email

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: 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.

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.

What does Time Management Have in Common with Football?

2nd-Edition-Cover-FrontHumans are social creatures by nature, so we tend to invite and enjoy conversation, distraction, and mental stimulation: the joke-of-the-day-email from a friend, the water-cooler chat, social media. These things provide a few moments of leisure, but they do come with a price, for after they have passed, the work still remains to be done, and we are then forced to stay late, take work home, or make other sacrifices to catch up.

Most of us are trained in a skill and then join the workforce. We continue to learn though training and professional development courses, as well as practical experience, hopefully building a stable career and putting food on the table. However, another, more sinister type of learning also happens. While we integrate ourselves into the corporate culture of the company, we start to adopt the habits and norms of our peers, including many latent, long-established time inefficiencies are passed on through osmosis.

Consequently, it takes us by surprise when we learn for the first time that most people “work” for about one-third of the hours that they spend “at work,” meaning they actually will get only 3 hours of measurable work done in an eight- or nine-hour day.  Though this at first seems to be an affront to our ambitions, it doesn’t actually refer to a lack of dedication or drive. The average business day is littered with productivity roadblocks such as meetings, email, and drop-in visitors, conflicts and staff issues, technology problems and crises, all of which, though they may be considered as part of the work for which we are being paid, occur in irregular and unpredictable ways, breaking up the momentum of work and stretching tasks further and further along our calendar. The difference between how much we think we’ve done and how much work we have actually achieved is surprising.

But three hours? That’s a small fraction of a day to be counted as productive work in the purest sense of the word. It’s like taking a stopwatch to a football game. Over the course of a four-hour game, between the downs, the line changes and the time-outs, the ball is actually only in play for about twenty minutes – a very small segment of the game’s entire span.

During the course of a workday, these things happen:

  • 25 percent of people’s time is spent doing actual work;
  • 15 percent of the day is spent responding to email and voicemail;
  • 15 percent of the day is spent on the phone;
  • 20 percent of the day is spent in meetings and conversations;
  • 25 percent of the day is spent preparing for those meetings or dealing with the follow-up.

The fact that such a relatively small amount of the workday is spent doing actual planned work is often overlooked until the time comes that someone is called upon to make an estimate on the delivery date of a project. In an attempt to please a potential new client, it is easy for you or your boss or your sales rep to say, “We can have that to you by Thursday.” In fact, if you had nothing else to do, and could work on this client’s needs exclusively for eight uninterrupted hours a day, you probably could have it ready for Thursday. But that’s being way too optimistic, and that’s where the problems happen. We have to be realistic, and even a little bit pessimistic. We don’t know what other crises might happen between now and Thursday, but we can count on a few simple truths:

  • Things always take longer than you think, and a lot longer than you hope.
  • If someone asks you to do something and includes the word “just”, as in “can you just…” you’re already in trouble.
  • There will never be a perfect time to get it done.

Time management is a two-word term, and the second word is “management.” We need to exert proactivity and  influence over people and activities if any progress is to happen. The good news is, this is both possible and quite easy.

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.

If you are interested, we have a newsletter –  a real brief monthly one – that discusses issues around productivity and explains how my keynotes can help. Sign up through Constant Contact here.

Yahoo Password Theft: A reminder to keep passwords safe

On January 31, Yahoo announced that a major theft of password data  – from a third party database – had compromised an undisclosed number of accounts. This link takes you to a blog I posted at CloudTweaks.com, an authority on all things cloud. Here is an excerpt:

With technology getting increasingly more sophisticated and instantaneous, it remains a permanent horserace between those who wish to use the Internet for business, entertainment and life, and those who wish to use it to create destruction, or to fuel crime. To the bad guys, everything is an opportunity. Consider online payments, for example. Most ordinary online consumers, when preparing to pay with their credit card, carefully check to ensure the presence of the “https://” marker at the beginning of a page’s address, which signifies sufficient encryption, and they then carefully type their credit card number into the panel reserved for just such a purpose.

Bad guys, however, see that credit card number window as something much more: it’s an open channel to a much bigger matrix. By entering a different set of code into that same space, they are able to convince the computers on the other side that they should be let in to distribute their payload. It’s known as an SQL injection. Where most people see a single-purpose form, they see a doorway. That is the difference, and it is something that must remain top of mind for all managers, not just those in IT. Passwords, much like bicycle locks, tend only to keep the good guys and amateur thieves away.

Click here to read the full post.

Time Management: The Importance of the Single Calendar

Time Management for iPad MagazineI write for Time Management for iPad Magazine, an authority on Time Management. This article first appeared in the January 2014 issue.

A calendar is essential to life, no question about that, and there is no end to the amount of choice available. They come in all types of shapes and sizes, both paper based and electronic, but none of this guarantees that they serve their purpose very well. If they did, the business of Time Management would not exist. But it does.

Chiefly this is because people expect their calendars to manage their time for them, and they then become slaves to them, when in fact successful Time Management comes from proactive “ownership” and “use” of the calendar as a tool for both prioritization and negotiation.

Here, then, are eight simple rules for dealing with your dates:

  1. Stick to one and only one (Singularity)

So long as there is only one of you, that is, only one human being that is “you,” there should only be one calendar. As soon as people start using more than one device to keep track of appointments, conflicts can occur. With a calendar at work and another for home and yet another on the smartphone, it can be easy to double-book. But beware – calendars are not the only things that threaten to swallow your time. Think about those emails in your inbox. Almost every email requires some type of action, from a quick response to more involved work, but the time required to deal with email is seldom noted on a calendar. Yet these tasks still take minutes or even hours to complete. Therefore, email responding time should be assigned time on a calendar. Be realistic. If it takes you two hours per day to deal with all the emails you receive then you owe it to yourself to block off two hours per day on your calendar page to handle them.

This serves two purposes: first, it proves to you and others that you are actually busy, and secondly it forces you to decide whether or not these emails deserve so much of your valuable time, which is the first step towards trimming back wasteful activity such as dealing with them in the first place.

ToDo’s, too, should be dealt with in this way. If there is a task on your ToDo list that deserves to get done today, then the first necessity is to enter it onto your calendar as an actual event before someone else swoops in and books the time for you. Otherwise, the ToDo list and the email Inbox become secondary calendars – filled with tasks that have to get done but which do not account for their own durations or importance.

  1. Make sure it is available everywhere (Accessibility)

A calendar must always travel with you. Ideally on the cloud or through an Internet connection. Changes in priorities and new appointments crop up quickly and the promises we make to others should be entered in immediately before being forgotten. This cannot happen effectively if the calendar is elsewhere.

  1. Make sure others can see it (Visibility)

Other people need to be aware of your busy-ness, or else they will assume your day is free to be assigned to other tasks. A calendar is not only a device for keeping track of your own priorities; it is also there as a defence against overload by proving to others when you are and are not available. Leave some gaps in your calendar for people to access you, certainly, but establish your bulwarks, or your day will be trodden over.

  1. Assign realistic times for things (Reality)

Work takes longer than we hope it will. Travel time, preparation time and follow-up time are often overlooked. Yet these are the realities of the day. If any task is important enough to get done, then it should first be scheduled accordingly.

  1. Question the one-hour block (Flexibility)

Many calendars default of events of one-hour. But not everything needs to be so. Meetings, especially are defined in hour-blocks, but more can be gained from a well-planned 25-minute meeting than a one-hour session that fits neatly into a square on the screen. Viewing tasks in hour-blocks has a tendency of devaluing the individual minutes available to us, and leads to things taking longer than they should: basically proving Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands to fil the time available.”

  1. Use the power of recurring events (Regularity)

If you want to get some focused work done, set it as a recurring activity on your calendar. If it takes you two hours per day to deal with email, set that as a recurring activity, too. If you are trying to work on a long-term project, set a recurring activity of half an hour per day and work on a small part of it daily. If there is a crisis every day, then set a recurring activity for that too, even if you do not know what the actual crisis will be. Do you see a pattern here? In each of these examples, it does not matter so much the start and end times of these activities, so much as the fact that they proactively stake their claim upon the landscape of your day. If a crisis happens every day, then it is not a surprise. But by reserving the time for it now, you will not have to put other things aside to deal with it. If the crisis happens at 10:00 a.m., or at 2;47 p.m., you can drag the “crisis appointment” on your calendar to the appropriate start time, like a game of Tetris.

  1. Keep your calendar up-to-date (Maintenance)

One of the key responsibilities of a professional project manager is to ensure that a project plan is updated and reflects changes in real time. The same thing applies to individuals; by ensuring your calendar is kept up-to-date, which means, for example, taking the time to retroactively update an appointment that ran over-long, scheduling follow-ups for activities, or assigning time for ToDo’s, is not a bureaucratic exercise in record-keeping; it is instead a proactive exercise in ensuring that you own the calendar, and that it does not own you. You can make decisions, and you can negotiate alternatives, but only when you have a solid understanding of your priorities that is both current and physically nearby.

  1. Don’t lose it (Backup)

Because a calendar is so important, not only for what lies ahead but also to explain, understand and perhaps account for your actions in the past (to yourself, your boss or your customers), its loss could be devastating. If you are using an online calendar, make sure to download and print or backup the data regularly. If a phone or wireless device is your key tool, then ensure your calendar either lives on or is backed up to the cloud, to avoid catastrophe if the device gets lost or broken. And if you prefer to use a paper-based day planner, delegate someone to make a photocopy of it regularly.

Ultimately these rules are merely suggestions, intended to help people reverse the ownership relationship between themselves and their calendars. It is your time, after all and your calendar should there to help you.

 

Redefining the Foot in the Door

Foot in the DoorI use a spam filter, as do most people these days, to keep out the emails from people with whom I do not wish to communicate. It makes sense. After all I tend to lock my front door, my car and my phone for the same reasons: my space is my own, and other people are allowed in only with permission.

Yet every week I receive plaintive requests from  account reps – ok, let’s call them sales reps – who really, really want to put me on their bulk mailing list in order to send me information about the products they have to sell. They knock on the lintel of my inbox after having been rebuffed by my automatically-generated “you’re not on the list” reply. They ask to be included. At least two of them are my direct competitors. I don’t think they know who I am. I don’t think they realize that if I permitted them to send me their mail, they would be in fact delivering competitive intelligence, including price lists and product descriptions and their innovations, right to my computer.

I think they think they are being all “in” with social media simply because they have the tenacity to knock at my door. Think they think this is what CRM is all about.

But you know what? I didn’t allow your email to come in six weeks ago. I did not allow it to come in five weeks ago. Or four. Or three. Do you see a pattern here? The odds are extremely good that I will not want to receive it next week either. This is not what “establishing rapport with a prospect” means.

The days of using tenacity and persistence to win the 2% return on your mailings are over, just like the days of jamming your shoe in a closing door are over. There are no customers anymore, there is just a customer. That customer will likely have a spam filter on his or her inbox and will likely never answer a phonecall from an unknown number.

What I would like to see is a sales rep who takes all of these rebuffs and puts them in an electronic pile, and then assigns some time to learn more about these prospects. What can be learned about the company they work for? What is happening in the industry? What is the pain that this company is feeling? What solution can the sales rep deliver?

Now wait a moment! That doesn’t sound like new-age sales innovation;  that sounds like something Zig Ziglar might have said. Or Og Mandino. Or Neil Rachkam. It’s sales 101. The time it takes to get to know a customer increases the chances of making a sale, and then a repeat sale, and then a referral sale.

So my question is, with all of the approaches now available to learn about prospects and clients – with all of the methods a sales rep has to demonstrate how much better my life would be as their customer, why are they still knocking?

Statistics show that people now buy more than ever from referral – including from a credible referral they have found on Twitter or FaceBook or Pinterest. I would suggest to any sales rep in the vicinity that I would be more interested in hearing from you if your post-rebuff “knock knock” email invited me to read one of your company’s blogs or tweets regarding a product or trend that affects me. That’s going to generate a need, and that’s what is going to make me want to seek you out.

A sales rep is a human conduit to a product or service, and there exists a universe of social media tools available to reinforce that human connection. Let the smile and dial philosophy go back to the 1950’s where it belongs. Show me instead why I need you; not by showing me what you know about your products, but instead what you know about my needs. For no matter how much technology comes and goes, the ancient human instinct called trust will ultimately make me open up to you. Being tenacious will not win that trust. But understanding me might.

How to handle email: Stay Conscious

I write for Time Management for iPad Magazine, an authority on Time Management. This article was originally posted in the November 2013 issue.

Email, thaTime Management Magazine - November 2013embert world-dominating missing link between the age of the typewriter and the age of the cloud, is still a central component of the modern workday and sadly, one of its greatest vandals. It was devised and marketed as a marvellous tool for speedy communication – and indeed it is, once the Send button has been clicked; the speediness is due to the physical structure of the network, but that does not make it a speedy tool while it is sitting on the computer screen.

In fact email has done the opposite; it has clogged people’s days with endless interruption, compounded by unnecessary CC’ing, BCC’ing and attaching of documents. People who look with bemused nostalgia at the dot-matrix printer or IBM Selectric typewriter lurking in a darkened storage closet somewhere might be surprised to find they will be doing the same for email in a few short years.

The problem with email comes from its false sense of urgency, which itself it triggered by the innate human fear of the unknown. Although the two concepts might seem unconnected at first, human beings are instinctively aware of the need to address an unknown such as a moving shadow or a darkened room, in case they present a danger. Although most emails are not really sinister, the same reflex kicks in, and in so doing, actually redirects all of the oxygen and nutrients that the thinking brain needs for thinking, and sends it to the urgency centre of the brain in case a danger truly is present. This happens every single time an email arrives into an in-box. To compound the problem, even though it takes mere milliseconds for the brain to shift its fuel in this way, it takes five or more minutes to move it back, after the “urgency” has subsided. Therefore every person who has an email system on their desk spends much of the day working at sub-par thinking capacity, basically due to the reallocation of mental fuel in this fashion.

If email has to be used, it should ideally be used in block form, not ad hoc. This makes all the difference. Responding to a stimulus just because it is there is reactive, and the detrimental results are described in the paragraph above. However, choosing to respond to email on your own terms is the opposite; it’s proactive, and it allows the user to undertake the action consciously and by choice. This is very different and results in far more consistent levels of focus, concentration and stamina, because no urgent reaction is present, but instead, a genuine sense of control is.

Block form responding means assigning times in the day to respond, for example, 10:00 to 10:30 and 1:00-1:30, and so on, rather than immediately when the messages come in. Sure, there are some emails that may supersede this rule, like the ones from the boss, but most people can live with a delay of an hour or so before receiving a response, and even if they cannot, it is easy to educate people and manage their expectations by reassuring them that their emails will be responded to reasonably promptly.

Depending on a person’s job and workload, it may not be possible to do this block response technique all day, but it is highly effective during those periods where true concentration is required. It may be possible, for example, to perform a focused task from 9:00 to 10:00 and then stop to check and respond to emails upon its completion at 10:00.

This block response technique has an additional benefit, which comes from a concept found within Parkinsons’s law. This law of action states that “work expands to fill the time available,” and indeed email is a chief swallower of such time, since it generally operates without a fixed schedule. Email for most people, simply takes as long as it takes to complete. However, when people put themselves inside a box of perhaps 30 minutes to reply to 10 emails, this changes the approach to writing, allowing for shorter, clearer responses.

And what of those people we fear – the ones who send a follow-up email just five minutes after their first one, wondering where the reply is? These people need to be conditioned – trained to understand that they will indeed receive attention in due course. Such a reminder might be sent to them as part of your autoresponder message, or in your signature, or perhaps it need simply be inserted into the body of an email. Most people can live by a reasonable set of rules, if those rules are actually, proactively made clear.

In a few years email will be replaced, in large part, by the cloud-based collaborative workspace in which messages unfold in a singular fashion, much like the comment stream on FaceBook. Documents, too, will live in a commonly accessible secure cloud-based folder, where edits can happen in real time and the need for both CC’s and attachments is largely eliminated. Many organizations already work this way, so far from being speculative, the workplace with the vastly-reduced email queue is already here. It just takes time for such improvements to spread across a community.

In short, the benefits gained from using collaborative environments, and the downsides to using email revolve around one singular and ancient tool, the human nervous system. So long as stimuli continue to take people by “surprise,” productivity will always remain suppressed. Collaborative environments will not solve all problems, of course, but any time a human can move from reactive to proactive, productivity and full mental capacity follow.

 

Time Management Magazine for iPad

Email techniques for a time-starved world

Email is like a bridge between two worlds – it is electronic, which makes it part of the modern world, certainly, but it is a letter, which makes it part of the past few centuries – structured and formatted like its paper-based predecessors. The formality of email has long been a challenge when it comes to managing time. When you sit down to write an email, the actions involved are as formal as those of placing a piece of paper into a typewriter, or dipping a quill pen into an ink jar. The action is formal and focused.

Similarly, when receiving an email it has been shown through numerous clinical observations that the actions of stopping what you are doing to read and reply actually shift the nutrients and oxygen in the brain away from their useful positions and into fight-or-flight mode. This reflex is based out of our innate fear of the unknown, and takes many minutes to recover from. When this physiological drainage happens dozens or even hundreds of times per day, it is no wonder that people lose track of their time.

Every email must account for its value. Time is precious. Just like every meeting you attend and every task that you perform, there must be a bottom-line dollar value to it that makes it worth doing.

My suggestions for economical and effective email in this day and age are as follows:

  1. Summarize: Make sure the subject line says 100% of what you want to say, in 12 words or less. Drop the “Fwd” or “Re” and replace with something meaningful.
  2. Twitterize: take a lesson from Twitter and keep your message body as short as possible. Twitter demonstrates just how easy it is to say something in a very small number of words. You can do the same. Get your writing down to its shortest possible, because your audience just does not have the time or attention for long essays.
  3. Singularize: Stick to only one message per email. If you have two or more different topics to talk about, send one email for each. If you place three or more items in a single email, the odds are good that only the first or last idea/request will be remembered and acted upon, the rest will be forgotten.
  4. Personalize: Try to connect individual-to-individual wherever possible. Demonstrate in your email text some type of personal connection so that the reader does not just feel like part of a CC crowd. Incorporate their name into the text. Show them that you care. If you are communicating to a group, don’t use email. See Point 10 below.
  5. Customize: Choose the medium and style that fits your recipient. Maybe they prefer phone calls. Most likely they will prefer texting ( again another nice, brief alternative). Get to know your people on a one-to-one basis  and see what works for them, since this will best get their attention.
  6. Analyze:  Make sure spelling and grammar are correct for your audience. Not all of your readers will be comfortable with short-form texting (the letter “u” instead of “you” or “L8” instead of “late”) but others might be the opposite and may be turned off or intimidated by excessive prose. Your message must both represent you and your company as well as connect with your reader. Also, drop the “High Priority” flags. Cut down the monstrous signature lines that tell your readers you can be reached by phone, fax, blog, website, twitter, toll-free and carrier pigeon. Lose the graphical backgrounds. Eliminate excessive punctuation!!!  and WRITING IN CAPS.  These all lost their value a long time ago.
  7. Accessorize: Use links to additional resources, instead of writing extraneous background material. Use links also in place of attachments wherever possible. (see Point 10 below)
  8. Standardize: Be consistent in your writing style, choice of font, grammar, degree of formality/informality, and your use of headers, signatures and contact information. In a fast-changing world, your clients/contacts will feel a little more comfortable with you if your visual approach stays constant.
  9. Prioritize: decide whether it is more advantageous for you to choose times in the day to answer your emails as a group (this allows for better time management and greater focus),  or to answer them quickly and immediately, which allows for a greater sense of control in most people. Pick a technique and commit. You will feel better, and all of your work will benefit from a heightened sense of control.
  10. Centralize: If you are communicating with more than one person, then avoid email completely whenever possible. Set them up on a collaborative central work zone such as Google Docs or Sharepoint, where their comments can be posted FaceBook style, rather than in hundreds of cc’d emails. All related documents and links can be posted in this same area and everyone can congregate and communicate as a group on their own time.

The bottom line: the pace of life is moving faster and faster, and people do not have time or the attention that they might have had a generation or two ago. Capitalize on the speed and ubiquity of your technologies but remember, ultimately every message you send actually goes from a person to another person. Your job is to stay mindful of that and to not let your technologies muddy the connection.