Procrastination

CoolTimeLife Podcast: The Value of Your Time

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Value of Your Time. It describes how to place a value on your time so that you don’t give it away. It describes the enormous productive power of the 80/20 rule, how to handle email more effectively, how to break large tasks up over many days using carryover momentum, and the productive power of downtime. Whew! That’s a lot. Are you ready?

The Furnace Repair Story

This is the story of a person whose furnace goes cold. The house is cold, and a couple of presses of the thermostat confirm that the furnace is not working. The homeowner calls the furnace company who sends a technician out. The technician arrives and heads down to the basement. The homeowner listens as the boots clomp down the stairs, and then a single “clang!” The furnace comes back on and warm air starts flowing through the registers once again. The boots clomp back up the stairs.

“All done,” the technician declares, “may I present you with the bill?”

“Sure,” says the homeowner, who scrutinizes the bill and then looks at the technician doubtfully. “Five hundred dollars?” the homeowner asks. “Five hundred dollars? But you were only down there for thirty seconds! How could that cost five hundred dollars.”

The technician smiles and asks, “Would you like me to itemize the bill for you?”

“Yes please,” replies the homeowner, who watches as the technician writes a couple of lines on the invoice.

“Here,” says the technician, “this might help.” The homeowner reads the revised invoice. It now says:

“Furnace repair:

– Hitting the furnace with a hammer: $5.00

– Knowing where to hit: $495.00”

I love this story because, nice and clearly, it conveys the value of a person’s expertise, which is not always visible. Time is valuable. Your time is valuable, and the art of staying fully aware of that is a life skill that needs to be practiced and maintained.

People who are self-employed, for example, or who work in small businesses can very easily fall into the trap of undervaluing their services, maybe doing some of it for free. “I”can’t charge for just a 5-minute phone-call,” they say. Or, “invoicing is part of overhead. I can’t charge for that.”

The same applies for people who work for companies, on salary. They might not feel they have direct impact on how they price their services, certainly, but they still give away too much. Whatever work you do, the value you bring to the table has a long tail that stretched far back into past.

The years you invested in your education – all those years of study, plus the years you have spent doing this work, or even the work of your previous job, have shaped you into a professional person with skills and experience that have value. But that long tail of value is so easily forgotten – or overruled.

When a customer asks for 10 minutes of your time – and by customer I not only mean the direct small business customer, but also internal office colleagues, even your boss – they are still customers. They are still buying your experience and your service. When they buy ten minutes of your time, they are also buying all those years that went into making those minutes valuable.

When you’re sitting in a meeting that starts late because Bob hasn’t arrived yet, you and everyone else around that meeting are giving away time that took years, individually and collectively, to craft. When your significant other asks you to stop off and pick up some milk on the way home, you think nothing of it. But that’s at least 20 minutes of your life that you are giving away. Yes, you might be pleasing your partner by doing a favor – there is value in that, but my argument is that there’s a better way to deliver this service. The spontaneous giving away of your time in any circumstance is not only a tragic waste, it also sets a precedent. The expectation to do the same again will always be there.

The 80/20 Rule

I spend a lot of my speaking time showing people how to do better with their own time. One of the points that I mention and will always stand behind is the 80/20 rule. Specifically, you can get more done in 80 percent of your time than you can in 100 percent of your time. The point is, that 20 percent is invested – not spent, but invested – in proactively managing the events to come.

This means planning. It also means networking, building relationships, and yes, even relaxing. But let me just focus on planning for the moment. Part of this 20 percent of this day, and tomorrow, and the next day should be used to prepare a calendar that realistically questions how long each activity should be and then helps identify the number of activities that you can realistically – not optimistically – fit into your day. It asks these questions before you actually get started on any of them.  Most importantly setting up a road map of operation for the day. Without a map, you will drift. It’s as easy as that.

And this is where I get pushback – or at least questioning. People will ask, Steve, do you spend all of your time every day just updating your calendar and your to do lists? That usually gets a laugh.

But I answer YES! Yes, I do. And that also gets a laugh.

But here’s my point on this. People think this activity – updating your calendar – that is to say your personal project plan – so regularly and so often is extra work – more on your plate. But in actual fact, you’ll be spending this time anyway – more of it in fact if you just try to get these things done in real time in an unplanned fashion.

Take My Email, Please.

As I mentioned in a previous podcast – Are You Conscious – email steals a great deal of time from you. Not just the time spent responding to them, but also the time required to recuperate from the distraction. It really is a literal drain on your system. So, if you handle 10, 20, 50 or more emails per day, you deal with the sum total of time required to write or respond plus many, many minutes of recuperation time. This amounts to hours of time lost per day working in sub-par mental capacity.

But if you plan your email handling time, let’s say, 3 blocks of 20 minutes, not only do you eliminate the recuperation time – because you choose to answer these emails consciously rather than getting taken by surprise by them – but you are also able to frame them – let’s say by aiming to respond to 10 emails inside of 20 minutes, you can change your actual approach to work to fit inside a defined box of time. NO more drifting. You stay on track.

So, you can do the emails in a casual, unplanned way, which might literally take three hours out of your busy workday, or you can plan how and when to do them and cut that amount by at least half. That’s the power of planning. It isn’t extra work. It’s less work in total. The planning plus the planned work ends up taking far less time than unstructured work by itself.

The Power of Twitter as a Tool for Ongoing Education.

The other thing that gets people a little nervous or incredulous is when I talk about the power of Twitter. Seldom do I get more than a couple of hands up when I ask my audiences how many people use Twitter as a tool of professional development. Most people think that Twitter is useless when they themselves have nothing to say, and that the rest is pure junk. Well, maybe most of it is junk, but I remind them that there are a few people out there worth listening to. Thought leaders. Subject matter experts. Your customers. Your competitors.

But the reaction is the same: “I do not have the time to browse social media.” But my argument is, you invest time in formalized ongoing education. You might even wait months to get a training course from your employer. That’s a lot of time drifting by, and with is a great deal of time lost to inadequate knowledge. Imagine trying to catch up on a breaking development that affects your company. The minutes or hours needed to get caught up retroactively will always exceed those you could spend just reading – a few minutes here and there on a daily basis.

Catch-up costs. But pro-activity yields dividends.

Proactivity beats reactivity every time. Whenever you think a proactive action – part of that 20 percent – is too much extra work. Remember it will end up being less work and costing less time than if you let things happen the casual, unplanned way. This not only includes planning your email and investing in Twitter education in the ways I have just discussed, it also points to things like managing by walking around (MBWA).

That is to say investing some time in talking ton your colleagues, suppliers, or customers, to learn more about them and to demonstrate acknowledgement of their hard work and dignity. For although this too, seems like extra effort with no reward, the reward actually comes when these people reciprocate, by showing up to your meeting on time and prepared, or paying your invoice on time, or getting their share of a project done on time, simply because they like working with you and they enjoy the respect you show them. That’s the payoff. That’s the dividend.

The Value of Work

I remember sending a change of address notification to my company’s law firm. No big deal, right? We send those out to everybody. Two weeks later I received an invoice from them for $150. Professional services for updating the address in their files. That seems like a lot, right? But lawyers are taught early on: time is money. As soon as you start giving the results of your expensive education away, as soon as you give your expertise away, people start expecting that regularly.

Think also what it says about you.  You are willing to give away your hard-won expertise. Not everyone is going to respect that. They might even start to question just how good you actually are. See? That’s the problem. It seems like the right thing to do, to be nice, but by giving away the very thing people respect about you, you might also be diluting your brand and your credibility. That’s not a great thing to hear, but it is human nature. Humans tend to judge. And best intentions might turn out to do less for you than you would like. This is the same whether you give away a half hour of your services or when you delay the start of a meeting because someone is late. It happens when you take on extra requests or drop-in visitors just because it seems too hard to say no.

But remember, the word NO can also function and the first two letters of the phrase “Not at this moment, which opens you up to another word that contains the letters N O – that word is negotiate. Everything can be negotiated. Rather than give away your time, negotiate suitable alternatives that maintain your image of flexibility without sacrificing your value – in your eyes or in theirs.

The Value of Carryover Momentum

Very often I get asked by people how to take care of giant tasks that will take hours to do, let’s say, for example, a bunch of backlogged work, or a big project. The temptation is to say, I will book off an entire day to take care of this in one go. Now, if you can do that, and it works, then good for you. I will never argue against something that works.

But most people will never successfully do this. There’s just too much else to do. But there is a better option, and I call it “Carryover Momentum.”

As I have already mentioned, the power of planning is an amazing thing. Whatever day of the week it is as you read to this, think back to what you were doing exactly one week ago. Doesn’t seem like seven days, does it? It’s not fair, how quickly time seems to fly, but that’s life, and that’s how memory works.

If you are faced with a task that is too big to get done all at once, the chances are that another week will slip by, then another, then another. Though this might be considered procrastination, it’s not always the case that you’re actually consciously putting it off, so much as never quite getting around to it – there’s a difference.

To that end, there is the principle of carryover momentum, in which it becomes possible to break up a large task, and then schedule and deal with it regularly and consistently over a period of days.

If you were to assign one half-hour per day to a project, you wouldn’t feel that much headway had been achieved after the first half-hour of the first day. But if you were able work on the project one half-hour each workday for a month, that’s 10 hours. For larger-scale projects, that one half hour per day, even with weekends and holidays off, becomes 125 hours over a year, or the equivalent of three forty-hour weeks! That’s a lot of time!

Physiology crash course: The reason why I call this technique carryover momentum goes to the workings of the brain. By returning to an ongoing task on a daily basis – preferably, but not necessarily at the same time each day – the mind continues to retain and access the creative momentum of the previous day. It significantly reduces the amount of “let’s see now, where was I?” that happens when a project is picked up after a week or two of inactivity.

This is yet another example of how to capitalize on the strengths of the brain to get the right work done in the right way within the constraints of a busy day.

So, if you are facing a large project at work, and you feel overwhelmed by the size of it all, do not despair. That sense of overload is normal. It’s mental paralysis, the manifestation of the fight-or-flight reflex, draining nutrients from the thinking area of the brain. It can be easily treated by using a calendar to lay out a collection of half-hour blocks across days and weeks as a recurring activity and taking the giant task on one bit at a time, regularly, day-by-day.

Of course, such a thing must be coordinated and pro-rated according to the project’s deadline but instead or putting it off and putting it off, only to be faced with a high stress situation later, just like my email discussion of earlier, you can consciously plan – invest in some planning time – in breaking down this task into manageable amounts. Where once you had a mountain blocking your view, you now have a mountain with a staircase carved into it.

The Value of Downtime

The final point I want to make is the value of downtime – thing includes breaks during your working day, and most importantly focuses on stepping over the big red line that actually can be the divider between work life and home life. In the podcast episode dedicated to metabolism, I talked about sleep and melatonin, and I don’t plan to repeat myself, other than to say that sleep is the single greatest investment in productivity of the entire 24-hour day. The value of downtime is in part due to its chemical capacity to help your brain and body repair the damage of the day, boosting the immune system, both through the pleasure of sleep as well as the pleasure of enjoying life – with your family, your friends, your pets, and your hobbies.

Your phone needs recharging, your car needs refueling and you know what? So do you. Downtime has value in balancing out your day and preparing your energy and your excellence for the day to come. Burning the midnight oil, working late into the night simply diminishes tomorrow’s potential. You are drawing from a well. Either use the water tonight or tomorrow. You can’t do both.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Value of Time. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here.

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

CoolTimeLife Podcast: The 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.

Time Management and the Fear of the Unknown

2nd-Edition-Cover-FrontAs living beings, our desire for self-preservation translates into a fear of the unknown. For example, our senses sharpen if we walk through a dark forest or down a deserted street at night. But the fear of the unknown strikes in other ways, too. Many people choose to use email or send text messages in place of having a live conversation because they have no idea how long a conversation might last. It’s an unknown, and on a basic level, that scares them.

Many time consuming practices are rooted within the fear of the unknown:

  • The need to check for messages regularly speaks to a fear of offending the sender, the fear of missing out, the fear of being left out of the loop, and even the fear or silence and boredom, all of which are connected to the unknown.
  • The fear of delegation is based on not knowing whether another individual can perform a task to a satisfactory level.
  • Procrastination is the act of irrationally putting off a disliked task out of the fear of taking it on.
  • The fear of change is rampant in workplaces and in society – humans are innately predisposed to stay with what they know, and as such change management is a philosophy unto itself.

The list goes on and on. Basically, if you fear something because you do not know enough about it, it is your duty to find out more about it.

One of the greatest tools for conquering the fear of the unknown is to put pen to paper (or to dry-erase board) and convert fears into words. This is a highly cathartic exercise, since writing is a comparatively slow and very physical action that works in a way that corresponds to our thought processes. IN other words, make ideas tangible.

Another great tool for conquering the fear of the unknown is to talk it out with a mentor. Having a mentor is one of the single greatest investments an individual can make. A mentor acts like a sounding board, someone with experience, who will not necessarily tell you what to do, but will tell you what s/he did, which can be a very valuable lesson.

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.

What Would You Do With Four More Hours Per Day?

2nd-Edition-Cover-FrontThe techniques in this book can win you back at least four more hours’ worth of productivity per day. Simple techniques, such as applying the 80/20 rule, choosing the right time of day, eating well, and working to your own attention span, taking short breaks guarantee that the work you are doing is the best it can be.

But the question I have to ask, is once you learn how to gain four more hours of productivity per day, how would you use them? If your answer is simply to send more emails or attend more meetings then you will have gained nothing. Because it is highly likely that most of those emails and meetings exist only because there is time to spend on them. If this extra time wasn’t there, we would have to find another way. But because it is there, we fill it up with less-than-optimum tasks. This is a direct application of Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands to fill the time available”. In other words, doing more of the same type of stuff isn’t progress; it is ergonomic inflation.

If you could gain four more hours per day, how would you use them? More emails/meetings is just ergonomic inflation.

Think about that for a moment. Everybody wishes they were richer; they wish they had more money than they do now. So just imagine I am able to give you a raise of $500 per week. That’s $2000 per month, or $24,000 more per year. Even after taxes, that’s a lot more money available for you to do whatever you want. But most people – everyone except the most diligent and self-disciplined saver – will quickly grow used to this money.

Plans for paying down debts or saving for the future get eclipsed by an increased cost of living. Having more money means you now need more things – a nicer car, some extra clothes, more things for the house – and soon the pay raise becomes invisible, you still feel short of money and the debts are still there. It is very easy to get used to a windfall, whether it comes in the form of money or time.

The moment we open the door to the possibility of having more time available is the moment that an avalanche of additional unnecessary tasks pour in – tasks that would not have existed if the time had not been made available. That’s the danger inherent in winning back more hours per day: they get wasted.

There is a solution, of course, and it comes in the form of the 80/20 rule, in which time invested in planning out the day pays back in true productivity and easily sidesteps the dangers of Parkinson’s Law.

This is an excerpt from my book, Cool Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time. If you would like a copy, hop on over to my Books page. If you would like me to come and speak to your group, contact details are available on my Speaker page. Either way, you will win back time and money. It’s just practical common sense.

Redefining “Results”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Management: Clearing the Backlog

This is an excerpt from the second edition of Cool-Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time, To order, please visit www.bristall.com/cooltime.htm.

Clearing the Backlog: Blitz, Erode and Plan

A backlog, by its very definition represents a doubling of workload, in that today’s tasks must be taken care of in addition to those tasks that still remain uncompleted from previous days.

It feels most desirable for anyone taking on new time management skills to clear the backlog and start from a clean slate. Perhaps this is the right way for you, but perhaps not.

Very often people take the blitz approach by committing to a wholesale clean-up. Perhaps they come in to the office on a Saturday to work a few hours and get all the outstanding stuff out of the way – basically an extended version of focus time, held outside of work hours. Other examples of this activity can include a tidying blitz of a house, room or yard. Basically do it all, and do it all now.

The key benefit of a blitz is that the backlog is quickly cleared. The drawback, though, is that a habit has not yet been established, which means that a new backlog might start almost immediately.

An alternative to the blitz technique is the erosion technique, in which a backlog is eliminated one piece at a time in parallel with current tasks. This of course depends on the urgency of the tasks in the backlog, but it helps develop a habit that will eliminate the development of further back logs. Some examples:

  • A backlog of already-read emails that need to be filed: each email that is read and processed from this point on is filed away, and at the same time, one email from the pile is also filed.
  • A messy office or room: each item that is used is put away immediately when finished with, and at the same time, one item from the pile is also put away.
  • A backlog of tasks: with each new task that is performed, a task from the pile is also performed.

Any way you look at it, clearing a backlog takes time, whether it is done as a blitz or an erosion. The two primary objectives are to eliminate the backlog and to prevent it growing again. If it threatens to do so, despite your best efforts, then it means there is simply too much work to be handled, and that is when delegation or negotiation of workload must take over.

Comments? Please share below.

 

Task Management – Stepping out of Emotion’s Shadow

This blog was originally posted in the December 2014 issue of Time Management magazine.

Tasks are central to a workday, after all that’s what work is: a collection of tasks that support the reason why any person is employed. But tasks have both an emotional and rational component, and when the two of these are not in sync, delays and inefficiencies occur.

The primary emotional component has to do with whether a person likes the task or not. The liking of a task can be linked to the actions of the task, its end result, or even the person or cause for which the task is being done. If a task is pleasurable, it is easier to take on. By contrast, tasks that are boring, disagreeable, or in some way not in sync with an individual’s motivations, become unpleasant and easy targets for procrastination or distraction. There is an instinctive aversion to unpleasantness that all humans experience.

There is a secondary emotional component at play as well, and this has to do with a person’s ability to actually anticipate with any degree of accuracy, just how long a task will take. Most people, by default are optimistic when it comes to time assessments. They believe a task or a meeting will just take an hour, when in fact twice that amount is necessary. Humans are equally bad judging distances and managing money. All of these things are too esoteric for the brain to handle.

This is why, in the project management world, tasks are broken down into units, often called Work Units. If a project manager recognizes that it takes an employee precisely six minutes to open a laptop, log on, locate a file, read the file, save it to a USB drive, eject the USB correctly and then log off the computer, that entire sequence, once tested a few times, can be identified as a Work Unit. Consequently, when planning the resources and time needed for a project, and when breaking project tasks down to their smallest discreet sizes, the project manager can calculate with reasonable accuracy how long things will take and how much they will cost.

People don’t do enough of this on a day-to-day basis. Imagine this, for example: an IT manager asks you how many emails per day you deal with. The first question becomes, “what do you mean, ‘deal with?’ Do you mean how many I receive, or send or both? So immediately there is vagueness around the task of handling email. If the project manager’s answer is “both,” then the answer often becomes, “Well, it depends on the day.” Only when pushed further will someone give a reasonably accurate answer: twenty per day. Fifty. One hundred.

The next question the project manager will ask is, “how long, on average, does each of these emails take?” This is obviously an unfair question, since emails vary from thirty seconds to many hours, if a request for extra work is involved. But that’s precisely the point. People often approach tasks in an ad hoc candid fashion, and the task of reading and responding to a new email distracts the reader emotionally. They no longer are aware of the time it takes to do something they are already caught up in.

The solution to all events that are dominated by emotion is to balance that emotion with logic. The logic in the case of emails is to categorize emails into four or more categories: ones that take less than thirty seconds, those that take up to two minutes, those that take up to five minutes, and those that require work/research/reading that will extend beyond fifteen minutes.

This last category of emails should no longer even be considered emails: they are appointments. If the work involved requires fifteen minutes (or more) then the email should actually be physically dragged across onto the face of the calendar to become an actual event. This makes it real, in the mind of the employee and of anyone else who might need that employee’s attention. This is real work, and must be treated as such.

As for the other categories of emails, these should be parsed – how many of each per day – and then assigned a block of time in the calendar.

Imagine that after analyzing email in this fashion over a sample two-week period, an employee recognizes that fully two hours of every day must be given over to email. What if she were to then block off a recurring two-hour block, every day, for email? It is quite a disturbing sight to see so much of a workday, possibly as much as twenty-five percent, being swallowed up by email alone. It forces the question, “is all of this email truly necessary, and if not, what can be done to trim it back?”

Obviously, no-one is expected to deal with their email in one contiguous two-hour block per day – that would be unrealistic. But identifying and symbolizing the total amount of time required per day helps counter the casual emotion-dominated approach people have to this particular task, and bring it down to earth with a thud, where they are better able to assess it more clinically.

This approach to task management – identifying work units inside casual activities, is not exclusive to email. It is recommended that all tasks of all types, from meetings to travel to self-directed work, be analyzed as work units, so that their durations can actually be planned and influenced in advance.

This is one of the keys to proactive time management, born out of the science of project management and applied to the day-to-day.

Time Management: Motivation

I write for Time Management for iPad Magazine, an authority on Time Management. This article was originally published in September2013.

TMMag13The formula is quite simple: to be motivated to do something means that your body wants to do it, but not your mind. Take gold or diamond prospecting, for example. It involves a great deal of back-breaking work, for small-time operators anyway. They persevere, day in and day out, spurred on by the possibility of striking pay dirt and its promised riches. Intellectually, the mind knows that a lot of labour is involved, but the body, with its instincts for survival and a better, safer life, is motivated to continue, regardless.

It is the same for all tasks, even those smaller in scope than panning for gold. Motivation must speak to the body, not the mind.

Leadership, for example, is a school of knowledge in which certain people learn, or try to learn, how to extract consistently great behaviour from other human beings. Good leaders learn that motivation and quality are best achieved through positive reward as opposed to punishment, and great leaders learn that positive reward is a process that requires consistent conscious application. Great leadership though, comes down to a few simple concepts, such as acknowledgement of other peoples’ hard work, a vision and communication style that inspires confidence, and the skills to build great teams and realistic plans. All of these attributes inspire confidence in others, and confidence, just like the potential riches of a gold mine, speaks to comfort and security: very human, very instinctive, very basic desires.

Therefore, when an individual seeks to find the motivation to get a task done on time, whether at work or at home – a PowerPoint presentation or the laundry – an intellectual knowledge of the task is not sufficient. There must be a human desire – an enjoyment of the result – a confirmation of the value of this task to one’s own existence, which must factor in.

If you are seeking to motivate yourself to perform a task, what can you identify as the pleasure – as the physiological reward that your body and instincts need? Will this task bring you money? Respect? Promotion? Further opportunity? Such results are positive, tangible rewards and they need to be identified and written down as part of your plan. Tangible rewards symbolize an end point of an action; the point at which the body can rest and recoup its energy, while enjoying a slightly better living situation than it had prior to the task. To schedule an activity without such a promise of reward is to work blind, and the human body doesn’t like to do that. It needs to see that it will be better off after the task or it will not want to do it.

Granted, not all tasks carry a positive reward, or at least not an obvious one. Sometimes the reward lies in just getting it done. The relief of getting an onerous task off your plate might be sufficient reward. A clear awareness of the road ahead, a visualization of the fact that life exists beyond this task, that there are other things happening in your life this afternoon, tomorrow, next week, might be sufficient to keep the task in perspective and to stave off procrastination.

Ultimately, motivation is connected to pleasure. Motivation to diet or eat right must be connected to the pleasure of buying slimmer clothes or of living long enough to enjoy one’s children, grandchildren or one’s leisure activities. The motivation to undertake a new time-effective technique such as organization or planning must demonstrate a similar benefit, to yourself and to everyone else involved.

Think about distraction for a moment. Have you ever found yourself drifting off? You read a paragraph (like this one) and suddenly discover your mind has looked at the words but not processed them? Intellectually you know it is important to read this, but physiologically and physically, your body says there is greater benefit to drifting away and resting for a moment. If that’s the case, it’s time to stop reading and go and do something else instead. Or find a nicer place, maybe a coffee shop or a place with a nice view. Your body knows what it wants, and it will only behave when it gets it. Motivation in yourself and in others comes from tapping into that vein and leveraging the energy that emanates from positive expectation and actual reward.

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Time Management Magazine for iPad

Better Homes and Gardens Article: Getting Orgaanized

Better Homes and GardensBelow is a link to a story that ran in the September 2012 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. I was interviewed as one of their experts on the topic of “Getting Organized.”

www.bristall.com/Steve-Prentice-2012-11-Better-Homes-and-Gardens.pdf

Get those bills out of sight!

Unsightly bills!

Unsightly bills!

This is the time of year when everyone gets serious – paying taxes, focusing on financial responsibility, performing the penance of life. Most people dislike doing taxes and paying bills because it is not enjoyable and can be a major source of procrastination and stress.

Here is just a little tip to make one part of this a little easier: keep your desk clear, and your mind will follow. Here’s what I mean:

When you receive a bill in the mail, what do you do with it? Most people leave it lying around as a reminder to pay the darn thing. Pretty soon this leads to a pile of ugly looking envelopes, lying in a stack in the kitchen or by the computer, reminding you in their passive yet nasty way that they are still waiting to be paid.

Clutter affects thinking. Your short-term creative memory needs all the help and space it can get, and when too many items fill its field of view, clear thought is pushed away. You might not think this happens to you but it does. You might not think it means a lot, but it does. Clutter obfuscates clarity, and leads to procrastination and resentment of tasks. Your personal success is dependent on being able to think clearly, plan, negotiate and influence.

My suggestion is simple and clean: whenever you receive a bill in the mail, open it, and note down in your calendar the amount and its due date, allowing three days or so for processing (for online banking), then file the actual bill away. That’s it.

This leaves you with a clean working area without losing track of the bills you have to pay.

Bills will never go away, but it is always worth it to live every minute of your life free of dark feelings and fear. A clean workspace devoid of “threats” is a humble but powerful step on that path.