Influence

Why “Manager of First Impressions” Is Not a Vanity Title

There are two principles of human memory called the Law of Primacy and the Law of Recency. They are similar in concept. They support the notion that when someone encounters a series of related items such as a bunch of different messages written inside one email, or a group of people in a receiving line, it is either the first or the final item or person in the sequence that is remembered much more vividly than the rest. This one item or person will color an entire relationship going forward.

That’s why I pay particular attention to the way in which companies employ the individual who works at the front desk, in the lobby or reception area. Perhaps I should replace the word “employ” with “deploy,” for I am not referring to employment as in providing a job, but instead how that person and that position are used to further the positive image of a company.

Reception work is not always seen as the most rewarding position in an office. It can sometimes be tedious, and sometimes overly busy, and it is seldom well-paid. I have often heard people make the condescending statement, sometimes unintentionally, when giving a speech or presentation about how a particular topic, product, or trend will affect everyone from the CEO down to the receptionist, as if this latter position is the lowest on the corporate ladder.

What people tend to overlook with such a statement is that the person at reception holds an unrivaled power of first and last impressions, a force that can impact the entire company and everyone in it. I once visited the head office of a large pharmaceuticals company whose gleaming and airy atrium served as the meeting point for hundreds of vendors and buyers every week. Each of these people encountered a polite and efficient person at reception. This individual carried the title of “Manager of First Impressions.”

To me this is not an overly cute vanity title. It is instead the manifestation of the company’s mission statement. First impressions will influence a visitor’s actions and attitudes forever (that’s the Law of Primacy). It shapes an individual’s behavior upon entering the place of business and will influence how they interact.

Back at the pharmaceuticals company’s main lobby, as visitors return their badges and sign out of the building, this Manager of First Impressions takes care to not only actively and sincerely wish the visitors a good day, but also thanks them for visiting. Such simple but well-placed actions demonstrate a degree of care that is becoming less and less common. These actions, demonstrating an above average level of care to each of the hundreds of weekly visitors extends into the brand, generating an image of above average-quality that every company seeks to attain. The reception person operates as a primary catalyst in the success of any business.

On an individual level, the first and last seconds of your interactions with anyone will color their actions and attitudes from that point on. Everyone knows the importance of making good eye contact when shaking hands for the first time, but what about using their name in your parting remarks? Are you able to remember the name(s) of the person or people you have just met? This is a vital skill for managing reputations and relationships. Including a person’s name to your “goodbye” makes things warmer and more personal. It shows indisputably that you care.

In this age where so much communication is done by text, it is still human emotion that guides actions and ultimately influences decisions. Investing some time to implement and practice proactive impression management is essential, for individuals and businesses alike.

Advertisements

Change Management: Is It All In the Delivery?

Regardless of political affiliation, it is incumbent upon anyone involved in change management, stakeholder management or leadership to sit up and pay attention to the techniques currently being used by Mr. Trump and Mr. Ford. This is only common sense. Even if you dislike their style, to paraphrase the words of Don Vito Corleone it is better to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Both men maintain positions of almost absolute power. For them, this makes the initiation of change much more manageable. Mr. Ford has learned from Mr. Trump that there is no longer any need to run an idea through a gauntlet of advisors. It is far more expedient to announce it directly to the public through social media or carefully selected journalists.

If one were to compare this against Robert Cialdini’s six faces of influence, this is indisputably the face of authority in action.

However, as Mr. Trump has discovered, and as perhaps Mr. Ford will soon too, not every change deployed by a single tweet or hasty press conference will live to see its day. Numerous lower court rulings that have overturned many of Mr. Trump‘s initiatives show that at least to this moment in history, absolute power in either country is not yet absolute.

But it is still worth observing in both cases the degree to which they understand their stakeholders. Each leader recognizes a solid core base of devoted followers that approaches cult status. The influence and power that each has over their respective bases are not one based on fact, statistics, or explanation. It is one solely based on the power of personality.

Is this something that other people involved in change management should emulate? Is the power of charisma stronger than that of careful planning and communication in the stakeholder management process?

By comparison, how much of this type of charismatic influence did Steve Jobs have in the successful marketing of Apple products? Was it the cult of Apple that spurred sales, or was it a carefully executed plan? Compare this to BlackBerry, once the darling of the corporate crowd. Was a belief in charisma and brand instrumental in the company’s failure to pull the market in its direction? Blackberry did not really have a “face” the same way Apple did, or Virgin still does.

How much of your change management strategy will rely on personal relationships and charisma? Is it even fair to expect successful deployment to be based on the personality of the change leader? In the world of stand-up comedy, a joke or even an entire act can succeed or fail depending on the style of the person delivering it. There’s something to be observed there. Credibility on the part of the messenger or change agent and acceptance on the part of those accepting change rely a great deal on subjective emotional interpretation.

Not every corporate leader charged with initiating a change either within their department or outside in the world of the public is blessed with a fiery personality or unyielding self-confidence. However, it is essential to point out just how crucial it is for people upon whom change is being foisted, to believe in the person initiating that change. Intelligent project management is vital to the successful deployment of change initiatives, but without a personal connection, the plan will fall upon deaf ears.

Humans need to feel comfortable, they need to feel looked after, and they need to feel optimistic. This has been the backbone of organized religion for millennia and is undoubtedly the backbone of populist politics. The question becomes whether an emotionally charged base of disciples is sufficient to carry the day for any of us involved in organizational change. Mr. Trump and Mr. Ford face challenges in the courts, and corporate change managers face the same type of scrutiny and diligence from boards of directors, shareholders, other levels of management and the rank-and-file.

In the end charisma without substance, speeches without research, and personality without plans may be doomed to stumble or fail. But this statement can also be read in reverse: substance without charisma, research without speeches, and plans without personality may also be doomed to the same level of failure.

But those of us busy focusing on a successful change management initiative must take note of the fact that people love to connect with strong leaders who actively listen to their concerns. It is always best when such attention is genuine, and that it results in tangible, people-focused actions, but the point remains; the majority of stakeholders continues to be ruled primarily by emotion, especially fear. Facts are important, of course, but your investment in the emotional side of change should be sufficient to balance out the logic of your project plan.

Applying the Right Conditioning, Not On Your Hair, On Your Colleagues

2nd-Edition-Cover-Front

One of the best ways to become more productive is to proactively manage the expectations of others, rather than simply react to them the moment they appear. This sounds tricky at first glance, but it really comes down to conditioning.

Conditioning makes gains through positive reward.

Many types of creatures can be conditioned by way of a food reward, after they perform a desired action. That’s what the whole “Pavlov’s dog” thing was about. With our human colleagues the same approach can be applied, but instead of food, you can use another basic need, and that is comfort. Whether they are your co-workers, clients, colleagues or managers – they all crave the comfort of knowing their current need will be handled. When you address that craving, you deliver comfort to them.

But comfort can come in two forms: you can do what they ask, or you can manage their expectations. The first response conditions people to know they can always get what they want from you right away. For example, a colleague sends you a work-related email at 11:30 p.m. If you respond to it, you are conditioning the sender to always expect the same type of 24/7 service. That’s great for them, but not great for you.

The second – managing their expectations – gives them the comfort of knowing they have been heard and will be attended to, within a reasonable amount of time. This second choice, I believe, is much better.

To protect your valuable working time, and to use it correctly, we have to identify every opportunity to influence and soothe the wills and egos of those around us. Simply blocking off time or disappearing into an unused office to get work done, for example, runs the risk of causing the people around you great worry – not for your safety, necessarily, but for the satisfaction of their own needs. They will continue to try to find you.

If you don’t feel like performing this type of expectation-reward conditioning, remember that choosing not to condition is still conditioning. Whichever response you give to a request or interruption, it becomes the precedent for future expectations.

Let’s put it this way: a colleague comes to you with a task that he perceives as urgent. He wants you to do it. If there is no one else who can do this task but you, there are three possible answers:

  • I’ll do it now.
  • I’ll do it later.
  • I can’t do it now, but I can do it at 2:00. How’s 2:00 for you?

The first answer, “I’ll do it now,” informs the requester that you are willing to drop everything to accommodate the request. That’s not good. Once precedent has been set, the expectation is that you will do so again and again, and you will lose control of that relationship.

The second answer, “I’ll do it later,” is unacceptable to your colleague’s need for comfort. They demand satisfaction, and a vague answer isn’t enough. Any time we use avoidance without an acceptable alternative, the requester remains motivated to pursue a better answer.

The third answer presents a suitable alternative to “now.” In this case, 2:00 is sufficiently close as to soothe the requester’s need for satisfaction, without requiring that you drop everything immediately. Providing that you actually pay this confidence back by dealing with the request at 2:00, you will have conditioned your colleague to recognize that you are accessible, albeit, more on your own terms.

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.

How a Warehouse Teach Us Control Over Our Schedule

2nd-Edition-Cover-Front

One of the most important principles that I teach to my audiences is to use the first 10-15 minutes of your day to plan the rest of the day. Book it as a recurring appointment that happens before any other business. Even after you have physically arrived at your workplace, even if you work from home, the day should not begin until you have reviewed and updated your project plan.

There is an all-too-human tendency for people to expect you to be available the moment they see you, even if you haven’t sat down yet. Not only should you be able to find time to take off your coat and get a coffee, but those first ten to fifteen minutes must also be defended as “not-yet-open-for-business” time. Think, once again, of the chef at a restaurant, or the owner of a store. There is much to be done before opening the doors to paying customers.

Reserving time in this way might seem tricky when you first start doing it, because people are used to talking with you the moment they see you, and you are likely used to getting started on the first of your many tasks. It is essential to condition your people as well as yourself to understand your new ways and to learn what’s in it for them to play along. Just because you haven’t been doing it a certain way in the past doesn’t mean you can’t start a new practice now. It’s all in how you communicate it.

  1. Identify your fixed appointments and be brutally realistic about their durations and other items like travel time. Although meetings and discussions should always be kept as short and effective as possible, some things will always take longer than we would like, and time must be reserved for this.
  2. Next, convert your To Do’s into appointments. Some To Do’s occupy a list on the edge of your calendar; others come disguised as emails, which request your action and attention. Any email that needs more than a couple of minutes of your time to respond to, either because it needs a lot of writing, or because it is requesting action on your part – is no longer an email. It deserves to be promoted into an appointment and assigned to your calendar. Because these tasks lack a specific start or end time, it is too easy to acknowledge their existence yet still overlook their duration – a fatal mistake, because, even the smallest of them will eat more of your time than you’d expect. Move them off the To-do list and directly onto your calendar as appointments,
  3. Next, schedule time for lunch. Nutrition and refreshment are essential but too often overlooks elements for productivity and success. Reserve a block of time for lunch. An hour is idea, but anything down to 15 minutes would do, providing it gives you enough time to eat – away from your work. Defend this small block of time. It is sacrosanct.
  4. Finally, ensure that some space on your daily calendar is left open for those unplanned events, whether they present themselves as crises or opportunities. This is a direct application of the 80/20 rule. A calendar should never be booked one hundred percent full, since this creates more problems than it solves.

Do you think it is impossible to insist on leaving some time in the day unassigned? That’s because as human beings we see most things in black and white concepts. The vagueness of the unknown is uncomfortable and we feel it should be replaced with an absolute. So to help justify the existence of spaces in your calendar, think about warehouses. A warehouse is a space whose success is based on having a certain portion of its volume as nothing but empty space. In order for fork-lift trucks or people to place items on shelves and retrieve them again, there has to be space – aisles and between shelving units and even vertical space above each shelf. If this 20 percent of the internal warehouse space was reassigned to the storage of more items, the total capacity of the warehouse would increase, but its functionality and practicality would be substantially reduced, since nothing could move.

Taking the time to structure your day in this way sets it on a positive, realistic course. It liberates your mind from having to make logistical decisions on the spot, and also gives you a great working stance to handle crises and the even unexpected events. Yes, it takes 15 minutes of your day to do this, but it means that the rest of your working day remains under your control.

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.

Reserved: What a Restaurant Table Can Teach Us About Time Management

2nd-Edition-Cover-Front

Picture this: You walk into a restaurant. The sign says, “Please seat yourselves.” So you enter and look around. Two tables are empty. One has a “Reserved” sign on it. Which one do you choose?

The choice is obvious: the one that does not have a “Reserved” sign on it. That tiny little sign had the power to divert you away from the table it was guarding. That’s power!

Now, picture your working week: it’s pretty much guaranteed that today, tomorrow, and into the foreseeable future, you will have emails, phone calls and meetings to attend to. These can be considered predictable tasks, because we know they will occur each day. These tasks are like the other restaurant customers. They walk in and sit themselves down on your calendar, wherever they find a place.

But there’s another category of tasks, the unplanned tasks, that come at you from left field, unannounced, to derail your nice, neat schedule. These events are the reason most time management approaches fail. It’s reasonably easy to plan for what you know is coming, but what about what you can’t foresee?

These unplanned events can take many forms, depending on your line of work, but examples could include:

  • Your manager or colleague drops an additional task onto your desk
  • A much-needed team member calls in sick
  • An unhappy customer shows up, loudly demanding satisfaction
  • A defective product is returned
  • A weather related event closes business for the day
  • The CEO pays a visit.

I propose that these events can and should be planned regardless, using hindsight as your lens upon the future.   They are activities that have happened before, and as unwelcome as they may be, they will likely happen again. Though you can’t predict when, the event will happen, your experience and wisdom will give good insight into playing the odds.

Here’s an example: weather. No matter where you live, there is always some sort of weather event that threatens to disrupt things once in a while. It could be a blizzard or an ice storm, a tornado, a flood or a weather-related power outage. Now no one can truly predict when one of these is going to happen, but your past experience of living and working in your area of the country is already sufficient enough to say, ” the odds of having a weather event in the next four months, one that calls for a day away from normal work, are pretty good. You might be able to anticipate at least three big snowfalls happening over the period of January to March for example. If, in your experience, these three events have each caused a day’s delay in the past, then it means that your calendar should reflect this, by scheduling them now.

So how do you schedule a storm? You don’t. But what you do instead is to reserve the time in advance. The period January to March includes 64 weekdays. But if three of these days have a good chance of being eclipsed by weather, you now only have 61 days to get your work done.

By entering your “anticipated storm hours” into your calendar, you make them real. They speak for themselves. This makes it easier to more accurately calculate how many hours you actually, realistically have, for all those other expectable activities. If the storm never comes, there’s always something else you can do with those hours. But if it does, you will be in a better position to manage your workload.

Don’t forget, weather is not the only unplanned event in your basket. Think of all the surprise events that have happened to you in weeks and months past. It usually becomes pretty evident that every day there will be something that comes along that forces you to put everything else aside to deal with it. If that’s the case, then the math is easy: reserve an hour every day for the crisis to come. Make it a recurring activity. Every day, 12 noon: crisis of the day.

It doesn’t mean the unplanned event will happen at 12:00, but it does mean that the hour needed has been reserved for it. This tangible reservation fends off other activities and meeting requests, just like that “Reserved” sign does at a restaurant table

A crisis is not so much an unexpected event as an irregular and unwelcome one. By identifying them, planning for them and reserving time for them, you are not adding more to your plate. Quite the opposite: you are taking control, by replacing random events with predictable ones, making reservations and guiding other people around them rather than allowing everything to become a time-wasting blur.

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.

The Time Management-Project Management Connection

2nd-Edition-Cover-Front

A wedding is “project management with cake at the end. The best type, in my opinion. Even if you’ve never formally studied project management, your time spent attending weddings – yours or someone else’s – counts as practical experience.

These are public events that involve fixed budgets, fixed timelines, inexperience, lots of pressure, lots of advice and an overwhelming desire to elope. That’s why couples often hire professional wedding planners, and that’s also why wedding planners often provide guidebooks, with titles such as What To Do When Planning Your Wedding. It’s Project Management for the uninitiated.

Project management has been around as a formalized school of thought and study since the 1950s. It emphasizes the importance of planning, communication, performance, and review. It starts with a higher-level perspective of a project, and then breaks it down to the smallest reasonable components. Project management forces you to visualize a project from start to end. It allows you to plan for contingencies and revisions, and replaces traditional “seat-of-the-pants” approach with an organized, accountable agenda.

The Project Management Institute (http://www.pmi.org) is an authority on project management, and publishes a work known as the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). The intent of the PMBOK is to assist project managers everywhere, regardless of their experience, by providing a standard and a logical plan for the successful completion of projects.

The PMBOK identifies five phases in the life of a typical project:

  • Initiation: The project is conceived and assessed as viable or not; ideas are formulated; and the expected results and the timeline are first considered.
  • Planning: A significant amount of time should be spent here. In this phase, every detail of the project is accounted for, including possible failures, contingencies, estimated times for completion of each part, and budget and resource estimates.
  • Execution: The project gets underway, people start to work on their assigned tasks, and momentum begins.
  • Control: The work of the project is performed, while the project manager oversees and updates the plan and communicates progress and changes to all involved.
  • Closure: Once the project is completed the teams are broken up, final accounting is done, and things are cleaned up and put away.

The project is summarized and guided by a project plan, a document that lays out tasks and their respective timelines throughout the project’s life. Far from being a static document, the project plan remains flexible, a living, breathing thing that must adapt to change while still ensuring the project moves ahead.

Although no project manager has a crystal ball to predict how things will pan out in the future, s/he can look back into the past, through research, analysis and the use of experts and mentors to deduce, within reason, what to expect.

In short, project management makes everything as clear as possible and envisions all aspects of the project before they happen. It does not necessarily make a project effortless, but its principles and rules ensure that work and resources are properly guided.

This is what time management is really all about. It comes down to two words, the same words that define successful project management: Planning and Communication.

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.

Bonsai and the Law of Sharp Edges

2nd-Edition-Cover-FrontBonsai is an ancient Japanese and Chinese art form in which trees are grown and nurtured inside low-sided pots. Their branches are shaped by way of wires that guide their growth and shape, and they are kept small through careful pruning of roots and branches, along with the most influential factor of all, the pot itself, which essentially tells the tree there is no more room for the roots to spread out.

Since the spreading roots of a tree have profound impact on its ultimate size and life, the bonsai pot stands as a real-world example of the Law of Sharp Edges, which states that delineation of an event allows for positive control of organic relationships.

In terms of time management strategy, a conversation works much better if both parties know how it is intended to last and what it will be about. Meetings and seminars work better when participants know when the breaks and wrap-up will be. Delays in subways and on planes are better managed when frustrated travelers are given some idea of when things will be fixed. Why? Because at the root of all of these situations is an unknown. People fear the unknown. It’s natural. So, as a tool of proactive time management and influence, if you give people a sharp-edged delineation of an event’s duration and content, they will be far more likely to play ball with you.

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.

The Benefits of Working in Cool-Time

2nd-Edition-Cover-FrontCool-Time refers to the art and the science of never breaking a sweat, either mentally or physically, as you go about your day. Cool-Time is the end result of the state of mind and attitude brought about by the techniques in this book. There is an amazing sense of comfort and progress that happens when you feel in control.

Working, traveling and communicating in Cool-Time ensures that the highest, most useful faculties of your mind are present and ready. Stress, anger, confusion and frustration can be controlled by proper planning, anticipation of contingencies, timelines and constraints, and acknowledging where you are and where you should be.

Why is this so important? Quite simply, it’s an edge. Most people just try to get by. You see them running for buses, stuck in traffic, stuck in meetings and stuck in their jobs. No room for movement or improvement in any of these areas. You see them eating their lunch at their desks, afraid to take a moment for themselves lest their job or career be put in jeopardy.

These busy people. You see these people texting at the dinner table or while walking down the street. You see them buying headache and stomach remedies to counteract what the stress is doing to them. You see them counting down the days to Friday when they supposedly can get some rest.

These people – your colleagues, clients, competitors, family members, and probably you yourself, are living lives the wrong way round, so that stress, anger, helplessness and overload are front and center on the personal playing field, while clear thought and calm sit it out on the sidelines.

This is no way to exist, and it’s certainly no way to get ahead. Stress pushes away the ladder of success, leaving its key components undisturbed and out of reach. You, however, have the power to change that, by living in Cool-Time.

Yes, you will still have to deal with crises, managers, deadlines and delays. But it is the manner in which you handle them that will be different. Your calm, competent air will be admired. Some will even see it as charisma or leadership. Your mannerisms and mindset, now supremely able to ride the chaos and confusion of the day, will become obvious to others, with a brighter sparkle in your eyes, with body language and posture that conveys confidence and ability, with a voice that delivers credibility and authority, and with decisions, ideas  and actions that demonstrate excellence.

Planning creates a sense of control, which creates real control. That is what working in Cool-Time is all about.

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.

Scheduling Time to be in The Zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Value of Interruptions

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

What’s an interruption worth? Many people state that at-work interruptions are time-wasters, and they may be right. But then again, it might depend. Does every interruption cost, or can some be beneficial? It is really up to each individual to decide, and then to control the situation accordingly.

For example, for people who really need time to focus on work, an interruption always seems costly. Colleagues poke their heads in and ask “got a moment?” and emails arrive seemingly at random. In these situations the average working human is put on the defensive, trying to protect what little time is available from attack. Although such terminology may sound harsh, this is actually what is happening: a person’s time is placed under siege.

If self-directed, focus time is indeed needed, then it must be protected in advance. This can best be done by managing the expectations of interrupters themselves.

A proven technique for deflecting interruption is to announce both the start-time and the end-time of a focus period. This can be communicated online in a group email, posted as an online calendar entry, announced at team meetings, included in voicemail greetings and “out-of-office” email autoreplies and printed out as a sign posted on the outside of the office door or cubicle wall: “I am in focus time, back at 11:00.”

The secret here is to give co-workers and customers a comfortable understanding of when they will actually be able to get the attention they seek. When there is no other frame of reference, other than the phrase “I’m kind of busy right now,” a visitor tends to take matters into his/her own hands and push through. However, if potential interrupters are given an awareness of when the door will re-open, they are more likely to shape their actions around this fact. Successful interruption deflectors, then, basically set up “times of availability.”

But it is also important to allow a mild breaking of the rule, as in “if a question can be asked and answered in under a minute, then I will take your interruption.” This is done to help avoid forcing others to spin their wheels, waiting for the focus period to end. In short, if a query can be answered in under a minute, come on in. Otherwise comeback at 11:00.

When defined start- and end-times are scheduled and explained, in a positive tone of voice, they stand a better chance of being accepted and respected by a team. The benefits of establishing such a fortress of time include being able to work both interruption-free and guilt-free, certainly, but also there is the benefit of eliminating non-emergencies from filling the plate. Very often an individual will interrupt simply to pursue the path of least resistance; however, being asked to come back later might actually result in the interrupter either a.) Doing the task themselves; b.) Asking a different person to do the task; or c.) Becoming involved in something else, and forgetting to come back at all. Thirdly, a defined visiting time teaches/encourages colleagues to get all their ducks in a row before coming back to speak. It helps reinforce the idea that socializing is welcome in common office space, but that a private office/cubicle is for work. Time, after all, is money.

However, there may also be strategic benefits to allowing interruptions. To take advantage of the opportunity to chat with a colleague might result in a greater, more lucrative or more satisfying work assignment; or it might serve to strengthen bonds between people – relationships that may have great payoff in the future, or it might simply offset the need for a scheduled meeting at a later time. Interruptions from direct reports also allow for better ground-level understanding of employees’ concerns or ideas – an excellent leadership move, and a fulfillment of the open-door policy.

When an interruption stands to deliver greater value than isolation, then the interruption should be factored in as part of the work window. That’s the key point: factoring them in. Traditionally people forget to do this. If, for example, a person assigns 60 minutes to get a report finished, and an interruption steals away 20 of those minutes, then focus time is lost and must be caught up somehow. This results in a measure of mental stress, which in turn trims back on mental capacity due to the way in which the human body and brain always shut down portions of higher-level thinking when urgency and worry appear. This means that the completion of the report will take far longer.

However, if a person were to schedule 90 minutes to complete a 60-minute task, budgeting for acceptable interruptions, then the sense of control is retained. A person in this situation can allow an interruption, and with practice, can not only benefit from a strengthened interpersonal relationship, but can use that sense of control to draw the conversation to a timely close, and then return to work with the same level of focus as they enjoyed prior to the interruption. This is because throughout this exercise, control is retained. The interruption is not stealing productive time, since it has been budgeted for.

This is the pragmatic reality of work. The optimist inside each person says, “a 60-minute task should take 60 minutes”; but the pragmatist says, “it is better to expect to get it done in 90 minutes, and roll with the punches.

##