80/20 Rule

The Calendar Crisis

What is a crisis to you? Usually when people think of the term crisis, they think of a bad event – a point where something is going to break. People can have an emotional crisis or a financial one. A city or company can have a leadership crisis. A country can have a civil crisis like a revolution or an environmental or industrial one.

In all cases, they represent points of urgency in which the boundaries that help keep normalcy normal are becoming stretched to the breaking point.

In day-to-day life, we can also face workload scheduling crises. These may not sound as significant or tragic, and of course they usually are not. But they still represent a breaking point and an urgent need of repair.

In its simplest form, a scheduling crisis takes its meaning from the world of project management. We are looking at a new, unexpected task that comes out of nowhere, must be taken care of right now, and as such imposes itself upon your already crowded calendar, forcing you to put other tasks aside until you take care of it.

This type of crisis might appear as one of the following:

  • a meeting that suddenly gets called
  • a new request from your boss or a customer
  • someone calls in sick and cannot do their part of a project that needs to be done today

None of these things sound terribly bad. This is not an issue of workplace violence or a cyberattack, but they are related. Because when an unexpected thing hits your calendar, a few things happen.

  • First, yes, you have to react. And reaction triggers a mild fight-or-flight response that tends to move people towards doing things without clearly thinking them through, just to get them out of the way
  • Second the new, urgent task forces other work to be pushed to the side, yet that work still has to get done, which causes a ripple effect across the rest of your calendar and generally spills out into personal time
  • Third, it sets a precedent of normality – an ergonomic inflation that forces you to accept that this is how things are. Just more and mor stuff to deal with, without pushback or delineations in place. This only leads to an inadvertent complacency and a willing to continue to do the same – to accept workload crises without question, and just deal with them.

That’s not ideal. It’s the reason why we accept so many emails and so many tasks. We accept the unexpected because, as humans we are hard-wired to react, and proactive planning does not come naturally to us.

But every time one of these unplanned events comes at you, it upsets everything, not just your work, but your diet, and even your sleep cycle. It’s a disruption that comes at great cost.

Let’s Take Stock

One of the things project managers do a lot of is quantify. Count. They count everything. Every task that goes into a project. How much time and how many resources they will need and for how long. It’s part of project planning. So, let’s quantify the calendar-related crises that have happened to you.

How often does a crisis happen to you? How often does an unplanned activity force its way in to your nice, organized day? Once per day? Once every couple of days? Once per week? And how, long, on average, does it take for you to handle this crisis? Remember a crisis could be anything from a network crash to an email requiring you to drop everything and do something.

Now, Let’s Plan For Them

If, for example, you recognize that every day, an unplanned event – a calendar crisis happens – something that forces you to shove everything else aside to handle it – then you what you actually have there is an expectable activity. If you can expect an unplanned activity to happen every day, then yes, you can expect it. And that gives you proactive, conscious power. Instead of dreading it, hoping against hope that it won’t happen, you can plan for it. You can even enter it on your calendar as a recurring activity: 12:00-1:00 every day: crisis of the day.

Now let’s be clear, of course no-one expects the crisis to happen exactly at 12:00 each day, but the point is, you set the time aside for it now, you budget time for it, and when the crisis actually happens, you can drag that block up or down the calendar face to where it’s needed. By creating this appointment as a real appointment, even before it happens, this helps defend your calendar from becoming overloaded, and hitting that critical path where work spills over into your evenings and weekends.

Think about how restaurants work. They can expect a lunchtime rush, so a smart restaurant manager is going to make sure there are enough staff on hand to handle the peak volume. Similarly, the kitchen staff will have enough food ingredients to satisfy the customers’ requests, and they will have pre-cooked a great deal of the foods – pastas and potatoes etc. anticipation. This is called being prepared. Even when no-one can guarantee how many people will enter the restaurant that day.

When you think of it, it’s also how private parking spaces work. Imagine who much more effective it is when you know you have your own parking space, at work, or maybe in your condo building, or better yet, at the mall. The space is put aside and everyone else must steer around it.

By planning for your crisis of the day, you reserve time in your calendar for it. You create a parking space for it. A tangible block of time. A block of time that says – to you and everyone else, “one hour of today is reserved for the unplanned event that know is coming.” This gives you enormous leverage to defer or negotiate the other activities of the day – meetings, travel, research and so on. If you do not reserve the time for this unplanned event, that time will automatically fill with other stuff, and there will be no space for the unplanned event to fall into. By blocking that time on your calendar now, you are reserving an hour of your day, which can be applied to whenever it is needed, with other tasks moving around it like a game of Tetris, even to be negotiated and deferred to tomorrow. Or later. Or never.

Having this pre-planned space means, when the crisis occurs, you will also have the mental acuity to handle it efficiently. Thinks always unfold better when you come at them with a cool, unflustered, fully fueled mind. There is an expression that says, a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet. Well, a calendar crisis is simple an appointment you haven’t met yet. An appointment that does not yet have a name, but for which time and space has been reserved for it to pull into, as part of the expected – NOT unexpected – part of each day.

The Postmortem

The other thing about unexpected events, though, is why they are there at all. If you have to put aside something in order to handle an unexpected other thing, why does this unexpected other thing exist? What brought us to the point of having to address something unexpected.

Despite what I have described above about putting aside time for the crisis of the day, there will still be times when yes, despite the best of intentions, something comes along when you have to just drop everything and take care of it. It happens. But as the Dos Equis most interesting man in the world might say, “I don’t always say yes to unplanned requests, but when I do, I always ask for a postmortem.”

A postmortem. An after-action review. In project management, this is known as the closure phase. In short, I will say, yes, I will help you with this emergency, but once it’s over, we must discuss it. Why did it happen? How did we let it happen? What can we do to ensure it doesn’t happen again?

We can learn from our mistakes. If we forgot to proof-read a document before it went to the printer to be bound in a book, why was that? What can we do to make sure we don’t forget the proof-reading task next time? If my boss drops a report on my desk that he or she forgot to give me last week and now it’s last minute, what can I do in the future to head these types of snafu’s off at the pass. Maybe a Monday morning huddle with the boss to discuss what’s going on this week? This, by the way – this act of proactive management with the boss should never be perceived as a critique. It’s called managing up and is a crucial skill, one I will be giving time to in another episode.

Firefighters, athletes, performers – all kinds of people take the time to review their work after the fact. It’s the best way to ensure continuous improvement and to stop these types of mistakes from happening again.

Crises happen. It’s part of life. But unfortunately, we humans have been designed to be more willing to react than to pro-act. Effective management of crises is a pro-action. Schedule time for them if they are a regular part of your day and insist on follow-up and improvement if they are rare or infrequent.

As I mention many times, time management is made up of two words, the second if which is management. Management is not about coping with what IS, it’s about scripting what should be. And the more you can do that – the more you can proactively write the history of your future, the less you will get caught up in unexpected events – the calendar crises.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Calendar Crisis. 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

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 Rising Bar of Expectation

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Rising Bar of Expectation. It explores the relationship between us and time, especially when it comes to our expectations, and managing the expectations of others.

Boy it’s annoying when things don’t load at the speed you want them to, isn’t it? I mean when we have to wait around for Microsoft Word to fire up, or for your browser to configure its updates, or for an app to download to your phone. And this is a serious problem. People have a tolerance of mere seconds before they give up and move on to something else. E-commerce people know this, which is why they place such high priority on solving shopping cart abandonment issues. Music companies know this too, which is why artists are asked to write tunes that deliver the hook sooner. Consumers know they have a choice and they will move on quickly.

Texting Your BFF in the 1700s

Imagine what it must have been like 300 years ago. Imagine, for example, you walk four hours into town, maybe two hours if you’re rich enough to own a horse, and as luck would have it, a ship has just arrived carrying – among other things – mail from the old country. It includes a letter from your BFF, your sweetie, your betrothed, who writes, basically, “we need to talk.”

You re-read the letter several times, your heart is pounding as you see your happy future dissolving before your eyes. You run to the local apothecary, borrow a quill pen and a bottle of ink, and frantically write back a heartfelt plea to save your relationship. You proofread your letter, dab the ink dry, seal it inside an envelope. You dash down to the dock, leaping over barrels and boxes, you dash up the gangplank and hand your letter to the first officer you see.

Two weeks later, the ship leaves the harbor to start on its two-month voyage back across the Atlantic, where your frantic letter might stand a chance of getting into the hands of your betrothed another month after that. If, this was all happening to you in New Holland (Australia), just multiply all of these travel times by ten. Back then, you had to have a lot of patience when it came to sending and receiving information.

Rearranging the Text Messages on the Titanic

Did you know, by the way, that one of the contributing factors to the loss of life during the sinking of the Titanic had to do with the fact that the radio operators of the time were employees of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company – subcontractors, essentially, not crew – and as such, their primary responsibility was managing messages between passengers and their families and friends in Europe or in New York. These radio operators had no time or motivation to pay attention to the frantic calls of “Icebergs ahead” from the lookouts.

Over the century since the Titanic’s sinking, our communications technologies have increased in speed and reach, and so have our desires to stay ahead of them. Nothing seems ever fast enough. We humans thrive on communication. Today, for example, if someone does not answer your email within five minutes, you consider it within your rights to send another email that asks whether they received your first email.

Texting at 90 Feet per Second

So, what’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, nothing really, so long as you stay in control of the messaging. But most of the time we find ourselves not in control. For example, it is very difficult to resist the temptation to reply to a text while you’re driving your car. The compelling need to know what an incoming message says, and to then respond, overrules the logic of maintaining control of the vehicle. Evidence continues to mount that shows that even talking hands free, whether you’re chatting on the phone or dictating a text, is still an impairment. It takes a great deal of concentration to drive a vehicle, and that gets quickly eclipsed by the moment-by-moment activities of speaking and listening.

OK, you say, so why isn’t it the same when you have someone in the car with you?

Well, having a conversation with someone in a car can be distracting, especially if things get heated like in an argument, but when someone is in the car with you, they can see what you see, and are more likely to put the conversation on hold if there is a potentially dangerous situation unfolding up ahead. When a vehicle is travelling at 90 feet per second, that’s a lot of ground that can be covered during a moment of distraction. They can see that. But the person you’re talking to through your phone cannot.

The main reason why I am pursuing this line of thought though has to do with the bar of expectation, which continues to rise along with that increasing speed of communication. This rising bar does not just apply to messaging. It also applies to our own expectations of ourselves, and this anticipation of increased productivity sometimes exceeds our abilities. Let me give you an example.

Super Time Management Spray!

When I talk to my audiences about techniques for improving productivity, I deliver this offer paired with a challenge. My offer is this: I say to them, “I have, in the trunk of my car, a supply of time management spray. You spray it all over you and it will help you do everything faster. In fact, one spray of this patented elixir, and you will get at least four more hours’ worth of stuff done. Would you like some of this?”

Nobody actually believes I have this spray in the trunk, of course, but they play along, nodding their heads. After all, the truth is, there are few people who would pass up on the chance of being able to get a few more hours of productivity in a day.

“But wait!” I then say, like an old-time sales barker, “If you were to purchase this spray from me, even at this giveaway price of just nine dollars and ninety-nine cents a can, and you were to spray it all over you and you found yourself working at super speed, my question becomes, what will you do with this time you have found? Will you use it to answer more emails or attend more meetings? If so, my friends, you have won back nothing. You will call me back two weeks from now and you will be asking me for the extra strength spray.

This is the problem with best practices generally. They are not able to stick to the surface of a fast-moving culture in a way that ensures ongoing achievement. Instead they become part of the new normal. So, where you were once able to do five things in a day, now you can do ten. The bar of your expectations rises with this achievement and soon your expectation is that you can and should be able to do 15 things. And once you discover you are able to do 15, you start to expect to be able to do 20 things in a day and you start to make promises accordingly.

However, your body and mind have a hard time keeping up. Our instinctive desire to evolve and continue to make life better and safer for ourselves enthusiastically grabs this idea of doing more with less time, but our physical and mental selves really cannot do that.

So, you say yes to more and more emails, meetings, requests and tasks.

Or more precisely, you don’t actually say “yes,” but you don’t know how to say “no.”

The Smallest Word Is Also the Hardest to Pronounce

“No” is one of the smallest words in any spoken language, but one of the hardest to pronounce. Most of us have a profound fear of confrontation, or of offending or angering the person we are communicating with. After all, if you say no to your boss or your customer, you might lose your livelihood.

But the fact is, without that capacity to say “no” appropriately, the work simply piles up, but time does not expand to accommodate. And added speed is not enough. The extra strength spray just does not work.

The Future of Work: Cut Me Some Slack

That’s why, when it comes to looking at the future of work, many experts point to soft skills as the key. Skills like prioritization, delegation, and negotiation will become even more critical as timelines continue to shorten and the bar of expectation continues to rise.

I’ll give you an immediate example: Slack.

Now I love Slack. I am a devotee of online collaborative environments and I use them every time I am managing a multi-person project, which is all the time. There are other brands as well, of course, and Microsoft Teams will likely be the one most people encounter first, given the preponderance of Microsoft products in most workplaces.

Long story short, collaborative conversations grouped into channels are more efficient than email. There is an informality and immediacy to the communication that removes much of the mental overload and delay that email has been proven to cause.

But the pushback I get from people when they see a collaborative environment for the first time is, “how is this any different from email? What’s the difference between having a pile of unread emails in your inbox and a pile of unread messages in your Slack channels?”

It’s true. Even though I still think the collaborative messages can be handled more easily and more quickly over all, there is still an expectation that people be ready and available to respond to messages of any sort the moment they come in. The bar continues to rise.

But that’s where the soft skills come in. There is an ever-increasing need for people to be able to push back and say “no” in the most practical ways possible. “No” does not mean “go away, I never want to see you again,” it means, “let’s negotiate.” It’s a way of saying, let’s find a suitable alternative to the immediate.

So, whether you choose a collaborative environment like Microsoft Teams or Slack, or even if you choose to stay with email, it is up to you to let people know when and where you will be available. If you’re busy right now, or you plan to be traveling, then you’re not available to reply. This means you need to let people know this. You have to counter the rising bar of people’s expectations.

Get proactive and send out updates to those who are most likely to want to talk to you. Let them know the times that you will be available and when you will not be available. Give them access to your online calendar. Make sure to mark your busy times as busy, and your available times as available. If you use a collaborative environment, then update your status, and train your people to observe your status and availability notifications. This is a skill. It’s part of the skillset called influence, in which you get people to act in ways you would like, using positive emotion and positive reward.

A related and equally vital skill is that of following up. If you promise to be available at a certain time, then you need to ensure you are available. If you promise to return all emails and calls by the end of day, then you need to ensure you make the time to do that. People will believe in you and will accept these alternatives if they know they will be looked after within a reasonable amount of time. But if you break that promise, then the trust relationship will be broken.

The power is within you to manage the ever-rising bar of expectations – those you have of yourself with regard to workload, and those others have of you. It all depends on your ability to hone those soft skills of influence, planning, delegation, negotiation and prioritization.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Rising Bar of Expectations. 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.

The Blended Mindset

This blog post, written for HP’s Business Value Exchange , entitled, The Blended Mindset is available for review at CloudTweaks.com. This post proposes that people need to maximize their human skills such as creativity and relationship to match their technological abilities.  Click here to read.

CloudTweaks

Scheduling Time to be in The Zone

It’s a sad expectation that many people hold over themselves and over the ones with whom they work, that there is some sort of energy level that exists constantly throughout the entire day. The expectation is something akin to electrical current, which many have grown used to as a constant source of stable power – 110 volts, sixty cycles per second, at least in North America. The thought is that any human being can simply return to that level at will, or better yet, never leave it – working at a constant pace throughout the day.

The truth is a far cry from this. The human body operates in waves and cycles, not a continuous stream. All people have good times-of-day and less-than-good times of day, based on a collection of influences, including hormones, stress, sleep, food, interest, mood, health, and much more. A wiser course of action, one that would help more people find their zone of greatest productivity is to recognize that the optimum time comes once per day, and once it is identified, it should be defended vigorously from both external and internal attack.

Most people, eight out of ten in any group, will identify themselves as morning people. This means they feel more focused, alert and capable in the morning than any other time of the day. The other twenty percent will likely identify themselves as night owls; they are chemically aligned with the evening and are likely to do their best thinking, working between 4:00 p.m. and midnight, if the job allowed.

In both cases, morning people and night owls are identifying their circadian rhythm, an internal timekeeping mechanism that the body uses to release the hormones for healthy sleep, alertness, hunger and so on. This rhythm has peaks and valleys, much like a roller-coaster. For morning people, the pinnacle of alertness and ability happens generally between 8:30 and 10:00 a.m. and is helped along by the presence of sunlight, the ingestion of caffeine, and the energy of getting to work.

This means that the best time of the entire day for eighty-percent of the workforce is the first half of the morning. It goes downhill from there. Many morning people experience a “second wind” around 4:00 as they anticipate imminent departure from their work obligations, and conversely they often feel a deep drag on their energies during the mid-afternoon period, 2:30 to 3:30, a double-whammy of post-lunch digestion plus an oddity of the circadian rhythm that makes many humans lightly mirror their period of deepest sleep, twelve hours prior.

Finding the right physical and mental zone for optimum work must then follow two simple truths: first it only happens basically once a day, and second, it lasts 90 minutes, maximum.

This means that to get into a zone of excellent productivity, one must know when this optimum time is, schedule it into the calendar, and defend it against attack from emails, meetings, and interruptions. The norm for most North American workers is to arrive at 9:00, and immediately check email. This is somewhat on par with using a Ferrari to pull a travel trailer. All that energy and excellence being redirected towards mundane tasks.

To get into the zone, and to stay there for as long as possible, the following items are required:

  • First, as stated, an awareness of when the circadian best time of day is.
  • Second a statement, through the calendar and other communications, for people to stay away during this time. This does not have to be a negative message or a threat. Simply something like “9:00 -10:00 is my focus hour – I will be available to talk to you after 10:00.”
  • Third, set up a workspace that defends against attack. An office with a door is nice, but focused body language, and a practiced skill at avoiding eye contact also works well, even in the most open of open concept offices.
  • Fourth, an awareness that this zone period will come to an end quite quickly. This helps fend off distraction and procrastination which often happens when projects are assigned open-ended times for completion.
  • Fifth, a willingness to turn off or mute all distracting devices – the phone, email, Twitter – anything that serves to pull attention away. For people whose job requires an instant check of all emails coming in, this rule can be bent somewhat to allow the scanning of email subject lines, but to put off actual answering of all but the most urgent of messages until after the zone period is done.

This all may sound like a tall order, but human beings are not made to cruise along at a fixed level of ability. We are sprinters – using energy and conserving it in a rhythmic manner that has not changed in over 50,000 years. Developing an awareness of the timing of your “zone,” whether it be in the morning for morning people, or late afternoon for night owls, and then defending it, is a shrewd and profitable step towards optimum productivity.


More information on truly effective Time Management is available in my book, Cool-Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time. To order a copy, visit the Lulu.com online store for paperback or ebook.

Redefining “Results”

This post originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Time Management magazine.

People who seek advice on time management often tend to lust after the concept of winning back more hours in the day in order to get things done. “If only there was a way to freeze time,” they say, or “If I could just squeeze another hour or two out of the day, I could get caught up.”

Well, maybe, but consider the following non-time-related issue:

A friend comes to you and says, “I have a problem with credit cards. I am maxed out, I am paying hundreds of dollars per month in payments and I feel I am getting nowhere. What should I do?”

Many people, in seeking to answer such a question might reply, “cut up your credit card,” or get a loan or a line of credit and pay off the balance right now.” These are two highly practical suggestions, but they will not solve the problem. They will not achieve the desired result.

A person with a credit card has a spending problem. The habit of spending on credit, of giving in to the temptation or distraction of the immediate will not be cured by removing the debt or destroying the card. A person who cuts up a credit card can still shop online and a person who converts a credit card debt into a bank debt will quickly have two sets of debt, as the freshly emptied balance gets used again.

The trick to successful credit card management is to develop new habits that replace old ones. Habit such as paying only with money available, or diligently paying the credit card balance to zero every week. These habits take time and effort, and the odds in favour of relapse are great.

The same thing applies to tasks and time. People who win back an hour or two in their day, either by delegating some work, eliminating it entirely, or cutting back on the time spent in meetings or responding to email, only to fill those newly-won hours with more of the same have achieved nothing. Nothing, that is, except a form of ergonomic inflation. It’s like saying “I have learned how to speed-read and speed-type. Now, instead of handling 100 emails per day, I can handle 200.” Is that really an achievement? Do those extra emails deliver twice the success, or do they simply add more redundancy to the pile?

The issue here is a difference in results. Being able to do twice as many largely impractical tasks, may feel like achievement, but it truly isn’t.

One application of the Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 Rule) is that 80% of the value of a meeting happens within 20% of its duration. So why do meetings last as long as they do? Because they can. Why do we reply to as many emails as we do? Because we can.

In short, if a person is actually able to win back two, three or four hours of extra productivity time in the day, they had better be very sure of what they plan to do with it, because much like a freshly cleared credit card debt, it can refill awfully fast.

So how to ensure all time is well-spent? Through adequate planning. Investing in a small amount of time to plan the day means that everything can be accounted for. An email that contains a task request that will take more than two minutes to complete should be promoted into a scheduled activity. What about the crisis-of-the-day that almost always happens? Schedule it anyway. If it has better than 75% odds of happening sometime after 9:00 a.m. today, then assign a moveable block of time on your calendar right now, and fill in its name and official start time later.

The goal here is to stay totally aware of the value of every minute of the day. If every credit card came with an app that revealed the true price of every item purchased on credit, for example a $100 small appliance actually costing $700 after three years of interest and late payment charges, many people would rethink a spontaneous purchase.

That’s how planning can achieve results. Genuine productivity happens when the value of the work done exceeds the sensation of work being done. In other words business instead of busy-ness. A result should always represent a positive outcome, not merely an outcome.

Renovation Contractor Magazine Article on the 80/20 Rule (Pareto Principle)

Renovation Contractor MagazineBelow is a link to an interview I did with Renovation Contractor Magazine on te use of the 80/20 Rule, othewise nown as the Pareto Principle. I think the Pareto Principleis one of the most sound and practical apporaches to life that I have ever seen.

bristall.com/Steve-Prentice-2011-10-Renovation-Contractor.pdf