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CoolTimeLife Podcast: Managing Your Metabolism

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Managing Your Metabolism. It describes how moving from reactive to proactive is a positive brain-body exercise that will help you do things right, do things better, and foster more constructive relationships.

Imagine you won that big lottery. No more worries about making money, no need to get up when the alarm clock tell you to do so, what would you do with your life? Not so much in terms of your hobbies and interests, but how would you structure your day? Would you continue to get up early in the morning to enjoy the sunrise or would find yourself rising later and later and enjoying the evening nightlife instead?

When you look at this ultimate situation where you have complete control over the coming and goings of your day, you get to see what your metabolism is really like; how you would be ideally suited for a 24-hour cycle. Some people are morning-oriented. They are naturally able to wake up in the morning, while others are night owls who find themselves doing their best work as the sun goes down and as the evening moves on.

So, who are you? How do you operate? What you do with your time reveals a lot about you and becomes the beginning of an understanding of your metabolism – how you operate as a person.

We can’t all win that lottery. Most of us have to go back to work some way or other, but when it comes to getting things done, managing time, seeking out a balance in life, it’s essential to look at your metabolism. This is your vehicle that carries you through time; your brain, your body, your “self”.  But it is so often overlooked. You can make it work far more effectively once you understand it.

The Metabolic Blood Sugar Level Chart

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This wavy rollercoaster line that heads in an overall downward direction throughout the day, represents, in simplified form, your metabolic blood sugar level. Your personal metabolic blood sugar level will vary based on how well you slept the night before, as well as what you ate for breakfast.

Your Golden Hour: 9:00-10:30

Most people, on a busy workday, have a breakfast that consists of coffee and some carbs, such as toast, bagels, muffins or cereal. These tend to burn off extremely quickly. So the blood sugar level moves through the day with its peak around 9:00 a.m. That is the best time of day for getting things done: 9:00 a.m.

This high blood sugar level period is a result of a confluence of three significant activities:

  1. Your breakfast
  2. The presence of morning sunlight – Sunlight is a natural stimulant that removes the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin from your bloodstream. These three stimulants, working together, make the period between 9:00 and 10:30 the most productive period of the day, at least for the 8 out of every 10 adults who are morning oriented. It’s when most of us are at our intellectual and attentive best. For learning, strategy, research focus, sales… whatever it is that you do, that’s the best time to do it.
  3. The energy and mental shift expended in getting to work

Unfortunately, it is often overlooked, and we spend that time doing more mundane things like checking and returning email.

The 10:30 Crash

For many people, the first blood sugar crash of the day happens around 10:30 p.m. This is when the coffee and the carbs have been completely used up, and you hit a blood sugar low. Traditionally people take a break mid-morning to get more coffee and more carbohydrates to get themselves through to lunchtime. So the rollercoaster continues. We buoy ourselves back up wit this energy until noon.

The Tragedy of Over-Lunching

Noon is a difficult time because if you are already hungry by lunchtime, you will fall into the trap of overeating, which is something that fast food restaurants exploit hugely. It’s a hunger urge brought on because people do not eat in a regular and controlled fashion. If you fast between 10:30 and 12:00, the hunger urge will make you want to eat more than you need to at noon.

Moving from the 10:30 crash to noontime, the ideal approach is to graze, to take food in in a more regular fashion. This means grazing on healthy foods not junk. The idea here is to keep hunger at bay by satisfying your body’s nutritional needs like stoking coal onto a fire: smaller more regular amounts work much better.

The 2:30 Crash

This mid-afternoon time is a double threat to productivity. First, we tend to echo the deep sleep period of 12 hours earlier (called the ultradian rhythm), and there is a tendency to lose focus and abilities somewhat at this time. In some countries, this was culturally accepted as time for a siesta. It’s an energy trough initiated by the ultradian echo and then compounded by the demands on the digestive system brought on by overeating at lunchtime.

These troughs can be substantially lessened in their depth and severity. One of the easiest ways to do this is to change your choice of foods to include a morning protein source. There are many types of food to choose from:

  • Yogurt
  • Protein smoothies
  • Dairy products
  • Meats
  • Nuts
  • Oatmeal

An intake of protein in the morning will allow your blood sugar to stay much more level throughout the entire day, even long after breakfast has been digested.

What about Taking a Nap?

Is it OK or even advisable to take a nap in the afternoon? For the North American and growing globalized working communities, a nap is not looked upon favorably as an ideal use of company time, even though I would venture to disagree, assuming the napper returns to a more alert state immediately afterward.

It’s ironic that being stuck in a useless meeting where 20 minutes or more are wasted, is seen as a normal part of doing business. But spending those same 20 minutes having a nap may be career-limiting.

Ultimately, if you are a natural napper, you would know this by now. It will already have inserted itself into your daily ritual. If napping does not come naturally to you, then it’s not worth pursuing, because the opposite reaction can occur. A nap can rob you of part of your natural sleep cycle later that night, which can rob you of quality sleep and make the following day less productive.

What if You are a Night Owl?

The proportion of night owls in any group of people anywhere in the world is generally 20% or two out for every ten people. For this group of people, their circadian wiring extends into the evening and the night.

If you know this about yourself, perhaps you can find or create a line of work that matches it. That’s not so farfetched. This is an age where work-life integration is a reality. It may be very possible to negotiate a job starts at 2:00 p.m. and ends at 10:00 p.m. It might also be very useful.

When I graduated and joined the workforce, I joined a temp agency who would send me to work at banks. I would start my “day” at 5:00, taking over the typing and number crunching that a 9-to-5 staffer could not finish. When they arrived at work the next morning, the work was ready and waiting for them. Although you could argue that this work could have been done by a person halfway around the world for less, the fact was, they hired me because I immediately understood the job, and was physically onsite to talk to the stakeholders face-to-face before they left for the day.

There are many types of work that require people to be available on a different schedule. It might be up to you to find them and make your pitch.

However, this might not be possible, at least for the moment. So if you are a night owl stuck in a day job, what can you do to compensate? Negotiate with your “morning person” colleagues and managers to schedule morning meetings a little bit later in the morning or perhaps opt out of the meeting and read the summary instead. Or schedule the meetings in the afternoon, after making sure the meeting room can contribute to productivity, as we described in the previous podcast.

Why is This Nutrition Lecture Important?

The reason for talking about nutrition here is because this is the fuel for your metabolism – your body and your brain. You cannot expect this device to work at a constant level of standard energy throughout the day. Blood sugar ups-and-downs are a fact of life. Knowing how to work with them is an amazingly powerful way to ensure you get the right things done at the right time.

If the morning is the best time for you, then that should be the time for you to assign yourself your most important tasks of the day. If the afternoon doldrums are particularly hard for you, then assign the less challenging work, such as returning emails, or if you have meetings at that time, make sure you can compensate for the doldrums with:

  • Natural light
  • Good ventilation
  • Exercises
  • Breaks

This is something we covered in a previous podcast, The 55 Minute Meeting. You can listen to it here or read it here.

So What About Exercise?

For people working a traditional workday or wok week, it can be very hard to find time to put exercise into your day. Many people think that exercise must be formalized in terms of going to the gym and working out. This again is a personal thing. If you are someone who can exercise at 5:00 a.m., or 5:00 p.m., if that feels natural and good for you then go for it. But if it doesn’t, then don’t, because that‘s not the right form of exercise for you.

Instead, figure out what things do work for you. Do you like to cycle? Or walk briskly? When you connect your wireless headphones or earbuds to Spotify where you can download cardio-friendly music, it becomes very easy and very motivating to take five or ten minutes to squeeze some exercise into your day.

There’s always a way that will fit you. Take that lottery-winning vacation dream, observe how your body would prefer to work if there were no rules, look upon the way you like to do things and identify what really works for you, your metabolism and the context of your life.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Managing Your Metabolism. 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 55-Minute Meeting

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The 55 Minute Meeting. It describes how to maximize the value of every meeting by focusing on some key human elements of physiology, focus, and influence.

What do you think is the most important ingredient for a successful meeting? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the agenda. It’s not even the second most important item. On this episode, we’re going to talk about meetings.  Most specifically about a highly successful concept we have developed called the 55-minute meeting and how this can be a way to not only make your meetings more effective, but make them more pleasurable, too. This episode is packed with ideas and suggestions for making your meetings more successful, time efficient and even enjoyable.

Meetings are considered by many to be the single biggest time waster in the workday.

  • There are too many of them
  • Many are unnecessary
  • They don’t start on time or are held up due to late arrivals
  • They have unclear agendas
  • They go on for too long
  • The wrong people are invited
  • People introduce irrelevant topics
  • People “tune out” and do other work on their computers/tablets/phones
  • They conclude with vague ideas and unresolved issues.
  • They end late

These are all powerful disincentives to view a meeting as anything other than – at best – a vacation away from the desk, or at worst a stress-inducing delay added to an already overloaded day.

So if the Agenda is not the most important or even second most important item of a meeting, what fills these two top spots? And why isn’t the agenda most important? Well, let’s start with that.

A meeting must justify its existence. It must have a value that exceeds the sum of the individual hourly rates of the participants. It must have a bottom-line dollar value greater than all the things the invitees could otherwise be doing. A meeting must prove that it will advance the cause of a team or an organization in some way, or it should not occur at all.

So, whether you are looking to:

  • coordinate action
  • to exchange information
  • to motivate a team
  • discuss issues, ideas or problems
  • and/or to make a decision

…the meeting must achieve this in the shortest time possible. That’s the purpose of the agenda.

The first questions to ask should be these:

  1. Does this topic need the input or attention of other people?
  2. Does it seek to do one of the things I just described above?
  3. Is a meeting truly the best option? There are other alternatives.

If you have decided that it is essential to have a meeting, then its legitimacy has already been established. Creating an efficient agenda then supports the way in which these things will be discussed. So it is an important component of a successful meeting, but it is not the MOST important.

The most important element of a successful meeting is getting people to show up on time and to be engaged.  You do this by promising to keep the meeting as short and as interesting as possible, and then publicizing this fact. It has to focus not on the agenda on the motivations and concerns of the people involved and this includes managing the fear of the unknown.

We talk about fear quite a lot in the CoolTimeLife podcast series because humans are dominated by emotion, with the strongest emotion of all being fear. The fear of the unknown attaches itself to concepts like, “how long will this meeting last.” These types of uncertainties make people hesitant to prepare or participate. It makes them procrastinate to the point of arriving late or just dropping the meeting entirely.

The Solution: Bring up the facts to Meet the Fear

Give people something they can work with to overcome the fear of the unknown, and confidently move into a situation that they fee in control of, and that they can see an end to.

Our solution is something we call the 55 Minute Meeting. Its success comes from placing priority on three key concepts:

  1. The human attention span
  2. The fact that the meeting is finite
  3. There is a palatable gap of time – five minutes – between the end of the meeting and the start of the next hour.

1. The Human Attention Span

A good for dealing with people generally is that most adults can only stay tuned in for an hour before they need to move on to something else. So any meeting should never exceed an hour, if at all possible. A meeting should last only as long as is necessary, no longer. A meeting of 20 minutes can often achieve as much, if not more than a meeting of an hour.

So why a 55 minute meeting? Let’s go shopping to find out.

2. Take a Lesson from Retail Therapy

Imagine you have two competing stores in a mall, each selling the same item of clothing. One store sets the price at $20.00. The other store sets its price at $19.95. Who will sell out first? It will most likely be the cheaper store. Not because of a mere five-cent difference in price, but in the perception of a deal. It’s a whole “bracket” lower.

The same applies for larger items like a car. A car priced at $19,995 will sell more quickly than one priced at $20,000.

It gives people a sense of getting a deal, and it is what we want to put into the motivation principle behind successful meetings, including influencing people to show up on time. A meeting that starts at 1:00 and ends at 2:00 appears to step into two “hour blocks.” Even if id does end on time exactly at 2:00, it has pushed into the 2:00 hour block and becomes an emotional barrier.

But when a starts and ends within the same hour, such as from 1:00 to 1:55, it gives people a sense of a deal – there is a gap at the end of the hour. The meeting isn’t even an hour. It feels much more attractive.

This short time period encourages focus and engagement, again because it is both finite and short. This is something can and should be advertised in your meeting announcement. I use that word advertised specifically because that’s what you must do: entice people to arrive ready, prepared and at their best for the entire duration.

This should cut down substantially on late arrivals and disengaged or distracted attendees.

3. Keep It Finite

A 55-minute meeting can only cover a set number of items, realistically. It represents a finite duration and a hard stop that allows people to work toward a conclusion without letting the meeting itself drift on into extra time.

An ideal structure might look like this:

 

55-minute-meeting

It starts with five minutes for housekeeping, and concludes with five minutes for closure and action items/next steps.

The rest of the time depends on what the meeting is about – whether you have one, two, or three agenda items to discuss, or one single one in a brainstorming fashion.

What is your wireless policy?

Everyone has a wireless device with them. When they use them during a meeting, do you find that rude, or simply normal? How do others feel? It is worth finding out, since annoyance can become a major saboteur of productive meetings. There are options:

  • Old school – request that people turn everything off and face the meeting chairperson until the meeting is done. That might work, but it might not. Most people do not like being kept away from their devices.
  • An alternative would be to use a data break. This is basically a two-minute pause between agenda items that allows attendees to check their texts, emails and so forth. Although some people might feel that anyone should be able to survive an hour without checking in, the truth is, for most of us, that is not the case. The resulting tension from not being able to check emails results in distraction, and in some cases, outright mutiny. This is another example of managing people’s expectations by giving them what they need to feel comfortable. It allows pressure to be released during those periods where real focus and participation s required.

Hopefully, the majority of your meetings will be eventually replaced by collaborative online environments, but there will always be time when in-person interactions are beneficial. Just remember, every meeting must have four things going for it:

  • It must exceed the sum total of the per-hour value of the participants
  • It must result in a new development: an idea, a plan or knowledge level
  • It must conclude with a clear action item
  • It must be brief and clearly finite

A meeting is an example of strategic application of planning and influence. The task of getting people to the table and keeping them engaged and alert is dependent as much on your knowledge of human motivation as with the topic of the meeting itself.

The Power of Silence – the Six-Second Rule

Meeting should be about allowing people to bring forward their ideas, their contributions and their insight. This gives them an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way. One of the biggest problems with meetings is the fear factor, this time in the form of silence. Many times during a meeting there is insufficient opportunity for people to speak up.

Often the chairperson gives only a second or so for people to react: “Are there any further questions? No? Then we’ll move on.”

To encourage great participation, and to add more depth and color to the meeting, remember to count silently to six after asking the “Any further questions?” question. This long pause gives people a chance to recognize that no one else is speaking, that they indeed do have a question, and that they have the opportunity to actually speak up. This always adds to the quality of the meeting, by adding their thoughts and ideas.

So, even though we live in an age of high speed in which we are bombarded by information from every corner, every second, silence can become a major contributor to the quality of a meeting.

HOWEVER –

The “any further questions?” question should never be asked during the last quarter of a meeting. So, in a 55-minute meeting this might be at the 40-minute mark. Why? Because when a question is asked at the very end of a meeting, remember, everyone wants to leave, and you promised that they could. When you ask your group for questions at the end of a meeting, you guarantee that the meeting will run over time and not only does this make the meeting run late, it jeopardizes your reputation as an excellent and trustworthy leader.

Not All Meetings Need Meeting Rooms

There are numerous alternatives to meetings:

  • Collaborative environments like Slack and Yammer, where people can talk back and forth just like texting on their phones.
  • You could deliver information by way of an infographic or a video.
  • You could have a telepresence virtual meeting using Skype, Zoom, or Webex Meetings, to enjoy the sense of face-to-face connection without the travel.
  • You could also move your meetings away from your office environment by having it in a local coffee shop, using the curtain of ambient noise from the customers around you.

The Physical Meeting Environment.

As I mention above, the agenda of a meeting is a moot point, once the it has been agreed that a meeting about a certain topic should happen. It doesn’t mean you don’t need an agenda, only that the agenda should by now have already been decided upon.

So, the primary priority is the duration, 55 minutes or less.

The second-most important priority is the meeting environment itself. A meeting room should be considered to be an equal member – another invitee.

The room often gets overlooked by people who are simply looking for a convenient space. But when you think about it, a bunch of people in a room, the need creature comforts in order to survive and thrive. Is it physically comfortable? Is it warm enough yet cool enough? Is there good air circulation? Is there natural light – essential for maintaining energy and focus.

By contrast, a meeting held in a windowless room in the middle of the afternoon, you are depriving people  of the light stimulation at precisely the worst time of day.  So, look for a room that has:

  • Air – good air and if possible, windows that open
  • Large windows with a southern exposure with plenty of natural light
  • Quiet HVAC
  • Climate controls for heat/cooling
  • No distracting ambient noise or noise bleed from adjoining rooms
  • Comfortable furniture that does not squeak.
  • Good healthy food – especially protein-generous snacks

Anytime you can hold out and find the idea meeting room with as many of these items as possible, you provide an idea environment or focus, concentration and engagement.

The Exercise Break

For long meetings, especially those in the afternoon, consider adding a low-impact exercise to the meeting agenda. This could include stretches or even deep knee bends. These should not need to break a sweat and should be designed to consider people who are alternately abled, or who might have chronic pain conditions – but the objective is to invite everyone to use their muscles to move blood and oxygen around the body.

You can also encourage people to get up and walk around while the meeting is going on.

The Bottom Line

The most successful meeting strategy of all is the one that makes people want to show up and want to participate. That’s how you invest in a high-quality meeting.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The 55 Minute Meeting. 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.

What A Parking Lot Can Teach Us About Time Management

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Think how many times you have set out somewhere, perhaps to a shopping mall or downtown, only to find your plans delayed while you circle the block or cruise the parking lot looking for a space. It takes the momentum out of your trip, at least for a short while, yet parking is something we usually don’t think about until we actually need to do it. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a series of permanent, personal parking spaces at all of our regular destinations to just slide into whenever we want? This would allow time to be spent on tasks rather than on travel.

In the context of your busy workday, that’s what you can do when you schedule your regular day-to-day events, and actually put them into your calendar, turning them into reserved, repeating activities. Most people schedule only the unique activities, such as a specific meeting or a dental appointment, and that’s where the problems start. Suppose a colleague messages you and says, “We need to meet next Tuesday. What does your day look like?” (Or worse, he simply looks at your calendar online, and books the meeting on your behalf.) The odds are that currently, your schedule for next Tuesday, shows only show the unique items, leaving the rest of the day misleadingly empty.

However, if you have scheduled your predictable and expectable activities as daily reserved events, Tuesday’s calendar will clearly show a block of time already reserved for the realistic work of the day.

This reserved time will not take up 100 percent of the day. There will still be time available to meet with your colleague. However the power of the reserved activity helps ensure that even those days you haven’t thought much about yet are already well prepared for the work that’s to come.

graphic-blocks

The image above shows just how much or how little time is really available to you after accounting for the predictable and expectable events. It doesn’t mean that all your phone calls will happen between 8:00 and 9:00 every day – the blocks here are to show the amount of time required in total. Nor does this graphic mean you’re only free to meet with your colleague between 3:30 and 5:00. The component activities can be moved around to suit your needs. But by making these elements tangible, you develop a better understanding of what your day already entails, and secondly, such clear imagery allows you to question whether your time is being used most efficiently – or whether some refinement is required.

If you use online scheduling applications to schedule your day, then set each predictable activity as a recurring activity. But even if you use a paper day planner, you can mark off these recurring spaces activities with a pencil.

Remember, the phrase “time management” has two words in it, and the second one is management. This blocking system goes a long way towards effective management.

This is an excerpt from my book, Cool Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time. If you would like a copy, hop on over to my Books page. If you would like a workshop at your location, or if you would like to attend a live webcast, check out the details at my company, Bristall.com. If you would like me to come and speak to your group, contact details are available on my Speaker page. Either way, you will win back time and money. It’s just practical common sense.

Mastering Email and Remembering Names: A Matter of Conscious Choice

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Many studies have been done over the years to observe how our brains react when interrupted by stimuli such as incoming emails, texts and phone calls. In short, the nutrients that are distributed around the brain to fuel the thought process are all summoned instantly to the amygdala for preparation for fight-or-flight. We live in a body design that is over 50,000 years old. Although on a surface level we might not find an actual email genuinely threatening, on a physiological level the stimulus represents an unknown, and as such all resources are forced to “drop what they are doing” and go immediately to the fight-or-flight center. It’s much like an emergency evacuation of a building.

Once the email is read and dealt with, the crisis is considered to be over and the nutrients are allowed to return to work. But with the crisis abated, they return to their “work zones” in due time, taking between five and ten minutes to get there.

email-distraction

As illustrated in the graph above, even for an email that takes three minutes to answer –it takes many minutes to return to the level of concentration we had prior to the interruption. This means that most people – you, me and our co-workers – are all working at a diminished level of focus and capacity during this time. And this happens over and over again throughout the entire day. In fact, the act of answering emails, texts and interruptions as they happen pretty much guarantees a full day of sub-par performance. After all, the fuel your brain needs to do its work is spending most of its time away from where it needs to be.

The solution is very straightforward. Tasks should only be addressed in a conscious manner, not a reactive one. When you choose consciously to answer emails, especially a group of them at once, let’s say at 10:30 a.m. rather than the instant they arrive, then you move into the email-responding situation without instinctive urgency. The nutrients in your brain are not taken by surprise and they are not sent scurrying along to the amygdala. Instead, you take on the task by coolly, choice.

It’s similar to the problem that happens when people forget names moments after having been introduced to someone. This happens because at the very moment of shaking hands, we do not need a conscious mechanism for collecting and storing the data, so the name we have just heard vanishes off into space. However, a seasoned “people greeter”, someone whose job it is to meet a lot of people and talk to them – a campaigning politician, for example, or a really good sales rep or executive can easily work a room, remembering up to thirty names simply through conscious memorization and a little word association. They choose to memorize. They are not being taken by surprise. It’s all a matter of conscious choice.

An example. I am introduced to Wendy. As I shake hands with her, I notice she has long hair, swept back into a ponytail. I think of hair being swept back on a windy day. The words “windy” and “wendy” have a similar sound. An association. I am also introduced to Martin, whose eyebrows resemble those of director Martin Scorsese. That’s an easy association. These will allow you to use the most valuable word in any conversation: a person’s own name.

Now, back to the email problem.

“Yes, but I need to answer my emails the moment they come in.”

This is a standard pushback to the idea of returning emails at scheduled times. “The world doesn’t work like that,” people say, “emails are part of my job.  If people have to wait around until I decide to respond to my emails, nothing will get done.”  Another response is, “I feel better clearing my inbox. It de-stresses me to get rid of the emails as they come in.”

I can agree with all of these statements. If your job is so tied to quick emails replies that to delay responding would cause harm, then respond! If replying to messages makes you feel better, then by all means, reply, because feeling good, feeling in control, is a key element of the Cool-Time philosophy. In short, if you prefer to answer your emails the moment they come in, then do so. But remember the focus-loss that is described immediately above still happens.

If you choose to answer email on an ad-hoc basis, I recommend you calculate the expected duration of a task, and add the expected time needed to deal with the volume of email to that task, and realistically plan that as an event.

For example, if you have a report that should take an hour to create, and you can expect to have to spend an additional thirty minutes replying to messages, you would be wise to block off ninety minutes for this task to get it done, as this will factor in the time required to step away and deal with emails.

The danger lies in believing you can get a one-hour task done in one hour if you still allow yourself time to deal with interruptions.

This is an excerpt from my book, Cool Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time. If you would like a copy, hop on over to my Books page. If you would like a workshop at your location, or if you would like to attend a live webcast, check out the details at my company, Bristall.com. If you would like me to come and speak to your group, contact details are available on my Speaker page. Either way, you will win back time and money. It’s just practical common sense.

Budget Your Time Like a Restaurant Orders Its Fish

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When it comes to managing time, it is essential to set a budget. It starts by taking inventory, and for that, let’s have a quick look inside your favorite restaurant.

How does a restaurant chef know how much food to buy per week? How much meat and fish? How many pounds of vegetables? With experience and review, s/he can observe the eating habits and traffic patterns of customers, and can expect, with 90 percent accuracy, that certain times will be busier than others – Friday lunchtimes or Sunday dinners, for example. The chef can buy supplies accordingly and then actually influence the customers’ meal choices by creating a pleasing menu around that inventory. The restaurant business does not allow for lost revenue from wasted food, so an effective future is effectively created, based on reading the stories of the past.

If you have been at your current job for more than five days, you already have a good sense of the types of tasks that you can expect to face in any given day. These might include:

  • Scheduled meetings
  • Preparing your store, department or office to open for business
  • Phone-calls
  • Email and texting
  • Office interaction and chat
  • Focused self-directed work
  • Administration
  • Travel
  • Dealing face-to-face with customers/managers/employees
  • Giving presentations

It’s up to you to identify and quantify these predictable tasks that are specific to your job or business.

But what do you really know about your predictable tasks? If someone were to ask you how many meetings you actually attend in a typical week, or how many phone-calls or emails you deal with, you would probably shrug your shoulders and say, “It depends on the day.”

But if you were pressed harder for an answer, what would it be? Two meetings a day? Four? Six? How many phone-calls? Two, twenty or 200?” How many emails? How many texts? Maybe then you could come up with a reasonable number.

Next, how long does each of these tasks take? How long is the average meeting? How long is the average phone-call? How long do you spend reading and responding to each email? Perhaps Mondays are different from Fridays, in terms of what you have to do, and certainly one phone-call or email will differ from the next. But the point is, these are the things that fill up our days in a candid, uncontrolled manner; and “candid” is one thing that should be avoided, the “candid zone” is where awareness of time quickly disappears.

When you take the time to proactively quantify how much time your predictable tasks will take you on a given Monday, a given Tuesday, based on your past experience, you can predict with reasonable certainty how many hours per day must be set aside for them in the future. You know there will be phone calls, email and meetings next Monday, so why not reserve and defend the time for them now?

For example: if you generally spend two hours a day returning emails, then set up a recurring activity in your calendar – a two-hour block, specifically reserved for emails. It doesn’t mean you will deal with them all in a single contiguous block, but it dos mean the time for them has been reserved – budgeted for – and that is a vital component of time management. Budget for the predictable tasks in a realistic and tangible way.

You are then able to deal with people and tasks in a more proactive way, exactly like a restaurant handles its customers. By knowing what you have in stock, you can influence the expectations of your colleagues just like a restaurant influences the choices of its patrons. It’s all about knowing what you have in your hands – how much time you have available to accept new requests, and when you need to defer others to later times or dates.

Time management is about being proactive. Inventory knowledge gives you something to stand on while you do this.

This is an excerpt from my book, Cool Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time. If you would like a copy, hop on over to my Books page. If you would like me to come and speak to your group, contact details are available on my Speaker page. Either way, you will win back time and money. It’s just practical common sense.

 

Task Management – Stepping out of Emotion’s Shadow

This blog was originally posted in the December 2014 issue of Time Management magazine.

Tasks are central to a workday, after all that’s what work is: a collection of tasks that support the reason why any person is employed. But tasks have both an emotional and rational component, and when the two of these are not in sync, delays and inefficiencies occur.

The primary emotional component has to do with whether a person likes the task or not. The liking of a task can be linked to the actions of the task, its end result, or even the person or cause for which the task is being done. If a task is pleasurable, it is easier to take on. By contrast, tasks that are boring, disagreeable, or in some way not in sync with an individual’s motivations, become unpleasant and easy targets for procrastination or distraction. There is an instinctive aversion to unpleasantness that all humans experience.

There is a secondary emotional component at play as well, and this has to do with a person’s ability to actually anticipate with any degree of accuracy, just how long a task will take. Most people, by default are optimistic when it comes to time assessments. They believe a task or a meeting will just take an hour, when in fact twice that amount is necessary. Humans are equally bad judging distances and managing money. All of these things are too esoteric for the brain to handle.

This is why, in the project management world, tasks are broken down into units, often called Work Units. If a project manager recognizes that it takes an employee precisely six minutes to open a laptop, log on, locate a file, read the file, save it to a USB drive, eject the USB correctly and then log off the computer, that entire sequence, once tested a few times, can be identified as a Work Unit. Consequently, when planning the resources and time needed for a project, and when breaking project tasks down to their smallest discreet sizes, the project manager can calculate with reasonable accuracy how long things will take and how much they will cost.

People don’t do enough of this on a day-to-day basis. Imagine this, for example: an IT manager asks you how many emails per day you deal with. The first question becomes, “what do you mean, ‘deal with?’ Do you mean how many I receive, or send or both? So immediately there is vagueness around the task of handling email. If the project manager’s answer is “both,” then the answer often becomes, “Well, it depends on the day.” Only when pushed further will someone give a reasonably accurate answer: twenty per day. Fifty. One hundred.

The next question the project manager will ask is, “how long, on average, does each of these emails take?” This is obviously an unfair question, since emails vary from thirty seconds to many hours, if a request for extra work is involved. But that’s precisely the point. People often approach tasks in an ad hoc candid fashion, and the task of reading and responding to a new email distracts the reader emotionally. They no longer are aware of the time it takes to do something they are already caught up in.

The solution to all events that are dominated by emotion is to balance that emotion with logic. The logic in the case of emails is to categorize emails into four or more categories: ones that take less than thirty seconds, those that take up to two minutes, those that take up to five minutes, and those that require work/research/reading that will extend beyond fifteen minutes.

This last category of emails should no longer even be considered emails: they are appointments. If the work involved requires fifteen minutes (or more) then the email should actually be physically dragged across onto the face of the calendar to become an actual event. This makes it real, in the mind of the employee and of anyone else who might need that employee’s attention. This is real work, and must be treated as such.

As for the other categories of emails, these should be parsed – how many of each per day – and then assigned a block of time in the calendar.

Imagine that after analyzing email in this fashion over a sample two-week period, an employee recognizes that fully two hours of every day must be given over to email. What if she were to then block off a recurring two-hour block, every day, for email? It is quite a disturbing sight to see so much of a workday, possibly as much as twenty-five percent, being swallowed up by email alone. It forces the question, “is all of this email truly necessary, and if not, what can be done to trim it back?”

Obviously, no-one is expected to deal with their email in one contiguous two-hour block per day – that would be unrealistic. But identifying and symbolizing the total amount of time required per day helps counter the casual emotion-dominated approach people have to this particular task, and bring it down to earth with a thud, where they are better able to assess it more clinically.

This approach to task management – identifying work units inside casual activities, is not exclusive to email. It is recommended that all tasks of all types, from meetings to travel to self-directed work, be analyzed as work units, so that their durations can actually be planned and influenced in advance.

This is one of the keys to proactive time management, born out of the science of project management and applied to the day-to-day.

Where is Your BYOD-WiFi Meeting Policy?

April 23, 2014

Picture this. You are attending a meeting in a boardroom with ten other people. One person is standing at the head of the table, talking and pointing to the obligatory PowerPoint projection. You look around the table. Most of those in attendance are not looking at the presenter or the PowerPoint image at all. A couple of people are typing on their laptops, three are texting on their phones. Another has a tablet perched on his lap and is busy looking at something. One person who did not bring a computer is doodling a complicated pattern all over the margins of the meeting agenda.

What do you think of this? Is it rude? Bad meeting behavior? A poorly-run meeting? The result of ineffective planning, a weak chairperson or undisciplined employees? Most people would agree and express that such behavior is rude and shows no respect. But others might disagree.

What if one of the people typing on their laptops was taking notes? Not everyone takes notes with pen and paper anymore. What if the person with the tablet was fact-checking or seeking additional information based on what he had heard the presenter say? What if one of the people texting on his phone was putting out a fire in his department that would otherwise force him to withdraw from the meeting? And what if the guy who was doodling was doing just that – doodling? People process information differently, and doodling – which has been around a lot longer than portable technology has – might certainly indicate boredom, but might also indicate a need to keep moving while listening; a type of kinesthetic learning in which the body and eyes need to stay occupied while the ears listen. If one of the three people in this scenario who appeared to be texting on her phone was actually playing Angry Birds instead, would that be construed as meeting truancy or new-age doodling?

For centuries people have convened in physical meetings because, prior to the advent of electronic communication, this was the only way to share ideas collectively and in real time. To this day, people still get together in boardrooms and classrooms to talk and to listen and to learn. Human beings will likely continue to meet in person for as long as the species exists, for there are many benefits to physically assembling that simply cannot be replicated anywhere else.

However people do not have the time that they think they used to have; it is not as easy to commit to a one- or two-hour meeting and essentially block the rest of the world out for that period. Most people now ride a continually cresting wave of priorities and expectations, and to ignore them for the better part of an afternoon might bring more trouble than it is worth.

Yet the meeting mindset hasn’t changed much. In many organizations it is expected that attendees arrive on time, that they turn their cellphones to silent and that they sit, face-forward, ready to deliver their undivided attention. Maybe this is still the right way. Or maybe it isn’t. That is largely up to each individual company to decide.

Once that decision is made, what is then needed is a universal policy. If an organization is to stay “old-school” and require that everyone turn off their devices and face-forward, then this needs to be communicated as “meeting policy,” and not be merely expected or assumed. Employees today make their own assumptions. They prefer to use their own tools at work (a concept now called BYOD – bring your own device), so that documents, email and social media interaction arrive on the phone or tablet they themselves have bought, rather than the standard company issue. Hand-in-hand with this concept is the new-age flex-time attitude in which team members of all ages recognize that blocks of work can be done in many different ways at many different times: while standing in line at Starbucks, on the train, from home, at 2:30 p.m., or even 2:30 a.m.

This approach to mobility and self-determination inevitably leaks into corporate meeting culture to the point that it becomes automatic, as in “my phone is there to be used, and I am at this meeting to keep pace while – not instead of – doing something else.” Therefore if a company chooses to silence these devices, it must consciously and unambiguously re-introduce this silence.

On the flip side, if a company wants to play it cool by allowing people to bring and use whatever devices they desire into a meeting, a similar policy must be developed and broadcast, not only to ensure these technically-inclined people actually do agree to pay attention and to produce the required results by the end of the day, but also to inform those who may not share this technological enthusiasm, that bringing devices into a meeting is not rude anti-social behavior, but is in fact the new norm.

In both cases it is essential that people on both sides of the ideological fence are made aware of whatever rules the company decides upon. Rude behavior after all can best be defined by what it is not: it is behavior that does not align with social convention. But unless that convention is explicitly defined and universally recognized, there is nothing for people to refer to.

Ultimately it may be said (and has in fact been said many times) that nothing short of absolute forward-facing focus yields a productive meeting. However there are two factors that can substantially undermine such a blanket statement. The first is that meetings in general have held the title of the greatest time-waster in all of business for many decades, including those that preceded the advent of personal technology. So whatever we were doing prior to the arrival of the smartphone wasn’t working either. There was more doodling and smoking, but not necessarily more productivity.

Secondly, the fact is, these devices are here to stay. Companies that struggle to attract bright young professionals or indeed to keep their current star players cannot afford to expect that these highly mobile people, already well-versed in a high-speed multi-screen environment and used to receiving by-the-second feedback will be willing to sit stock-still for any period longer than 5 minutes. And why should they? Business moves at the speed of thought and if today’s employees don’t match up to the model of the traditional meeting scenario, it will have to be the meeting manager who blinks first.

Your Customer’s Experience During a Hack Attack

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In addition to my own posts, I also write for CloudTweaks, an authority on cloud computing. My most recent post forcuses on the need for cloud service providers to truly know what their customers feel, especially when under attack. Here is an excerpt:

One of the more dramatic and visible aspects of computing in the age of the cloud is the “attack.” Banks, governments, retailers and other high-profile organizations are hit regularly, in many cases daily, by hackers seeking either to steal data, as happened to Target and Tesco very recently, or to sabotage a site, as best illustrated by the Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks experienced by NATO and the freelancing website Elance.com just this week. Hacker attacks serve as a wakeup call to companies of any size, reminding IT managers and executives of the risks involved in doing business on a globally connected network.

For IT companies, another wake-up call comes from these stories: no matter which letter precedes their “aaS” moniker, as in SaaS, PaaS, DaaS, IaaS or even ITMaas, customers need to feel that they and their industry are understood. Take website design, for example. Websites have grown in sophistication and complexity in the two decades since CERN revealed the very first one  in 1995, but very often the designers of these sites forget the end user experience in favor of a sleek look and feel. Complicated forms, for example as might be offered by a mass transit company, incorporate data from Google Earth into a their own scheduling software in order to assist patrons in choosing the correct bus or train route. But if these forms do not work correctly on a particular device, an iPad or smartphone, for example, then the functionality and convenience is lost. Website designers worth their salt will incorporate a cast of “user profiles” in designing a site, including the student, the grandma, the busy executive, the newly arrived immigrant – all with a different approach to using technology, and with different challenges in understanding commands and procedures for using the site. They will also factor in the variety of user platforms, from old PCs through to the newest phones. Such awareness of a customer’s experience is crucial during both the design and testing phase and can make the difference between success and failure.

To read the full post, please visit CloudTweaks here.

CloudTweaks

 

My proposal to use the word “ford” as a leadership verb

For much of the past thousand years the term ford has been used either as a noun, referring to a shallow place in a river that is easy to wade through, thus not needing to build a bridge, or it has been used as a verb, describing the act of crossing a river at this same shallow place. In either case, one could project that it represents the conquest of a significant challenge by minimizing both work and planning, while leaving no structure in place to handle future needs.

This term comes so aptly to mind while observing the daily escapades of the current mayor of Toronto, who happens to have that word as his surname.

This blog is not intended to be an anti-Ford rant. It is intended instead to observe the curious action of avoiding the work of being accountable while holding a position of leadership; an act that a great many public figures, especially those on the political stage, display. In metaphorical terms, wading across a stream of challenge instead of building a bridge to address the problem.

For example, one of the most curious actions displayed by Mayor Ford is his constant trifecta of ignoring, avoiding and deflecting. Journalists who ask questions that he deems unwelcome are simply ignored. They are seldom greeted with a “no comment,” nor are they handed off to a press secretary or other spokesperson. They are simply ignored as if they had never been asked. When a press scrum becomes too unwieldy, the back-door is used for quick egress; and when a question is asked directly, as was the case on the now infamous Jimmy Kimmel appearance, the response takes the form of a deflection, as in:

Question: “Is there any validity to these accusations of domestic abuse, drunk driving, racism, homophobia and inability to tell the truth?”

Answer: “Is that all I got? I guess they don’t talk about all the money I’ve saved.”

Mr. Ford is by no means alone in his attempts to obfuscate through distraction and avoidance. One need only think back to President Clinton’s “Lewinsky moment” in which the term “sexual relations” was hastily redefined for the world, or the blatantly incorrect statements that were made by presidential candidate Romney and others during the 2012 debates – fact-checked and responded to in seconds, not days by the viewing audience – a concept that still seems to mystify politicians of every stripe.

There seems to thrive in the heart of so many these public figures a hope or belief that one can exist moment by moment – hopping across a stream one rock at a time – relying on the short memory of the public to draw away lasting liabilities of what might have been said or inferred.

One may argue that this is sound political strategy, after all the public has been known to actually have a short memory. But this does not play out so well in a wired world, where everyone can communicate with each other and PR handlers are no longer in control of a politician’s total image and legacy. Memory is now supplanted by connection, and words and images now have a tendency to echo.

Toronto Mayor Ford in LA. Image credit: Mayors' own Twitter page.

Toronto Mayor Ford in LA. Image credit: Mayors’ own Twitter page.

Take this image, for example. This photo shows the mayor of Toronto’s biggest city (and North America’s fourth or fifth largest, depending who you ask) standing meekly at the back of a room in the Los Angeles City Hall, where a council meeting was taking place. The Mayor, who had decided to drop in unannounced to City Hall was apparently unaware that his counterpart, Mayor Garcetti, was out of town on a trade mission of his own; Mayor Ford had apparently chosen not to set up appointments with Mr. Garcetti or with any of the film industry power-players, who would likely have given him a few minutes, given his status as leader of “Hollywood North.”

The photo is in many ways more damning that any of those from Mr. Kimmel’s program, because a certain degree of deer-in-the-headlights is to be expected when seated as a guest on any nationwide talk show.  But the City Hall photo shows something far worse than that. It shows a leader without status.

Leaders, both political and corporate, need status more than fame or notoriety. Status establishes credibility. It strengthens relationships, and delivers comfort and confidence to a population, to an employee base and to a customer base.  Without the credibility that comes from being able to answer a question with calm assurance, leadership vanishes, and the foundations start to crumble.

An answer does not have to be the desired one to have this effect; it simply has to be strong. In 1970, during the October Crisis, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau answered the question on how far he would go to suspend civil liberties by saying, “Just watch me.” Whether you agreed or not with Mr. Trudeau either then or now, the point remains that he maintained a position of leadership and confidence. He kept his status.

As I observe the Ford brothers’ daily act of ducking questions and responding with vitriol against the messenger or against a growing collection of perceived political foes, I see two people grasping the air as their feet slip on the rocks they chance to step upon. A person can feel sorry when observing such an act, but at the same time can wonder why they didn’t do more to build a more solid structure.

Any politician or public figure who prides him/herself on being a people-person, must take stock that to be a people-person requires more than just a love of the role. As the expression goes, if you wish to be spontaneous in life, plan to be spontaneous. To appear great, you have to figure out what greatness means. To show up without a plan means banking on the energy of the moment and condemning oneself to a legacy of doubt and mistrust in the hearts of the very people you seek to embrace.

A great many lessons can be learned from this new act of fording, in fact the Ford brothers’ greatest legacy might become the case study material they can provide through their actions, words and messages, on how not to lead. Anyone interested in taking over the helm of a department, a company or a political territory would do well to observe the overall results of fording and choose for themselves how much or how little they wish to use these techniques to win the hearts and minds of the people who exist there.

To extend the metaphor one last time, fording a stream only succeeds in getting your feet wet, and very few people will be truly willing to follow.

The Ancient and Future Art of Outsourcing and Collaboration

In addition to my own posts, I also write for ActionMint, an authority on cloud-based project management. Recently I posted an article on their blog concerning outsourcing and collaboration, and that it is an idea that goes back many centuries. Here is an excerpt:

Back in the age when the Romans ruled much of the world, there was a special place, located in what we now collectively call the Middle East, where three major roads met: the road leading northwest to Europe, the road leading south to Africa, and the road leading east to Asia. At the meeting place of these three roads was, so the story goes, a giant pole, upon which passers-by would post messages to other passers-by, in the hope and expectation that the private messages would be delivered to their destinations and that the public notices would be read and acted upon. Some people were looking for investors or business partners; others were selling goods from exotic places beyond the horizon. Others simply wished to leave messages about dangerous routes, commercial opportunities, distant tribes and peoples, and other information that was useful for travellers and traders at-large.

The information that was posted on this fabled pole became the common knowledge of those who needed to know. The place where the pole stood, at the junction of these three roads was called, in Latin, the Tre Via (the three roads), a word that through the ages became rounded down to trivia, and which has come to represent “common knowledge to the point of redundancy.”

The Tre Via could be seen as an early prototype of group communication and collaboration technology. There was no Internet back then, of course, no phones and no reliable mail service. Instead, this open pillar of knowledge stood accessible to all, and opportunities and synergies derived from its presence. The knowledge was not “unnecessary” as today’s definition of trivia might suggest, but simply available to many.

To read the full article, please visit the ActionMint blog here.

ActionMint