Law of Sharp Edges

CoolTimeLife Podcast: The Box of Time

This blog comprises show notes and script for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Box of Time. It describes how to maximize productivity and influence people by taking advantage of a simple technique of delineation – something that speaks very clearly to human instinct – which means people will take notice of it.

Steve Prentice - Bonsai Tree

A bonsai tree is an example of an organic entity constrained by hard edges.

The box of time. It’s not a science fiction reference. It’s an incredibly powerful way to manage time by managing other people. But to do this, we must first talk about bonsai trees. This is what a bonsai tree looks like. A bonsai is a perfectly normal tree, genetically speaking, that has been placed in a pot to restrain its growth. The pots are usually a few inches wide and because a tree will only grow as far as the roots can extend. The hard edge of the pots stops the roots from going any further and therefore stops the tree from growing any taller.

So, the art of a bonsai tree is to maintain a perfectly healthy, genetically pure tree in small scale. There are two different styles, generally speaking, being Japanese and Chinese. Japanese style generally favors shaping trees in a dramatic, windswept look whereas the Chinese style focuses more on symmetry. But regardless, it’s a perfect tree. A perfectly natural being, just held in check by the solidity of its surroundings.

So, what does this have to do with people and time management? There is a substantial parallel here. People and trees are both living creatures, and human beings also need and respond to delineations. Delineations help define limits, which helps us stay alive.

Which is the Least Evil of these Two Statements?

Let’s go back to high-school gym class for a moment. Imagine yourself standing out on the soccer field on a frosty November morning for first period gym class. You hear the gym coach telling you one of the following two commands; either:

“Go out there and give me 12 laps around the field,” or “Go out there and start running until I tell you to stop.”

Which is the least evil? The least threatening? Most people say the first one is less evil, because it is finite. you can gauge the amount of energy required to get through this exercise. And that’s a very important point. It’s a “known.” People need to know the delineations of things in order to progress through them safely. People need to know, for example, when things will be over.

Applying the Box of Time as a Tool of Influence

If you want to motivate and influence people to work with you, to show up to meetings on time, to leave you alone, to supply their pieces of the project you’re working on, to log in early and be ready for your on-time video or telephone conference – any time people need motivation the primary lever to get them to do what you want them to do is a delineation. This is a fixed line in the sand – a fixed “box,”

Let’s apply this to a phone conversation. One of the greatest wastes of time in the working world is the game of email ping pong. I send one to you, you send one back to me, I’m in a meeting o I send one back to you later, I don’t quite understand what you said, so I send one back… The conversation just keeps on spinning its wheels because email is not an intuitive communication technique. There’s no subtlety, no context, it’s a very sterile medium.

So many situations could be much better handled if only we had the time to speak live, one-to-one, face-to-face, or voice to voice, over the phone. Whether this is to solve a problem, or being creative – working on something together, the synergy of conversation, of two or more minds meeting, gets things done far more effectively than emails ever could.

But what’s the problem? It’s the Fear of the Unknown

People are afraid of having that conversation. They’re afraid of taking that call. One of the main reasons for this fear is this: you don’t know how long it’s going to last. So instead we use excuses. “I’m busy, I don’t have the time to take you call, so let it go to voice mail, or send me an email.”

The fact is, though, that a five-minute or even ten-minute phone conversation will yield more creative, problem-solving output than any number of emails you could possibly send. So, to motivate and inspire, and to generate interest in having a call or a face-to-face meeting, it’s not the agenda that’s most important, it’s “when it’s going to be over.”

I can deliver far more credibility by saying to you, “let’s have a call tomorrow at 2:00 for ten minutes. I will call you.” That’s all they need to hear. This becomes the box of time. It’s a message that says, “ten minutes – you can handle that. It will be over in ten minutes.” This is a specific message that replaces the unknown with a “known.”

It’s not something vague like “I’ll call you tomorrow.” That never works because that puts people on the hook of uncertainty – not knowing how long it will last, not knowing when the call will happen, not even knowing what it will be about.

If you want to motivate people to get things done, give them something tangible and something closed. This is the box of time, replacing the fear of the unknown with the manageability of the known. It’s a major component of successful time management, but as you can see, it’s about managing people and their expectations.

Replying to Messages on Personal Time – Conditioning to Your Own Detriment

Have you ever felt compelled to respond to a work-related email message at 11:00 p.m.? Do you know what that does to the person who sent the message? It conditions them to expect the same level of response and behavior from you consistently, regularly and forever. What might seem to you to be simply clearing an email from your inbox quickly, or perhaps providing excellent customer service condemns you to a lifetime and a lifestyle of constantly being available, 24/7. You are conditioning people through your actions to expect this same kind of behavior.

Some people like to live and work this way. If you like it, then great. But remember what you’re doing here. You are leaving yourself and your time open to ownership by others.

Once again, the box of time comes to the rescue

You can set up a schedule and message response that says something like:

“I am available between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you send me a message outside of these hours, I will get back to you between 9:00 and 10:00 tomorrow.”

By setting up a boundary, and managing the expectations of the message sender, including a box of time in which they can expect response, everyone will be happy. The specifics of this message are up to each of us individually but setting up a box of time gives people a known field of expectation – something they can work with.

This is like water flowing around a rock in a stream. The water will move around the rock to find a path of lesser resistance. Your availability and non-availability are the rocks in your stream. People can move their actions and expectations around these blockages providing there is something else they can hold on to.

What a Dental Appointment Can Teach About Influence

People get conditioned to expect based on what they see. If you return an email at 11:00 p.m. you set a precedent that is very difficult to live up to. But these same assumptions can be overruled. For example:

Photo credit: Frank May / NTB scanpix

Someone asks you, “Can we meet tomorrow at 10:00?” and you say, “Sorry, I have a dental appointment.” It’s very unlikely that anyone will say, “No problem! I’ll come with you and will sit int the chair next to you while you’re having your treatment, and we can chat there.” No. They’ll wait until you come back, because a dental appointment is a suitable and acceptable rock in their stream. They can move around it. They can live with it. Life goes on.

The same principle can apply to other things. If you have some work you need to get done, you need some focused time – you really want to focus without being disturbed. Or you want to go home at a reasonable hour. Set up these boundaries and condition people by first publicizing and communicating these boundaries, and secondly, respecting them yourself. This means not falling prey to the temptation of responding to messages outside of those boundaries.

Everything you do conditions other people. Whether it’s action or inaction, it’s still conditioning.

Remember also, humans generally like to be led, they like to be guided. This is your chance to guide and influence other people through a box of time.

Bad News is Better than No News

No one likes to give bad news. No one likes to receive bad news. But there’s a good thing about bad news: human beings are extremely good at taking bad news, turning it around, and working with it.

Huge amounts of procrastination happen because people avoid what they fear. Fear is the most powerful emotion of all, and people are ruled by emotion, not logic. So, we tend to spend a lot of time hiding from or even running away from those things that scare us.  But the fact is we are very good at taking bad news and and saying, “OK, what’s next? Where do we go from here? What’s my next step?”

So once again, the box of time concept reappears. If you suffer from procrastination, if you are putting something of because you fear it, that’s perfectly natural and understandable. But the truth is, the delivery or acceptance of bad news is the launch point for the next step. It is like the box of time because it is tangible and real. Its real-ness helps overcome the instinctive fear of the unknown.

When you bring facts up to meet the fear, it allows you to move forward with the next steps. The box of time concept is about giving people something tangible to overrule their fears and move on.

Assumptions

People will always assume things if you do not give them the facts. People, if unassisted, will come to their own conclusions simply to fill the void. This means you actually have an obligation to deliver hard facts to people, if only to stave off their own incorrect assumptions.

For example, if you are spending time focusing on your work, and you don’t say “Hi” to people as they walk by your desk, the assumption is, “she’s having a bad day,” or “he doesn’t like us,” or “not a team player.”

People will make their own assumptions if they are not addressed. They need to be introduced to your concepts, they need to be led and guided. So, if you are looking to schedule some focused time in your day, or you’re looking to have some time away from carte blanche meeting availability, or you need to leave at a certain time, you must deliver the hard facts, the ideas. This might be in the form of a meeting or a memo, an infographic – whatever works for your team, to remove the instantaneous assumptions that will otherwise fall in to fill the void.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line with all the concepts above is that the known is always better than the unknown, but that the human mind will seek an answer wherever it can find it. If you are looking to guide people, give them a box. Give them a fixed, finite duration. When you are calling a meeting, the agenda is not the most important item – that should already have been dealt with as the justification for the meeting’s existence. The most important thing that will make people show up on time, ready and engaged, is in answering the question, “when will this be over?” That’s what will give them the energy and stamina to get through this event, just like the 12 laps around the field.

That is the primary motivator of human action.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Box of Time. 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.

The Law of Sharp Edges – Maximize Synergy by Framing a Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

##

Redefining “Results”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Like a Wolf – the book – is published.

Work Like a Wolf: Own Your Future, a book on career survival.

Work Like a Wolf: Own Your Future, a book on career survival.

Work Like a Wolf: Own Your Future, my third book, is a handbook for survival in the high-speed age. I created it for three reasons:

  1. I have observed too many working people existing without a sense of control; overloaded by email and ToDo lists, compelled to respond to their BlackBerrys 24/7, and being held in position through fear.
  2. I have met too many people who have suddenly found themselves out of work, and equally suddenly have found themselves lacking a network or career safety-net.
  3. I have observed “reaction” as a dominant force in all that we do, and I want to reinstill “pro-action” instead.

The wolf imagery primarily emerged from the phrase “working like a dog,” which people use often to connote an on-going workload that we take on without question or expectation of relief – doggedness, as it were. I chose to extend the metaphor by looking at the way in which dogs are kept: they are collared and controlled, but in return, they are fed once or twice a day. The price for a full stomach is strong restrictions on liberty, but at least you don’t go to bed hungry.

The problem with this occurs when immediacies such as email and meetings start to dull the senses. When a dog is worked all day and then fed, its ability to hunt, and its general survival skills get dulled. It becomes domesticated and therefore dependent. An overly busy person at work is like that: in exchange for a bi-weekly paycheck, he/she is kept in a state of constant overload and busy-ness, one that forbids the opportunity to network, to explore, to develop the career and financial safety nets we all need.

I’m all in favor of hard work, but when people have no time to protect both their present and their future, they are in trouble.

A wolf, by contrast, eats only what it kills. It must always stay vigilant, because it is owned by no-one. It must keep its hunting and survival instincts sharp, always on the lookout for danger and opportunity. My goal is simply to re-inject an amount of self-sufficiency into the lives of time-starved working people by reminding them of the skills and techniques that will get them further ahead, rather than just running all day just to keep up.

It’s about survival, career management self-determination.

Topics include:

  • The power of networking
  • Sculpting your own future
  • Personal presentation and image
  • Dealing with job loss
  • Looking for work (for people of all ages)
  • Locating the hidden job market
  • Staying literate in the social media age

For more information visit www.worklikeawolf.com

Steve Prentice is a speaker, author and Partner at The Bristall Group. He works at the crossroads where busy working people intersect with technology. Follow him on Twitter @stevenprentice or visit steveprentice.com (speeches) or bristall.com (training + coaching).