email overload

CoolTimeLife Podcast: Dynamic Email and Calendar Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CoolTimeLife Podcast: 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 Slow Movement and You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Speed into Perspective: Why Are We Racing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CoolTimeLife Podcast: 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 Law of Sharp Edges – Maximize Synergy by Framing a Conversation

There are many times when communicating via text or email is insufficient. The dynamics of human creativity are not one-dimensional. Thoughts and ideas must be echoed and bounced off one another so that we may experience and interpret the patterns that reverberate around us. Think, for example, how much more productive it is to “talk it out” with someone, rather than merely texting back and forth. Think also about how damaging it can be to keep feelings bottled up inside, or the complications that can arise from someone misinterpreting the tone of a text message. Creative thought thrives on the positive interference patterns that happen when two creative forces intersect. It falls away when given only a unidirectional track upon which to work.

Live conversation is essential for situations where there is something that needs to be created, agreed upon, resolved, or worked through. There is no real substitute.

When people contemplate getting together, whether face-to-face or over the phone, the thing that often puts them off is the fear of getting trapped in a conversation filled with small talk and irrelevancies. But it need not be that way. I use what I like to call The Law of Sharp Edges, which states that if you give someone a clear delineation – a guideline as to where things start and end rather than just a vague idea, they will be more likely to accommodate your request or behave as you would like them to.

Here’s a bad example: “Can I call you tomorrow?”

Here’s an excellent example: “Can I call you tomorrow at 2:00 for a 10-minute chat about the ABC project?”

The bad example puts people “on the hook for the entire day.” It’s like being on call. You know the event might

happen, but you don’t know when or for how long. This has a profound impact on your entire internal self-preservation system. Your instinct fears the unknown, and it’s not an overstatement to point out that something as simple as a vague phone call commitment is indeed an unknown. As such your body reflexively tenses itself for the interaction to come.

The excellent example removes the unknown and delivers three essential knowns – when it will be, how long it will last and what it will be about. It makes it a far more appealing thing to commit to since there are sharp edges surrounding the event. It is constrained and finite.

Such simple techniques will make a huge difference in productivity and process, by merely allowing the dynamic creativity of live conversation to flourish without fear. The many tools we have to facilitate live discussions, from meeting rooms to phones, video-conferences, online collaborative chat apps, even virtual presence devices like the Double (pictured) or Beam, still need to win someone’s attention through the most basic of concerns: “how will this hurt me and how will I benefit?” Once you can get such instinctive self-preservation needs out of the way, your conversation is free to do what it does best: make progress.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: How To Make More Things Go Your Way

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled How To Make More Things Go Your Way. We’ll talk about Michelangelo, Dilbert, jiu-jitsu and Steve Jobs, and your personal credit rating. All of these are  , influence, Steve Jobs. All of these will help describe how you can set the stage for a far more satisfying turn of events in your life. There’s no magic involved. Not even any force. But it is surprisingly easy and consistent.

How can you make more things go your way? We would all like that, but why does it seem so hard? The answer is twofold. First, you have to know how to set the stage. Second, the other people involved – and there are always other people involved – have to want to play along. In other words, they have to want to do what you want them to do. I’m not playing word games here, the issue is simply one of vision paired with influence. Influence is the art of getting people to change their actions through something far more subtle than brute force. Anyone can do it, but it does require a cool mind. To illustrate this, I have two brief stories for you. The first happens back in Renaissance Italy:

Florence, Italy, 1502. An enormous block of marble stood in the yard of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore. It had once been a magnificent piece of raw stone, but an unskilled sculptor had mistakenly bored a hole through it where there should have been a figure’s legs, mutilating it. Piero Soderini, Florence’s mayor, had contemplated trying to save the block by commissioning Leonardo da Vinci to work on it, or some other master, but had given up, since everyone agreed that the stone had been ruined. So, despite the money that had been wasted on it, it gathered dust in the dark halls of the church.

This was where things stood until some Florentine friends of the great Michelangelo decided to write to the artist, then living in Rome. He alone, they said, could do something with the marble, which was still magnificent material.

The great Michelangelo

Michelangelo traveled to Florence, examined the stone, and came to the conclusion that he could in fact carve a fine figure from it, by adapting the pose to the way the rock had been mutilated. Soderini argued this was a waste of time – nobody could salvage such a disaster – but finally he agreed to let the artist work on it. Michelangelo decided he would depict a young David, sling in hand.

Weeks later, as Michelangelo was putting the final touches on the statue, Soderini entered the studio. Fancying himself a bit of a connoisseur, he studied the huge work, and told Michelangelo that while he thought it was magnificent, the nose was too big.

Michelangelo realized Soderini was standing in a place right under the giant figure and did not have the proper perspective. Without a word, he gestured for Soderini to follow him up the scaffold. Reaching the face area, he picked up his chisel, as well as a bit of marble dust that lay on the planks. With Soderini just a few feet below him on the scaffold, Michelangelo started to tap gently with the chisel, letting the bits of dust he had gathered in his hand to fall little by little. He actually did nothing to change the nose, but gave every appearance of working on it. After a few minutes of this charade he called aside: “Look at it now.”

“I like it better,” replied Soderini, “you’ve made it come alive.”

In this story, Michelangelo sought to change the mind of his client not through confrontation, but by using his understanding of the Mayor’s ego to arrive at a satisfactory meeting of priorities. That’s influence.

This story, by the way is from my favourite book of all time, From The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene, p. 97-98, one of the best books ever written on the subject of human relationships.

It is so much easier to make things happen by pulling people along in the direction they want to go. It’s kind of like the martial art of Jiu Jitsu – in which defence and ultimate victory are attained not by trying to his someone with brute force, but by moving with the direction of the opponents blow, and actually using his own energy to destabilize him. It’s very elegant, to go with the momentum of the flow rather than place yourself as a solid target.

Dilbert’s Murphy Chair

So here’s a second story, and this is one that often gets a laugh during my speeches.  And for this one, I owe thanks to Scott Adams, the cartoonist behind Dilbert, as well as the office furnishings company IDEO. A few years back, IDEO, and Adams teamed up to design the “ultimate cubicle – the perfect workspace.

Of the many features available in this design, one of the most intriguing was the “Murphy chair.” Its premise was simple. Rather than having a second chair in the work area of the cubicle, the Murphy chair was actually a panel that would fold down from the cubicle wall to create a seating space, in much the same way a Murphy bed folds out of a wall to create a bedroom. From an influence perspective, the most fascinating feature of the Murphy chair was that it was wired to the telephone in the cubicle, so that a few minutes after the seat was “deployed,” it made the phone ring, thereby prompting the visitor to understand: it’s time to go.

The seat-phone connection is a tool of influence – making or reminding a visitor of the need to leave due to a socially acceptable and higher-priority situation: “Oh your phone’s ringing. I should get going.”

Technology appeals to an inner set of instinctive priorities, and influences people to behave immediately. Although there’s a good deal of humor built into the design, it highlights a classic opportunity. Influence happens best when motivation comes from inside the other person, rather than being placed upon them.

There are many ways these lofty concepts can be integrated into daily life to ensure people behave and cooperate with you to help you achieve your goals. Here are just a few very doable actions.

Make things tangible. Just like Scott Adam’s chair, tangibility goes a long way in giving people a common vision.  Start with your calendar. If you want time to be left alone to get work done without interruption, make sure your colleagues or clients can see your calendar. It should have some times blocked off, and some times intentionally left open. It is much easier to get someone to come back if you give them visible proof of your availability and steer them towards those spaces.

Give them the comfort of the known. If you want to talk to someone, or have a phone call, give them an exact time and duration of the call. Let them understand this will not be a vague, never-ending conversation, but will instead be a fixed amount of time. A very low risk undertaking.

Don’t Overload People

If you want people to respond to your requests, do not overload them. Many people try to send too much information at one time, especially in emails. The simple rule should be a 1-2-3-4 approach like this: follows:

  1. Include only one message. If you tell someone more than one idea in an email, they will most likely forget all but one of the items, or even delay acting on any of them. It’s just too much. Even though it appears on the surface to be more efficient to cram a bunch of ideas into one message, the opposite is true. If you have three different messages to send to people, send them in three separate emails. So again, step 1 – one message.
  2. Use bullets. Those little black dots are excellent in guiding the eye around a page. The human eye is an amazing device, but it likes to conserve energy. It is drawn to graphic objects much more quickly than it is to text. This means your bullet symbols will result in less distraction by your reader.
  3. Tell your reader three times. Yes, three. Just like your high-school teacher might have taught you when preparing a report or an essay. You tell your readers what you are about to say, then you tell them then you tell them what you just told them. In the context of an email, this means your subject line should completely summarize, in 12 words or less, what your message is. Ideally, your reader should not have to read the email at all, if the subject line does its job properly. In fact, it’s a good idea to go on that assumption. The shorter and the clearer, the better.

Next you tell your story, in no more than three paragraphs, with the opening paragraph covering your key message, and the second paragraph providing support material or evidence. Again, assume your reader is not going to read the entire paragraph, but will just read the first line. Write accordingly.

At the end of your email, ideally as a PS., a post-script following your signature, tell them again. Give your reader a kick in the pants on the way out. This sounds severe, but it has always been a principle of human nature that attention spans are short, and memory is unreliable. This is doubly true in the age in which social media, texting, and other technologies threaten to take your reader’s attention away before you are finished with them.

  1. Make sure your email is entirely visible on one screen – the 4 items – the opening – Dear Steve, the bulleted paragraphs, the signature, and the Post Script should all be visible without scrolling. Why is this important? Because once again, is removes a fear from your reader. A fear of the unknown – how long is this email going to be? A fear of commitment. A fear of losing too much time.

Even though an email is a written message, it should be thought of more as a graphic advertisement, something whose visual appearance shouts, Hey, this is not that hard! You can do this.

Remember we are talking her about how to make things go your way. Getting people to read your emails and act upon them quickly goes a long way towards achieving your goals in this area.

Your Personal Credit Rating

But there’s something else. Something more human than email, and that has to do with your credit rating. Not the financial one that you use to borrow money, but your personal rating.

If you want things to go your way, you have to think about how people relate to you and how you want them to relate to you.

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

  • Reciprocity: you give something to me, I feel obliged to give back. I put out my hand to and you feel obliged to shake it.
  • Commitment and consistency: developing and sticking to habits or people that we know and have become comfortable with. Politicians very seldom change their hairstyle or clothing style once in office. They know people put faith in a consistent and reliable image that must not change, even a little bit, from day to day.
  • Social proof: we decide upon the correct action or opinions based on what others are doing. We see people wearing a certain fashion, most of us want to wear that. We ask for a recommendation for a good restaurant and we believe that you know what you’re talking about when you name a place.
  • Authority: we believe in and react to the authority of another. We know he or she is the boss or the leader and we respond accordingly.
  • Scarcity: we act now out of the fear that the opportunity might not exist in the future. Advertising is full of this: “order now, supplies are limited,” or these sale prices will not last.

And finally, there is Liking: we like to work with people we like. This is my favorite one and I think it is the most successful. People like to work with people they like. This doesn’t mean “love” nor does it mean an excessive devotion. But it refers to comfort and respect. If I acknowledge your hard work, if I talk to you face to face and genuinely listen to what you have to say, if I make you feel comfortable and respected, you are likely to respond with greater comfort and trust towards me.

This again is not something I wish to use as a tool of manipulation, but the truth is, if I need you to show up on time, or provide me with your part of the project, complete and on time, or if I need you to fill in for me, or if I simply want you to read and respond to my messages promptly – and possibly prioritize them higher than the others, the odds are better you will do this if you like me to some degree, rather than fear me.

I mentioned in a previous podcast that I believe the concept of leadership really comes down to one word: acknowledgement. People like to be acknowledged, and they will indeed reciprocate.

Now it could be said that many highly successful people such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett made their billions by not necessarily being the nicest person in the room. I have never met them, so I don’t know how nice they may be. They became influential through social proof and authority. If you are in the same camp as these guys, that’s great. Use what you’ve got. But most people will not become the mega-giants of industry that Steve, Bill and Warren are. Most will instead carve out a career as part of a machine, not as the owner of the machine. Most people will judge their own success on a combination of elements, including financial security, job satisfaction, family and health.

If you can invest some of your time into the nurturing of relationships – invest part of that 80/20 rule I’m always talking about, you will build a collection of people that not only know you, but who also have positive feelings about you, feelings that you can capitalize on in an ethical and mutually beneficial way. People who like you are the people who will find opportunities for you and who will support and guide you.

I hope you will see that these topics extend well beyond the world of email and meetings. They can be applied to all aspects of life. They just need that cool clear head that keeps you aware of your surroundings and your great capacity to influence the world around you, and in turn, your future.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled How to Make More Things Go Your Way. 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.

Break Down Large Tasks and Backlogs Through Carryover Momentum

2nd-Edition-Cover-FrontThe power of planning is an amazing thing. Whatever day of the week it is as you read these lines, think back to what you were doing 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.

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 hour per day to a project, you wouldn’t feel that much headway had been achieved after the first hour on the first day. But if you were able work on the project one hour each workday for a month, that’s 20 hours, or two-and-a-half full business days. For larger scale projects, that one-hour per day, even with weekends and holidays off, becomes 250 hours in a year, or the equivalent of one month’s worth of workdays. That’s a lot of time!

The reason why this technique is called carryover momentum goes back once again 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 and weaknesses 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. Its treatment is tangible, logical knowledge, represented by a simple calendar. By laying out a collection of one-hour blocks across a calendar (larger blocks for larger projects), it becomes possible to map the project across time, and assign tasks accordingly. Where once you had a mountain blocking your view, you now have a mountain with a staircase carved into it.

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. If you would like to listen to my podcast, check it out here. Either way, you will win back time and money. It’s just practical common sense.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: Are You Conscious?

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Are You Conscious. 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.

Are you conscious? I don’t mean, are you awake? I mean are you really conscious? Are you in the moment? Are you able to know what is going on around you and pro-act accordingly?

This is an essential part of getting things done the way you want them to be done, but it is something that so often gets terribly overlooked. We have become overrun by external stimuli like emails and texts, as well as the simple momentum of life, to the point that, in many cases, we simply react. But being a slave to reaction is very expensive. In this podcast, I want to share with you why that is so dangerous and counterproductive, and what you can do to turn this around. But first, let’s go to the airport.

Imagine yourself for a moment in the departure lounge of an airport. You are rushing to catch a connecting flight, half-jogging to the gate and pulling your wheeled carry-on bag behind you. A sign on the wall catches your eye. It says “Beware! There are pickpockets in this area.”

Now what is the thing you are most likely to do at this moment? If you are like 95% of the traveling public you will instinctively reach for your wallet, your purse or the breast pocket of your blazer – wherever you remember your money to be.

Bad move. That is precisely what a good pickpocket wants you to do. This is the reaction they are looking for. In fact, the first priority for any ambitious pickpocket is to locate the nearest warning sign or maybe even bring one with them, and stand near it, since this is where success happens.

Human beings are hard-wired to react, especially to dangerous or threatening stimuli. The threat of a pickpocket in the area immediately forces the unsuspecting passer-by to touch the location where the money is stored, as an attempt to neutralize the threat by ensuring the money is still there. But by doing so, the passer-by is basically saying to the pickpocket, “Hey, thief, my money is here, OK?” and pointing at it.

The reaction gives away precisely what the pickpocket wants: the correct location of the goods.

In this situation, the unsuspecting traveler reacts as all living creatures do. Alerted to danger, instinct takes over. The pickpocket on the other hand, pro-acts, anticipating the turn of events and setting a trap. The thief is writing the history of the next few minutes even before they happen. The thief anticipates the reaction of all but the coolest of airport travelers and communicates an influential message by way of the warning sign itself. A perfect trap.

In the working world, the challenges we experience with managing time come from this same reality – the one that says we must react. When emails come in, we feel compelled to read them. It’s a reaction based on an instinct that addresses our fear of the unknown. When someone interrupts, we feel obliged to respond. When a meeting planner books a meeting, we feel obliged to go, even if it messes up the entire afternoon. Reaction makes us follow the calendar’s commands. This is neither healthy nor productive.

Think about Phishing emails.

Phishing emails are a modern day equivalent of pickpocketing and are the conduit for a wide variety of common business crises, like hacking, data breaches and ransomware. You check your email and see a message that looks very legitimate – it has the logo and everything – and says, “your bank account has been frozen,” or even “Job application, please click here to download my résumé.” Without thinking, you click on the link and the malware pours into your system because rather than stopping and thinking about this, you react, click, and invite the bad guys in.

Pro-action, by contrast, can put you back in the driver’s seat, and back in control. This is such a crucial part of life, work, productivity and online security.

The Physiology of Being in – or not in – Control

There is a physiological response that happens when you and your body sense that you are at a particular level of control – that danger has been put aside. When this happens, it feels good. Nutrient, oxygen, blood – they all move where they need to go and they do so more efficiently. This means to the brain, certainly, but also to the digestive system, and many other vital areas. When you feel good, your body feel good. When your body feels good, it works best.

So let’s look at things from the opposite side. When an email, an interruption or any sort of distraction happens to you, your instinct response with a fight-or-flight reflex that we have known and felt for hundreds of thousands of years. During this response, you stop thinking clearly. All of the nutrients and all of the elements that are distributed reasonably equally around your body are quickly removed to other places. The blood, nutrients and oxygen in your brain are shift over to the amygdala – the anger center of the brain, to immediately handle this unexpected urgency.

  • Digestion tends to stop or low to a crawl
  • Vision goes into “tunnel vision”
  • Your ability to prioritize tasks or actions freezes up

All these things happen as soon as you start to feel not in control. It’s a significant physiological response.

The Art of Saying “No.”

“No” is one of the hardest words in the English language, because so often, saying it leads to conflict or problems. It can be an insult, a challenge to another person’s dignity, made even worse if this person is your boss, your customer or your partner. It might even lead to confrontation and bad feeling.

But you can look at the word “No” as being a shortened version of the word Negotiate. Everything in life can be negotiated. There are alternatives, there are deadline extensions there are other alternatives to taking care of a task. Everything that has been loaded onto your plate can be negotiated.

It’s a matter of managing peoples’ expectations in a way that makes them feel they are still being looked after, even if the conditions of the request have been changed to something more manageable.

But if you are not in that conscious state, if you are still in the fight-or-flight-response mode, then there will be no creative space for coming up with alternatives. It’s about keeping a cool head. Being able to think clearly requires a capacity for, and a genuine sense of being in control.

Once you have that, you are able to influence peoples’ decisions, negotiate alternative outcomes, and steer things to a more comfortable and productive conclusion than that which happens when reaction is the only choice.

Fight-or-flight represents pickpocketing in real life. Your time and your mental capacity are being stole from you because of reaction and fear.

Remembering Peoples’ Names

One of the most significant and treasures words in the English language – or any language for that matter – is a person’s name, interjected at the right place and time. Inserting a person’s name into a conversation demonstrates to them that you have genuine care and interest in them. All human beings have two sides: an emotional side and a rational side. The emotional side always dominates. The most powerful emotion of all is fear. This is why we get caught up and get disoriented in moments of uncertainly and confusion. Fear rules everything.

But no matter what line of business you are in, no matter how rational and logical you feel yourself to be, the people you react with and the people with whom you work, the people that you serve – customers, clients, managers, colleagues, everyone – they are all emotionally driven. When you can contact that emotional base, you make a far more profound connection with them.

This turns into an increased willingness for people to cooperate with you, to participate in projects or meetings, all the positive reactions that come from this positive feeling. So keeping a cool head generally means that whenever you can address people by name, as emotional beings, they will want to work with you. They will in essence love you for acknowledging ther dignity and moving with them in a way that motivates them.

So one of the easiest ways to do that is to remember someone’s name and use it in your conversation.

But there’s a catch. Often, when you meet someone and they introduce themselves by name, you will have forgotten it 30 seconds later. Tat happens because the act of meeting someone involves a physical protocol. It varies among countries, but for many of us it involves a short handshake, a small amount of eye contact and a light smile. This is a trained action that you have committed to physical muscle memory. It does not require any conscious processing. So when you hear a person’s name, there is no conscious processing that confirms “I must memorize this.”

When you can insert that person’s name – not overly frequently but just toward the conclusion of the conversation, the message is, “I care about you enough to remember your name – to remember you as a specific person. That word – a person’s name – carries a huge weight.

The trick to remembering peoples’ names is – as you shake hands, and as you hear the person’s name, you do a word association trick. You connect a person’s name to something about them – their hairstyle their clothing, their glasses or jewelry, maybe a physical resemblance to someone you know, or knew in high school, or a TV or movie character. It’s a silent word association game that will allow you to connect to this person’s name, at least for the duration of the conversation.

It’s a fantastic trick that you can do with dozens of people at a time, at a networking meeting, for example. But only after you have practiced this skill.

The point is, you must remember to remember to do it! That’s the trick. If you go into a conversation and shake hands with a stranger while you’re still in in reactive mode, you won’t remember to do this. That’s where the word association and memory component will come in – when you remember to stay in pro-active mode.

When you do this successfully, you will move up on this person’s emotional checklist of “liked” people. You will come across as someone who cares, someone who is interesting, and someone  who they wish to work with.

The Bottom Line

You have much to gain from stepping away from reaction and replacing it with pro-action and cool thought. Your entire body will thank you for it and will support you.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Are You Conscious? 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.

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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.

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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.