email overload

Text Messaging in the 1700s and How it Affects You Today

This is an article that accompanies my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Raising the Bar of Expectation. If you want to listen to it while you drive somewhere, you can access it here.

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. Ecommerce 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.

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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.

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.

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.

Time Management: 50,000 years overdue for an upgrade

2nd-Edition-Cover-FrontThe reason why time management problems happen is very basic and very ancient. We, as human beings, exist in a body type that hasn’t changed much in terms of design in the last 50,000 years. Our mind, nervous system, and stomach still react as they did when the ability to make fire was big news. Though our collective knowledge has progressed enough to invent computers and nuclear power, our inner workings have not kept pace. We react every time an email or text arrives, because it’s a new stimulus, just like a noise in the bushes.

This has exact parallels with the growing obesity trend seen worldwide: our innate autonomic urge to store energy as fat in case of future famine has not evolved to cope with the abundance of overly refined fast food, combined with sedentary jobs and labor-saving devices. It’s an ancient body trying to keep up in a new ecosystem.

Thus to handle time management problems today – in the information age, the age of sensory overload, we must enter a new stage in our human evolution. We need a system that approaches things from the inside out: that is, by looking at what makes human beings tick, both as individuals, and as part of a community. Only then can prioritization, work-life balance, productivity and the other productivity grails become achievable. The solutions to our time management problems have to do with human relationships.

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.

Redefining “Results”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Focus

Focus is not a natural human activity; it must be learned and perfected, inside and out. For example, anyone who has ever asked a four-year-old child to sit still for five minutes knows that this is a virtually impossible task. The body and mind need to move, and young children, not yet yoked by the social obligations that come with maturity, express their desire to shift and fidget with great predictability.

We may all grow older, but that internal desire to fidget and move still remains. It is an offshoot of the primordial need to be aware of and reactive to our environment, to be able to avoid danger and pounce upon opportunity as needed. Focus is too narrow to be of use as a survival tool.

This is bad news for harried professionals, desperately seeking a few moments of focus in the midst of a busy day. If by some chance quiet descends upon the workplace, we know it will not last long, for soon another email will arrive, another colleague or customer will come to call, or another issue will make its presence known. The tasks that require total concentration will get put off once again, resulting in a decrease in overall productivity and a corresponding dip in morale.

Attaining focus requires an ability to conquer both internal and external detractors, which, fortunately have one thing in common: people.

  1. To develop true focus, you first have to fend people off.

People are the sources of interruptions, and interruptions are external destroyers of focus.

You must basically be able to tell people to leave you alone for a set period of time. This is not as career-limiting as it sounds. Although colleagues may not sympathize with your busy-ness, their own self-interest will be comforted by your announcement of an end-time: “I will be available at 11:00” sounds much more accommodating than “go away and leave me alone.” By giving people a fixed “known” instead of a vague “unknown”, their expectations can be managed and their actions can be guided. Similarly, use your voicemail greeting to inform callers as to when they can expect a return call, and inform people verbally that you generally reply to emails and texts within an hour or so. Give them a sense of when they can expect attention from you. If you do not give them this guideline, they will revert to the automatic expectation of immediate response, which puts you back in the corner. The goal is to fend off intrusions by satisfying their fear of the unknown (as in “when will I get a reply?”) in advance.

This keep-away approach allows you to work guilt-free, knowing that the needs of your colleagues and customers have been proactively met; working guilt-free minimizes stress, which tends to maximize the distribution of nutrients and oxygen to the processing areas of the brain, which results in greater capacity to focus.

  1. Once you have successfully fended off external interrupters, you must next fend off internal distractors – these are self-initiated destroyers of focus, as follows:
  • Visual distraction: align your body and vision to allow only the work at hand to fill your field of vision. Looking up and around not only allows your mind to become distracted, but making eye contact with passers-by is the clearest of invitations for a drop-in visitor, not only now, but into the future as well. If you fear being perceived as anti-social when you adopt such a closed position, take the time to inform your colleague in advance as to what you are doing and why. They might be interested in adopting these practices themselves.
  • Auditory distraction: use headphones to play music, white noise or pink noise to mask the ambient sounds around you. Since most of us are not capable of tuning out the sounds around us, a “cone of concentration” is the next best thing. There is a terrific selection of music for working and concentrating available online, and even if your office does not allow streaming, many of these can be downloaded for playback later through your phone or music player. Headphones or ear buds, by the way, make excellent props that say “do not disturb.”
  • Moving to a neutral space such as a coffee shop also offers great potential for focus, since the ambient noise of a coffee shop is generally sufficiently neutral to become a curtain of comfortable sound.
  1. Know your attention span. People have different capacities for focus. Some people can work for hours without a break. Artists such as painters, composers, film editors and writers sometimes call this “flow” – the tunnel vision of creativity. Others call it “getting into the groove.” But if you find yourself needing a break after twenty minutes, do not despair. It is more important that you know yourself and the activities that you are capable of. For example, to work for twenty minutes and then to take a two-minute break, gives a type of pause and refreshment on par with rest between sets of exercise at the gym; it gives the body the opportunity to move forward without exhaustion. So, as paradoxical as it may sound, one of the best contributors to effective focus may actually be regular breaks. Just be sure these breaks are initiated and controlled by you, not someone else. That makes all the difference.
  2. Break your work up over days or weeks. If you are dealing with a long-term project that requires many hours of focused work, consider scheduling the work as a recurring activity, such as every weekday between 3:00 and 4:00. By making it an appointment in your calendar, this activity defends its existence against intruders such as other meetings or commitments; but more importantly, human memory is very good at picking up where it left off, thus minimizing setback and capitalizing on a “momentum of focus” that carries over from day-to-day.

To prove this concept, think about what you were doing “this time last week.” No matter what time of the day, or day of the week that you are reading this article, it is likely that if you think back to what you were doing exactly one week ago, you might find yourself asking the question, “was that really a week ago?” That is due to a variation of human situational memory that tends to build bridges across time, when recognizing familiar landmarks. The same reaction will happen when you revisit a place that you have not been to for a decade or more; familiarity and recall will make it seem like “just yesterday” that you were here, even if the trees have become larger and certain buildings have changed.

In sum, focus can be bridged the same way, across days and weeks, giving larger projects a chance at succeeding.

  1. Park extraneous thoughts, do not ignore them. If, while working on Task A, an idea regarding Task B pops into your head, then take a moment to write it down before continuing. This phenomenon is very likely, since the brain does a great deal of its processing obliquely, when not focusing on the problem at hand. Consequently, since your mind is not focusing on Task B, it is more relaxed about that task and is more likely to come up with ideas and solutions pertaining to it.

By acknowledging this idea and committing it to either paper or a saved file, you give yourself permission to let go of the idea and move on. By contrast, if you struggle to keep that idea in your head, you will do a disservice to both Tasks A and B, by reducing the processing capacity available for Task A, and ultimately forgetting the bright idea that you had for Task B.

Furthermore, by recording this good idea, you actually create space for additional good ideas, which becomes another paradox of great focus. By focusing on one task, you actually open yourself up to creativity on other task fronts as well.

Ultimately it must be recognized that focus is by and large a practiced skill. We as humans must remember how to do it, when to do it, and what external and internal detractors must be addressed and dealt with in order to set the stage for undisturbed processing to happen. This “practiced skill” will eventually lengthen the amount of time that you personally have for great focus, first, socially, by addressing the habits and expectations of the people around you, and next by flexing and strengthening the internal “muscles” of concentration, which, like all other muscles in the body, thrive and grow through increased use.

What can BitCoin teach about Teaching?

Have you heard of BitCoin? It’s a virtual currency that is taking the word by storm. In the course of just the last 12 months is has transformed itself from a mysterious tool used largely by international organized crime rings to an increasingly legitimate form of money that is being accepted in by a range of businesses from airlines to pubs. Whether BitCoin itself actually becomes the new world currency remains to be seen, but close on its heels are about a thousand other sophisticated virtual currencies, all vying to become the new age alternative to gold, the US dollar or the pound sterling.

What can BitCoin teach us about change in the workplace? A great deal, with the simplest lesson being that change is happening. As new generations enter the workforce for the first time, their expectations around professional development, career advancement, loyalty to an employer, relationships with managers, clients and colleagues, and work-life balance will differ substantially from those who have ten or even five more work experience.

When it comes to your Professional Development strategies for 2014 and beyond, it is essential you choose a company that understands the needs of today’s learner. Interaction, customization and learning according to one’s own personal style have never been more critical. Many of the old-school “training centres” remain stuck in a 1970’s style of classroom delivery, using PowerPoint, canned breakout exercises and paper handouts in an effort to ensure at least 10% of the curriculum remains in students’ heads by the end of the day and beyond.

At The Bristall Group we have always focused on the fact that every employee sent for “training” is an individual, with specific approaches to learning, and that one size does not fit all. We always encourage pre-session input from employees and managers, we continue to maintain our two-decades-old tradition of unlimited mentorship, and our use of social media and wifi connectivity allows individuals to learn, maintain dialogue, and retain information far more successfully.

Please consider us as a viable and highly efficient alternative to traditional large-scale training centres. We have been around long enough to have built a strong curriculum of highly effective and useful courses, but we remain young enough to ensure that the information is delivered in a method that connects with students of all ages, as individuals and as teams.

You Have 40 Days to be Productive this Year

Now that the holiday season is largely behind us, it’s time to think about getting back to work – just for now at least. We have eight long weeks to suffer through before we can turn to our kids’ reading-week schedules for some mid-spring time-off. Then we must all hold on until the summer vacation season, which will carry us through to that annual four-month shopping bonanza, jump-started by back-to-school sales and spurred on by Halloween and Thanksgiving that thrusts us most expeditiously once again into full-on Christmas. This grand-slam of distraction and indulgence careens uncontrolled through the entire Fall, cloaked first in adorable “goodwill-to-men” attire, but soon skidding into January, stripped down to its seedy “Boxing Week Blowout” skivvies, in order to squeeze those last few remaining dollars – be they in cash or on the bulging-end of a credit card balance – back into retailers’ tills before the taxman sucks them away in the sour-grey surge that is tax season. This is not to say we are not deserving of breaks; those of us who are lucky enough to still have full-time jobs, those of us who freelance, and those of us who are looking for work – we all have stuff to get done.

The problem is, as we look across the virgin expanse of a newly christened, post holiday calendar, it seems that we now actually have a year to get done all that needs to get done, when nothing could be further from the truth. It’s surprising just how little time is actually available for productive work. There may be fifty-two weeks in the year, but precious little of that is available to help motivated people generate the type of productivity required to truly thrive.

In fact, when you total things up, as I am about to do, there exists, for many of us, only 40 days of productivity available per year. That’s it. Even for those of us who want to do more, or those of us who think we are doing more by multitasking or by doing extra catch-up work in the evenings – we may indeed be working more hours, but “work” is not the same as productivity. And when you look at the job title printed on your business card, remember it reflects your productivity potential,not the hours you spend working. There’s a big difference.

The forces that battle against true productivity are often invisible, but that doesn’t mean they are without substance, for they sit on your calendar and occupy time – a resource you can never get back. In general, they occupy most of your time, devouring it without reservation and leaving  you with just a small fraction of the original: 40 days. I would propose to you that most people, regardless of – or perhaps because of their desire to be busy, to feel busy and to be seen to be busy, only receive 40 days of productivity per year. Here’s what I mean:

Start with the 365 days generally available in each calendar year. Assuming most jobs hire you for just 5 days per week, subtract 104 days for your non-working “weekend” days. This leaves 261. According to many industry analysts most people take an average 10 days per year for personal or sick days. This amount varies between public and private sectors, so I have chosen an average of 10, and subtracted it from 261, resulting in 251 days.

There are numerous public holidays per year depending on where you live. I will again choose 10, and will subtract that from 251 to get 241 days, since most people generally do not work, even from home, on these days.

Next comes the “Friday effect.” For the 42 weeks that do not have a public holiday attached to them, there exists the Friday afternoon, in which at least 20% of productivity is lost due to the downward slide toward the weekend. The very human need for rest combines with the cumulative effects of sleep deprivation, stress and email backlog to reduce productivity substantially. The same thing, by the way happens on Monday mornings, during which we must ramp back up from the weekend. Humans generally have a hard time hitting the ground running, which is why more heart attacks happen on a Monday. Thus, 42 Fridays and 42 Mondays multiplied by 20% lost equals just about17 days, subtracted from our current total of 241 to yield 225.

The Friday effect also applies to the public holidays, of course, but with greater impact. Starting with drive-time morning radio show hosts breathlessly proclaiming the long weekend to come, we slide through an increasingly distracted week, culminating in both the day prior to, and the day following a holiday in which people cannot help but be forced into a 50% productivity mode, due to the slowing of normal business processes. If we were to again be conservative in this assessment, this 50% effect happens 10 times a year, which can easily amount another 5 days lost. This brings our total down from 225 to 220.

This applies with even greater ferocity during the actual Christmas/New Years period, whether you personally celebrate Christmas or not. Twenty days between December 20 and January 1, each losing on average 20% productivity, removes 4 more days (more, if you or your team take time off during this period). So let’s go with 4 days, to become 216.

All of this might be both acceptable and bearable if the remaining 216 days were used to their maximum efficiency, but sadly that is not the case. Many thousands of people have admitted to me over the years that only a quarter of any day can be truly given over to real productivity, with the remainder consumed by email, meetings, delays, travel, ToDo’s, drop-in visitors, and other non-important but time-consuming activities. One-quarter of 216 is 54.

Finally it is essential to factor in physiological contributors to time loss such as cumulative sleep deprivation, stress, overload, fear, multitasking, distraction, poor eating habits, illness, conflict and boredom, which means that any given time, peoples’ capacity for productivity is at only 75% at best. And 75% of 54 is 40.

Thus we come to the magic number of 40 days of productivity per year. This is pretty shocking, given how much we expect of ourselves and how much we are expected to do. It can also be argued that my numbers don’t apply to everybody, and that they could easily be rejected under the “lies, damned lies and statistics” maxim. And if I had made all of this up, then such a rejection might be plausible. But after teaching people Time Management and Project Management for two decades, it is not me but you who have provided these data to me. Our days, which seem so full of promise and potential are in fact littered with roadblocks and barriers, most of which go unnoticed by the sheer momentum of our desire to work.

The good news is that productivity can be vastly increased beyond this 40-day mark, but it requires a combination of planning and communication skills along with a decision to pro-act rather than react to all aspects of life around us. As with many life changing events, it has to start with a sober, realistic look at what is really going on and then both the desire and the techniques to implement change.