once again. The boots clomp back up the stairs.

“All done,” the technician declares, “may I present you with the bill?”

“Sure,” says the homeowner, who scrutinizes the bill and then looks at the technician doubtfully. “Five hundred dollars?” the homeowner asks. “Five hundred dollars? But you were only down there for thirty seconds! How could that cost five hundred dollars.”

The technician smiles and asks, “Would you like me to itemize the bill for you?”

“Yes please,” replies the homeowner, who watches as the technician writes a couple of lines on the invoice.

“Here,” says the technician, “this might help.” The homeowner reads the revised invoice. It now says:

“Furnace repair:

– Hitting the furnace with a hammer: $5.00

– Knowing where to hit: $495.00”

I love this story because, nice and clearly, it conveys the value of a person’s expertise, which is not always visible. Time is valuable. Your time is valuable, and the art of staying fully aware of that is a life skill that needs to be practiced and maintained.

People who are self-employed, for example, or who work in small businesses can very easily fall into the trap of undervaluing their services, maybe doing some of it for free. “I”can’t charge for just a 5-minute phone-call,” they say. Or, “invoicing is part of overhead. I can’t charge for that.”

The same applies for people who work for companies, on salary. They might not feel they have direct impact on how they price their services, certainly, but they still give away too much. Whatever work you do, the value you bring to the table has a long tail that stretched far back into past.

The years you invested in your education – all those years of study, plus the years you have spent doing this work, or even the work of your previous job, have shaped you into a professional person with skills and experience that have value. But that long tail of value is so easily forgotten – or overruled.

When a customer asks for 10 minutes of your time – and by customer I not only mean the direct small business customer, but also internal office colleagues, even your boss – they are still customers. They are still buying your experience and your service. When they buy ten minutes of your time, they are also buying all those years that went into making those minutes valuable.

When you’re sitting in a meeting that starts late because Bob hasn’t arrived yet, you and everyone else around that meeting are giving away time that took years, individually and collectively, to craft. When your significant other asks you to stop off and pick up some milk on the way home, you think nothing of it. But that’s at least 20 minutes of your life that you are giving away. Yes, you might be pleasing your partner by doing a favor – there is value in that, but my argument is that there’s a better way to deliver this service. The spontaneous giving away of your time in any circumstance is not only a tragic waste, it also sets a precedent. The expectation to do the same again will always be there.

The 80/20 Rule

I spend a lot of my speaking time showing people how to do better with their own time. One of the points that I mention and will always stand behind is the 80/20 rule. Specifically, you can get more done in 80 percent of your time than you can in 100 percent of your time. The point is, that 20 percent is invested – not spent, but invested – in proactively managing the events to come.

This means planning. It also means networking, building relationships, and yes, even relaxing. But let me just focus on planning for the moment. Part of this 20 percent of this day, and tomorrow, and the next day should be used to prepare a calendar that realistically questions how long each activity should be and then helps identify the number of activities that you can realistically – not optimistically – fit into your day. It asks these questions before you actually get started on any of them.  Most importantly setting up a road map of operation for the day. Without a map, you will drift. It’s as easy as that.

And this is where I get pushback – or at least questioning. People will ask, Steve, do you spend all of your time every day just updating your calendar and your to do lists? That usually gets a laugh.

But I answer YES! Yes, I do. And that also gets a laugh.

But here’s my point on this. People think this activity – updating your calendar – that is to say your personal project plan – so regularly and so often is extra work – more on your plate. But in actual fact, you’ll be spending this time anyway – more of it in fact if you just try to get these things done in real time in an unplanned fashion.

Take My Email, Please.

As I mentioned in a previous podcast – Are You Conscious – email steals a great deal of time from you. Not just the time spent responding to them, but also the time required to recuperate from the distraction. It really is a literal drain on your system. So, if you handle 10, 20, 50 or more emails per day, you deal with the sum total of time required to write or respond plus many, many minutes of recuperation time. This amounts to hours of time lost per day working in sub-par mental capacity.

But if you plan your email handling time, let’s say, 3 blocks of 20 minutes, not only do you eliminate the recuperation time – because you choose to answer these emails consciously rather than getting taken by surprise by them – but you are also able to frame them – let’s say by aiming to respond to 10 emails inside of 20 minutes, you can change your actual approach to work to fit inside a defined box of time. NO more drifting. You stay on track.

So, you can do the emails in a casual, unplanned way, which might literally take three hours out of your busy workday, or you can plan how and when to do them and cut that amount by at least half. That’s the power of planning. It isn’t extra work. It’s less work in total. The planning plus the planned work ends up taking far less time than unstructured work by itself.

The Power of Twitter as a Tool for Ongoing Education.

The other thing that gets people a little nervous or incredulous is when I talk about the power of Twitter. Seldom do I get more than a couple of hands up when I ask my audiences how many people use Twitter as a tool of professional development. Most people think that Twitter is useless when they themselves have nothing to say, and that the rest is pure junk. Well, maybe most of it is junk, but I remind them that there are a few people out there worth listening to. Thought leaders. Subject matter experts. Your customers. Your competitors.

But the reaction is the same: “I do not have the time to browse social media.” But my argument is, you invest time in formalized ongoing education. You might even wait months to get a training course from your employer. That’s a lot of time drifting by, and with is a great deal of time lost to inadequate knowledge. Imagine trying to catch up on a breaking development that affects your company. The minutes or hours needed to get caught up retroactively will always exceed those you could spend just reading – a few minutes here and there on a daily basis.

Catch-up costs. But pro-activity yields dividends.

Proactivity beats reactivity every time. Whenever you think a proactive action – part of that 20 percent – is too much extra work. Remember it will end up being less work and costing less time than if you let things happen the casual, unplanned way. This not only includes planning your email and investing in Twitter education in the ways I have just discussed, it also points to things like managing by walking around (MBWA).

That is to say investing some time in talking ton your colleagues, suppliers, or customers, to learn more about them and to demonstrate acknowledgement of their hard work and dignity. For although this too, seems like extra effort with no reward, the reward actually comes when these people reciprocate, by showing up to your meeting on time and prepared, or paying your invoice on time, or getting their share of a project done on time, simply because they like working with you and they enjoy the respect you show them. That’s the payoff. That’s the dividend.

The Value of Work

I remember sending a change of address notification to my company’s law firm. No big deal, right? We send those out to everybody. Two weeks later I received an invoice from them for $150. Professional services for updating the address in their files. That seems like a lot, right? But lawyers are taught early on: time is money. As soon as you start giving the results of your expensive education away, as soon as you give your expertise away, people start expecting that regularly.

Think also what it says about you.  You are willing to give away your hard-won expertise. Not everyone is going to respect that. They might even start to question just how good you actually are. See? That’s the problem. It seems like the right thing to do, to be nice, but by giving away the very thing people respect about you, you might also be diluting your brand and your credibility. That’s not a great thing to hear, but it is human nature. Humans tend to judge. And best intentions might turn out to do less for you than you would like. This is the same whether you give away a half hour of your services or when you delay the start of a meeting because someone is late. It happens when you take on extra requests or drop-in visitors just because it seems too hard to say no.

But remember, the word NO can also function and the first two letters of the phrase “Not at this moment, which opens you up to another word that contains the letters N O – that word is negotiate. Everything can be negotiated. Rather than give away your time, negotiate suitable alternatives that maintain your image of flexibility without sacrificing your value – in your eyes or in theirs.

The Value of Carryover Momentum

Very often I get asked by people how to take care of giant tasks that will take hours to do, let’s say, for example, a bunch of backlogged work, or a big project. The temptation is to say, I will book off an entire day to take care of this in one go. Now, if you can do that, and it works, then good for you. I will never argue against something that works.

But most people will never successfully do this. There’s just too much else to do. But there is a better option, and I call it “Carryover Momentum.”

As I have already mentioned, the power of planning is an amazing thing. Whatever day of the week it is as you read to this, think back to what you were doing exactly one week ago. Doesn’t seem like seven days, does it? It’s not fair, how quickly time seems to fly, but that’s life, and that’s how memory works.

If you are faced with a task that is too big to get done all at once, the chances are that another week will slip by, then another, then another. Though this might be considered procrastination, it’s not always the case that you’re actually consciously putting it off, so much as never quite getting around to it – there’s a difference.

To that end, there is the principle of carryover momentum, in which it becomes possible to break up a large task, and then schedule and deal with it regularly and consistently over a period of days.

If you were to assign one half-hour per day to a project, you wouldn’t feel that much headway had been achieved after the first half-hour of the first day. But if you were able work on the project one half-hour each workday for a month, that’s 10 hours. For larger-scale projects, that one half hour per day, even with weekends and holidays off, becomes 125 hours over a year, or the equivalent of three forty-hour weeks! That’s a lot of time!

Physiology crash course: The reason why I call this technique carryover momentum goes to the workings of the brain. By returning to an ongoing task on a daily basis – preferably, but not necessarily at the same time each day – the mind continues to retain and access the creative momentum of the previous day. It significantly reduces the amount of “let’s see now, where was I?” that happens when a project is picked up after a week or two of inactivity.

This is yet another example of how to capitalize on the strengths of the brain to get the right work done in the right way within the constraints of a busy day.

So, if you are facing a large project at work, and you feel overwhelmed by the size of it all, do not despair. That sense of overload is normal. It’s mental paralysis, the manifestation of the fight-or-flight reflex, draining nutrients from the thinking area of the brain. It can be easily treated by using a calendar to lay out a collection of half-hour blocks across days and weeks as a recurring activity and taking the giant task on one bit at a time, regularly, day-by-day.

Of course, such a thing must be coordinated and pro-rated according to the project’s deadline but instead or putting it off and putting it off, only to be faced with a high stress situation later, just like my email discussion of earlier, you can consciously plan – invest in some planning time – in breaking down this task into manageable amounts. Where once you had a mountain blocking your view, you now have a mountain with a staircase carved into it.

The Value of Downtime

The final point I want to make is the value of downtime – thing includes breaks during your working day, and most importantly focuses on stepping over the big red line that actually can be the divider between work life and home life. In the podcast episode dedicated to metabolism, I talked about sleep and melatonin, and I don’t plan to repeat myself, other than to say that sleep is the single greatest investment in productivity of the entire 24-hour day. The value of downtime is in part due to its chemical capacity to help your brain and body repair the damage of the day, boosting the immune system, both through the pleasure of sleep as well as the pleasure of enjoying life – with your family, your friends, your pets, and your hobbies.

Your phone needs recharging, your car needs refueling and you know what? So do you. Downtime has value in balancing out your day and preparing your energy and your excellence for the day to come. Burning the midnight oil, working late into the night simply diminishes tomorrow’s potential. You are drawing from a well. Either use the water tonight or tomorrow. You can’t do both.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Value of Time. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here.

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: The Box of Time

This blog comprises show notes and script for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Box of Time. It describes how to maximize productivity and influence people by taking advantage of a simple technique of delineation – something that speaks very clearly to human instinct – which means people will take notice of it.

Steve Prentice - Bonsai Tree

A bonsai tree is an example of an organic entity constrained by hard edges.

The box of time. It’s not a science fiction reference. It’s an incredibly powerful way to manage time by managing other people. But to do this, we must first talk about bonsai trees. This is what a bonsai tree looks like. A bonsai is a perfectly normal tree, genetically speaking, that has been placed in a pot to restrain its growth. The pots are usually a few inches wide and because a tree will only grow as far as the roots can extend. The hard edge of the pots stops the roots from going any further and therefore stops the tree from growing any taller.

So, the art of a bonsai tree is to maintain a perfectly healthy, genetically pure tree in small scale. There are two different styles, generally speaking, being Japanese and Chinese. Japanese style generally favors shaping trees in a dramatic, windswept look whereas the Chinese style focuses more on symmetry. But regardless, it’s a perfect tree. A perfectly natural being, just held in check by the solidity of its surroundings.

So, what does this have to do with people and time management? There is a substantial parallel here. People and trees are both living creatures, and human beings also need and respond to delineations. Delineations help define limits, which helps us stay alive.

Which is the Least Evil of these Two Statements?

Let’s go back to high-school gym class for a moment. Imagine yourself standing out on the soccer field on a frosty November morning for first period gym class. You hear the gym coach telling you one of the following two commands; either:

“Go out there and give me 12 laps around the field,” or “Go out there and start running until I tell you to stop.”

Which is the least evil? The least threatening? Most people say the first one is less evil, because it is finite. you can gauge the amount of energy required to get through this exercise. And that’s a very important point. It’s a “known.” People need to know the delineations of things in order to progress through them safely. People need to know, for example, when things will be over.

Applying the Box of Time as a Tool of Influence

If you want to motivate and influence people to work with you, to show up to meetings on time, to leave you alone, to supply their pieces of the project you’re working on, to log in early and be ready for your on-time video or telephone conference – any time people need motivation the primary lever to get them to do what you want them to do is a delineation. This is a fixed line in the sand – a fixed “box,”

Let’s apply this to a phone conversation. One of the greatest wastes of time in the working world is the game of email ping pong. I send one to you, you send one back to me, I’m in a meeting o I send one back to you later, I don’t quite understand what you said, so I send one back… The conversation just keeps on spinning its wheels because email is not an intuitive communication technique. There’s no subtlety, no context, it’s a very sterile medium.

So many situations could be much better handled if only we had the time to speak live, one-to-one, face-to-face, or voice to voice, over the phone. Whether this is to solve a problem, or being creative – working on something together, the synergy of conversation, of two or more minds meeting, gets things done far more effectively than emails ever could.

But what’s the problem? It’s the Fear of the Unknown

People are afraid of having that conversation. They’re afraid of taking that call. One of the main reasons for this fear is this: you don’t know how long it’s going to last. So instead we use excuses. “I’m busy, I don’t have the time to take you call, so let it go to voice mail, or send me an email.”

The fact is, though, that a five-minute or even ten-minute phone conversation will yield more creative, problem-solving output than any number of emails you could possibly send. So, to motivate and inspire, and to generate interest in having a call or a face-to-face meeting, it’s not the agenda that’s most important, it’s “when it’s going to be over.”

I can deliver far more credibility by saying to you, “let’s have a call tomorrow at 2:00 for ten minutes. I will call you.” That’s all they need to hear. This becomes the box of time. It’s a message that says, “ten minutes – you can handle that. It will be over in ten minutes.” This is a specific message that replaces the unknown with a “known.”

It’s not something vague like “I’ll call you tomorrow.” That never works because that puts people on the hook of uncertainty – not knowing how long it will last, not knowing when the call will happen, not even knowing what it will be about.

If you want to motivate people to get things done, give them something tangible and something closed. This is the box of time, replacing the fear of the unknown with the manageability of the known. It’s a major component of successful time management, but as you can see, it’s about managing people and their expectations.

Replying to Messages on Personal Time – Conditioning to Your Own Detriment

Have you ever felt compelled to respond to a work-related email message at 11:00 p.m.? Do you know what that does to the person who sent the message? It conditions them to expect the same level of response and behavior from you consistently, regularly and forever. What might seem to you to be simply clearing an email from your inbox quickly, or perhaps providing excellent customer service condemns you to a lifetime and a lifestyle of constantly being available, 24/7. You are conditioning people through your actions to expect this same kind of behavior.

Some people like to live and work this way. If you like it, then great. But remember what you’re doing here. You are leaving yourself and your time open to ownership by others.

Once again, the box of time comes to the rescue

You can set up a schedule and message response that says something like:

“I am available between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you send me a message outside of these hours, I will get back to you between 9:00 and 10:00 tomorrow.”

By setting up a boundary, and managing the expectations of the message sender, including a box of time in which they can expect response, everyone will be happy. The specifics of this message are up to each of us individually but setting up a box of time gives people a known field of expectation – something they can work with.

This is like water flowing around a rock in a stream. The water will move around the rock to find a path of lesser resistance. Your availability and non-availability are the rocks in your stream. People can move their actions and expectations around these blockages providing there is something else they can hold on to.

What a Dental Appointment Can Teach About Influence

People get conditioned to expect based on what they see. If you return an email at 11:00 p.m. you set a precedent that is very difficult to live up to. But these same assumptions can be overruled. For example:

Photo credit: Frank May / NTB scanpix

Someone asks you, “Can we meet tomorrow at 10:00?” and you say, “Sorry, I have a dental appointment.” It’s very unlikely that anyone will say, “No problem! I’ll come with you and will sit int the chair next to you while you’re having your treatment, and we can chat there.” No. They’ll wait until you come back, because a dental appointment is a suitable and acceptable rock in their stream. They can move around it. They can live with it. Life goes on.

The same principle can apply to other things. If you have some work you need to get done, you need some focused time – you really want to focus without being disturbed. Or you want to go home at a reasonable hour. Set up these boundaries and condition people by first publicizing and communicating these boundaries, and secondly, respecting them yourself. This means not falling prey to the temptation of responding to messages outside of those boundaries.

Everything you do conditions other people. Whether it’s action or inaction, it’s still conditioning.

Remember also, humans generally like to be led, they like to be guided. This is your chance to guide and influence other people through a box of time.

Bad News is Better than No News

No one likes to give bad news. No one likes to receive bad news. But there’s a good thing about bad news: human beings are extremely good at taking bad news, turning it around, and working with it.

Huge amounts of procrastination happen because people avoid what they fear. Fear is the most powerful emotion of all, and people are ruled by emotion, not logic. So, we tend to spend a lot of time hiding from or even running away from those things that scare us.  But the fact is we are very good at taking bad news and and saying, “OK, what’s next? Where do we go from here? What’s my next step?”

So once again, the box of time concept reappears. If you suffer from procrastination, if you are putting something of because you fear it, that’s perfectly natural and understandable. But the truth is, the delivery or acceptance of bad news is the launch point for the next step. It is like the box of time because it is tangible and real. Its real-ness helps overcome the instinctive fear of the unknown.

When you bring facts up to meet the fear, it allows you to move forward with the next steps. The box of time concept is about giving people something tangible to overrule their fears and move on.

Assumptions

People will always assume things if you do not give them the facts. People, if unassisted, will come to their own conclusions simply to fill the void. This means you actually have an obligation to deliver hard facts to people, if only to stave off their own incorrect assumptions.

For example, if you are spending time focusing on your work, and you don’t say “Hi” to people as they walk by your desk, the assumption is, “she’s having a bad day,” or “he doesn’t like us,” or “not a team player.”

People will make their own assumptions if they are not addressed. They need to be introduced to your concepts, they need to be led and guided. So, if you are looking to schedule some focused time in your day, or you’re looking to have some time away from carte blanche meeting availability, or you need to leave at a certain time, you must deliver the hard facts, the ideas. This might be in the form of a meeting or a memo, an infographic – whatever works for your team, to remove the instantaneous assumptions that will otherwise fall in to fill the void.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line with all the concepts above is that the known is always better than the unknown, but that the human mind will seek an answer wherever it can find it. If you are looking to guide people, give them a box. Give them a fixed, finite duration. When you are calling a meeting, the agenda is not the most important item – that should already have been dealt with as the justification for the meeting’s existence. The most important thing that will make people show up on time, ready and engaged, is in answering the question, “when will this be over?” That’s what will give them the energy and stamina to get through this event, just like the 12 laps around the field.

That is the primary motivator of human action.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Box of Time. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: The Slow Movement and You

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Slow Movement and You. If you want to listen to it while you drive somewhere in a hurry, you can access it here.

Have you ever heard of the Slow movement? Probably not.

In an age of 24/7 business, of overloaded schedules, of wireless access and a ceaseless need to stay in the loop, there isn’t much tolerance among working people for a Huckleberry Finn approach to managing the day—lazy afternoons, long lunches, and watching the sun drift across the sky. We all may wish we could take this approach, but few of us have a realistic expectation of getting there any time soon. There’s just too much to do, and it all needs to get done now.

Everywhere you turn you hear people talking about their ever-increasing task load; that the workday has extended to 18 hours or more; that email and wireless devices are addictive and that people are using them, or are feeling pressured into using them, well into the hours that used to be reserved for personal life. This, it seems, is the new norm.

In spite of this, there are others who still profess the value of going more slowly, even if their voices more often than not get drowned out. They say they’re part of a Slow movement. They represent a collection of organizations and individuals that together advocates working slower, speaking slower, eating slower, and basically living slower.

There are cities in Japan, Italy, and elsewhere that have tried to make this Slow movement an official lifestyle, mandating traffic patterns, store-opening hours, and even business practices – like meeting-free-Fridays- to fit with this philosophy. And, thanks to the Internet, these advocates have all joined together to become a new global presence.

So, is this for real? Is the slow approach tenable here in North America? Can it work for you, in your business, with your customers and your boss, in a way that will make things better?

Sure, the Italian countryside certainly seems a good place to encourage the Slow movement. Workers have come and gone across its fields and streets for thousands of years. There’s probably a greater readiness there to accept a shifting of gears, since, after all, Old World Europeans have “been there and done that” in so many different ways that their collective sense of time, life, and related values is by now mature and pragmatic.

But how realistic is it to expect the Slow movement to catch on in those areas of the world where a high-speed work ethic still reigns supreme? It goes against instinct—against the very forces that have propelled human beings to adapt and advance. The desire to further yourself, to protect yourself and your family from harm, and to identify opportunities to improve living conditions are strong basic urges, and although, ultimately, most people work really hard so that one day they no longer have to work so much, the idea of slowing down to get there just doesn’t make sense.

Julie Burchill, a writer for the London Times put it this way: “There is something rather sad about those people always banging on about the joys of Slow Shopping, and of its kissing cousin Slow Food; it points to dull and dreary nostalgia-hounds with too much time on their hands and a morbid fear of modernity …”1

I disagree. I have been able to achieve more by adopting Slow principles than I was ever able to do. I’m a Type-A personality, and Alpha. I crave constant input and simulation, and I can’t stand wasting even a minute of time that could otherwise be put to good use. So I according to the experts, I am totally the wrong type of person to adopt the principles of the Slow movement. Yet it still works for me.

My belief is that slow is not only wise, it is essential. For as the pace of life speeds up, the skills that we need to attract and build business and to maintain a superior level of productivity are getting buried under a false momentum that plays on some very deep-seated fears inside the human mind. Furthermore, there are laws of physics that demonstrate that working faster doesn’t get you there faster. But in large part, the digital age has forced us to work faster and live faster, and in so doing we have started to lose sight of the maxim “more haste, less speed.”

It’s important to make the point here that not everything that is quick is bad. Responding quickly to a client’s call might win new business. Solving a client’s problem quickly might generate greater loyalty. Getting out of the way of a falling piano is a healthier option than just standing still.

Quickness is vital to competitiveness and to survival. But quickness and quality cannot be fully achieved if everything else about your work and your mental state is hurried to the point of confusion or exhaustion. The cheetah, for example, is the fastest animal on earth. The cheetah knows so much about being fast primarily because she also knows about going slow. She knows she cannot run 70 miles an hour all day and still expect to make a catch. She knows her own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of her quarry and is thus better empowered to strike at the right time, in the right measure.

So, ultimately, this is what I’m getting at: You can get further, faster, by incorporating slow into your life’s strategy.

Putting Speed into Perspective: Why Are We Racing?

A colleague of mine is the CEO of a media and design firm, and he has also been racing Porsches professionally since the age of 18. Nevertheless, he gives advice that seems contrary to the racer’s image. He says, “If you want to win, you have to know how to slow down as much as how to speed up. How you enter and exit a corner will have enormous impact on your performance on the straightaway.” He continues, “You have to be thinking two cars ahead. Not what the guy in front of you is doing, but the guy in front of him. The same goes for anyone driving on any highway. And you can’t do that if your mind is not together and cool.”

We’re all driving Porsches, mentally at least, from the moment the alarm goes off in the morning until we get back into bed, 13, 16, maybe 20 hours later. But unlike professional racers, it seems a lot of us succumb to the pressure to drive in the fast lane all the time. Urged on by the persistent prodding of our wireless technologies, we feel a palpable need to extend our accessibility and responsibility well beyond reasonable limits. Many people today check their messages from their bedside the moment the clock radio announces the new morning, before their eyes have even properly focused. Many also check in as they retire to their beds at night. If they could swing it, I’m sure they would even arrange to have their email forwarded to their dreams.

As the world becomes more and more connected, we all feel a renewed pressure to outperform, to differentiate ourselves from the competition, to do more and do it faster and usually with fewer resources than ever before. Like a giant poker game, the fear of not achieving these goals drives us forward, fueled by the constant, lurking threat that there is someone out there—a manager, a shareholder, a client, an auditor, or a competitor—who holds the final card, the ace of spades, the card of death—a person who can pull your job, your business, your identity, and your connection to the human race across the table and out of the game.

But the main point is this: No-one can hope to secure a place in either the present or the future simply by staying on the hamster wheel, working as hard and as fast as you can, 18 hours a day. Such behavior sits on the path of personal extinction.

All living species, including humans, have had to continually adapt to their changing environments. Major changes used to take thousands of years over many generations. Now substantial change happens in mere months, whether we’re capable of handling it or not.

I believe the next major evolutionary step for people who live and work in developed economies is to learn to counter some of the ancient instincts that have made speed so influential in their actions. We need to cool down and use slow as the next tool of strategic advantage. A cool mind and body provides fertile ground for creativity, providing the opportunity to deliver better solutions and circumstances, no matter what line of work we happen to be in.

As newer, hungrier economies outpace us with cheaper, faster hard goods and cheaper, immediately accessible outsourced services, the act of cooling down will help us thrive, by making sure we are ready to listen actively, think clearly, work effectively and exist proactively, keeping health and balance side-by-side with competitiveness and innovation. This is the recipe for our future. For as the pace of life continues to increase, and as jobs change and markets shift, will still be able to react—quickly—by being mentally prepared. Quite simply, more can be done in the cool shade of clear thinking than under the hot sun of exertion and reactionism.

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CoolTimeLife Podcast: Your Brain is Like a Bath Sponge

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Your Brain is Like a Bath Sponge. When you learn to recognize the power of breaks, decompression, and stepping over that line between work and home life, that’s when you can truly capitalize on your metabolic strengths and be the best you can be.

What is your attention span? How long do you think you can focus on something before you need to move on to something else? This is a component of your mental metabolism, and it might not be as long or as thorough as you think it should be or would like it to be.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s bad.

I myself, have an attention span of about 15 minutes. That’s it. After that, I need to move on to something else, if just temporarily. What I have discovered about myself is a two-minute data break in which I read the news headlines on Twitter or a news site, is enough for me to step away from my work for two minutes, refresh my brain, refresh my entire outlook, and then go back to the work at hand for another 15 minutes.

This on-again-off-again approach to work fits my attention span perfectly, and allows me to regain the momentum that my work requires.

So I ask you to consider the same thing. What is your attention span? It is not wrong to need to move away from your work on a regular basis. In fact, it’s the kind of thing that guarantees a much greater level of excellence, correctness, accuracy, and productivity. You cannot expect your brain or body to continue working at a standard level of 100% attention or 100% exertion all the time. We move up and down throughout the day and throughout the hour.

So, think about your attention span. How do you work well What do you need to do? Do you need to stand and move around on a regular basis? Do you need a squeeze ball to absorb your energy while you are working? Take time to think about what makes you feel more comfortable and bring that into your workplace. This becomes part of your recipe for excellence and for your capacity to focus, negotiate, and survive the day in a healthy fashion.

Similar to this is the notion of decompression.

The black light aquarium room at Google.

This image shows a black light aquarium room. Here’s a wonderful concept, one that many organizations have embraced, if not in an actual aquarium room, then in approaches that do the same type of thing, including designing people-friendly buildings from the ground up. They focus on the fact that people do indeed need to decompress in order to perform better.

So, a bunch of people crashed out in La-Z-Boy chairs and bathtubs in a dark room, lit by black lights, with aquariums everywhere. They stare at the fish and relax. Is this a good use of company time? Some will say “yes,” others “no.” But the point is, this room was not devised to let people sleep through the afternoon or burn off a hangover. This is a place that helps the brain decompress. Companies need creativity from their people, and this involves social creativity – the ability to interact and work together.

You don’t get creative by staring at a blank sheet of paper or a blank PowerPoint slide. Creativity does not come from this, in fact the opposite happens. Your brain compresses under pressure.

Think about a bathroom sponge for a moment. If you took a sponge and compressed it in your hand, it would become very small, obviously. Once you let go of that sponge, however, it re-expands to its original size. Your thinking brain is similar to this in the fact that when it is under pressure or stress, it compresses, metaphorically, which limits the space available for creative thought.

Any time you can decompress, whether it’s in a black light aquarium room or more realistically, something like taking a walk around your building, looking up at the sky and thinking about nothing. When you think about nothing, your brain has a chance to re-expand and reorganize itself into the machine of creativity that it likes to be. It comes down to a simple observation: a stressed brain cannot work as well as a decompressed brain.

My Challenge to You

How can you decompress to ensure you get the most from your thinking brain and your body? It’s a matter of five minutes or even two minutes spent decompressing turning into an hour’s worth of top-quality work. That’s a powerful ratio.

Not doing this – simply soldiering on – yields only mediocre work, which means a different and lower type of quality gets to your end customer. Decompression keeps things in check.

As for the commute home, whether it’s driving, taking transit, cycling, walking, or simply walking from your home office to the kitchen – these are all additional opportunities for decompressing and stepping over that line between work life and home life. This is a concept that seems to be less and less possible – in fact the term work-life balance is often eclipsed by the newer term, work-life integration, implying there is no longer any line between the two worlds.

But it remains vital to step over this line at some point, in order to facilitate the onset of healthy sleep. Sleep is the single greatest contributor towards quality work. Effective sleep is based on the hormone melatonin being introduce into your bloodstream, and melatonin is triggered first by your body’s perception of the sun moving toward the horizon, and the subsequent onset of diminishing natural light, and secondly by the awareness that work has been replaced by home life.

Yes, you want to be on, you want to be productive during your working hours whether these are 9-to-5 or otherwise, but there comes a time when you have to step over this line and declare work done for the day. This is not easy, especially with emails and other messaging coming in at random times.

It is vital to keep in mind that your metabolism is built to respond to urgency, including signals and cues that hint at the dangers of the unknown – initially a a primordial self-preservation reflex, now part of the compulsion to reward and respond to every message that appears on your phone.  As innocuous as they may seem, these are cues that stimulate your body back into action at a time when it should be winding down toward healthy sleep.

By stepping over the line that separates work and home life, you help encourage a smoother slide into healthy sleep, maximizing the potential for a great day of profitable work tomorrow.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Your Brain is Like a Bath Sponge. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

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