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Managing time


Thoughts about commemoration and utility

 

Here in the USA, today, October 8th, is Columbus Day. According to a friend of mine, this commemorates the day that the indigenous people of North America discovered a European sailor wandering around in the Caribbean, hopelessly lost and convinced he had arrived somewhere near India (hence the name West Indies).

Most countries have such commemorative days—sometimes to recall battles or national events, sometimes based on religious festivals.

What is their purpose? Are they simply an excuse for a holiday? Shouldn’t we use them for true recollection, if not of the original battle or person, then for something else?

You can find my answers to these questions in my article today for Lifehack.org (Next Saturday (or maybe the one after that) is “Doing Nothing Day”).

It seems to me that we should have such days whenever we need them—not to remember events long past or religious stories, but to give ourselves time to think about who and what we are and our choices in life—to take pleasure in being alive and contemplate what it might mean to live a life worthy of the miracle of even being here.

This, to me at least, is truly something worth commemorating.

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The keys to a calmer life include becoming the master of information, not its servant

How much time do you waste each day dealing with e-mails or instant messages, catching up on RSS feeds, or handling needless telephone calls? Would you like much of that time freed for other things? It’s possible—provided you stand firm on a few vital points.

When people complain of information overload they’re admitting that they have become the servant of their communication, not its master.

Data is infinite, for all practical purposes. However much you have, there will always be more. However much you process, more will arise to re-stock your queue.

It’s worth thinking about all that data. How much is really necessary? How much is there in your in-basket because that’s the way it has always been? How much do you absorb and understand—truthfully? How much is accumulated for the age-old purpose known as CYA (cover your ass)?

And how much time is spent communicating because it is much more interesting and enjoyable that the rest of your job?

How can you get back to a sensible level of information gathering and regain control over your time?

  • Stop assuming needless obligations. Just because messages are waiting, you do not have to read them now—or ever. If people send you messages unasked, delays in answering aren’t your problem.
  • Take charge of all means of communication. Use what you need and discard the rest. Too much information is as bad as too little. It swamps your mind and prevents you seeing the truth clearly.
  • Establish rational priorities and stick to them. It’s so tempting to keep adjusting as more and more “demands” arrive. But unless something fundamental has changed, there’s no call to change what you decided earlier was most important.
  • Be firm and courageous. Much of the reasoning behind people’s inability to stop jumping to read every message as it arrives is really based on fear: the fear that the new message may be something bad, that it may call attention to some mistake, that it may be “something important.” Fear is never a sound basis for setting priorities.
  • Learn to say “no” more often. If you’re a pushover, people will continue to impose on you, valuing their own time much more highly than yours.
  • Reading RSS feeds is a choice, not a duty. If it takes too much time, don’t do it. Always limit the time spent on it.
  • Disconnect for long periods. You are employed to do specific work and that must always be your first priority. You aren’t there to pander to people who expect instant answers to trivial questions,. Let them wait or ignore them altogether.
  • Notice any tendency to addiction. Why do people become addicted to being instantly available? My guess is because it’s far more interesting than their actual work. in fact, it’s an excuse not to do what they’re paid for. If you notice signs of addiction in yourself, think about what it’s telling you. If answering e-mails, playing with IMs, and reading RSS feeds are more interesting than your real work, it’s high time you considered getting a job that really does claim your attention.

Distractions of all kinds are amongst the most potent sources of workplace stress and loss of effectiveness. When communication itself becomes a distraction, it’s high time to shut most of it down.

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If most leaders and executives worked half the amount of time they are working today, I am convinced they would produce much greater output. Before I get a barrage of e-mails arguing this point, let me explain.

The reason is simple. If you had less time to work, you would work on only the things that produced the greatest impact. You would work less on the things you enjoy and more on the things you should. You would meet with only selected people, answer fewer emails, and attend fewer events. Your efforts would be focused only on activities and relationships that produced the greatest return. Moreover, each interaction through the day would be valued at a greater level than today.

I know hundreds of CEOs and entrepreneurs, with organizations from 1 million dollars sales volume to billions in revenue. They have a universal problem that is not dependent on the size of their company. Most are extremely busy and their lives can be described as chaotic most of the time. Yet, however hard they work, they still never have enough time to accomplish everything they want.

However, I have also seen a select few whose lives are very stable—so stable that I would describe them as peaceful. I estimate less than 1% fit in this category. What is their secret?

Would you describe your work life as relaxed? If not, you might try something: To find out what you should be working on, take off at noon today. That’s right, stop working and go home. If you know the day will be over at noon—if you know that’s all the time you have—you will gain clarity, focus, and give priority to the things you should be doing.

Matthew Myers is co-founder and partner of Giant Partners and Giant Impact. He has years of CEO experience, both in start-up and mature companies. Mr. Myers is passionate about helping companies grow by working with CEOs and senior executives to implement strategic growth initiatives and build leaders. You can find additional articles by Matthew at http://giantpartners.wordpress.com.

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When faced with some unpleasant or difficult task, rushing to get it over with can lead to poor decisions.

I see many articles claiming to help people with the “problem” of procrastination, but I have never found one that explains how useful if can be. I’ve decided to put that right. Avoiding decisions and worrying situations—especially unpleasant ones—is a very understandable human trait. But sometimes it’s the only logical course of action as well. Here’s a pat on the back for all procrastinators!

When faced with a difficult situation or a tough decision, plunging ahead and acting on the principle of “Let’s get it over with” may not help. And that isn’t just my idea. Research from Emory University, published in the journal Science in May 2006, shows how dread of what might happen is a powerful force that pushes people into action simply to “get it over with,” even if the more rational course of action would be to delay. So strong is this motivation that it could even cause people to accept more pain than they needed to, just to get it over with.

The research found that the more people fear a negative outcome, the more likely they are to choose “pain now” rather than wait, even if the pain at the end of the waiting period would be less. It seems the discomfort of waiting, fearing something bad is going to happen, is judged worse than accepting the pain right away.

I’ve certainly experienced this many times in my own life, sometimes almost hurrying to face something I know is likely to hurt, rather than accepting the misery of waiting with the threat still looming over me. I’m sure it affects others in a similar way, even if the pain they anticipate turns out in the end to be, as so often, due mostly to imagination.

So let’s think about how any decision to delay, or to push ahead, is critically affected by how people feel during the waiting period.

Bad feelings versus bad decisions

This is an important question for people in the workplace. Rushing into something you fear, just to get it over with, can easily cause you to make a bad decision. At the very least, waiting a little might allow circumstances to change, as well as giving you more time to think through the options. Maybe the tendency to prefer immediate action over delay isn’t simply the modern urge for instant gratification. Maybe it also has a lot to do with the desire to get the bad stuff over with as quickly as possible. Thinking, reflecting, exploring are almost always more rational responses; but all involve delay, while the dread of a bad outcome still hangs in the air. Better to “get it done” and move on, than to think about it too much and face that anxiety from anticipation and imagination.

By knowing that the fear that something bad may happen—perhaps is almost certain to—is such a powerful motivator to instant action—even if that action guarantees facing much of the anticipated pain right away—it should be possible to make the alternative decision to wait and use whatever time you can get to work on getting it right, not just doing it quickly.

But why delay?

The more difficult and scary the decision, the more useful delay ought to be. Who knows what may happen in the meantime? Who knows what fresh ideas may occur to you while you wait—ideas that may ward off the problem entirely? Besides, whatever time is available can then be used to explore more options and consider more alternatives.

That’s the key. The procrastinators who leave decisions or actions until the very last moment—especially if they may involve pain or trouble—purely out of habit and indecisiveness aren’t doing themselves any favors. Especially if they waste the time ignoring the problem and simply hoping it will go away; or filling their heads with ever more wild imaginings about the terrible outcomes that may beset them. Only those who delay consciously—are helping themselves; the ones who use every moment of time during that delay in productive ways. You have to use the waiting period, either to keep your eyes open for any change that might be relevant, or to think long and hard about new options for dealing with whatever painful issue is still looming over you.

Maybe that’s why so many avoid doing this. They not only have to live with the dread longer, they have to make it more real by thinking about it. So they prefer to make even a bad decision if it cuts off the pain and anxiety sooner. In a world where emotions have so often come to prevail over logic, that makes a twisted kind of sense—though the likely result is still more pain and misery to come when those instant bad decisions bear fruit.

Benefits of going slow

For more thoughtful people though, bearing a little emotional pain today is a small price to pay for avoiding much more discomfort—real as well as emotional—in the future. Going slow isn’t simply about curbing the speed of action or thought. It’s more about knowing when to be patient and allow things to take their course, and when to act decisively.

One of the guiding principles of Slow Leadership is expressed as “right tempo.” that means choosing your speed carefully, consciously, and in tune with the actual demands of the situation. It’s an important factor in success, as well as limiting stress. Sadly, the current fashion is to despise patience and act as if the the only available speeds are fast, faster, and flat out.


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However much you try to slow down and avoid activities that consume time and energy to no purpose, there will still be occasions when you are going to be busy and pressured. That’s a simple fact of modern organizational life. So how to deal with it?

Here are some ideas, taken from a wide range of sources (plus my own experience), that should help you to save time and trouble when things get hectic:

  • Always think ahead about the most likely consequences, not just the ones that you want to happen. The idea here is simple: to try to avoid causing yourself more problems and stress through a moment’s thoughtless action. One of the commonest consequences of being under pressure is a failure to look ahead. It seems so important to get a quick result. But cutting corners, taking risks without proper consideration, and rushing into precipitate action can all cost you far more time in cleaning up the mess afterwards than you saved at the time.
  • It’s always worth taking ample time to get a message across to others. It’s the same temptation: to rush through some phone call, message, or conversation because you can’t really spare the time and you have so much still waiting for you to do. Resist it! If people can see that you’re harassed, they’ll often try to be helpful by saying they understand when they don’t. Few situations are more maddening than discovering, too late, that someone you were relying on for a key element in a project misunderstood what you said that you wanted.
  • Consider every request to attend a meeting with the greatest skepticism. Your default position should be to stay away. Avoid any meeting with no clear agenda, no obvious ending time, and no purpose that makes sense to anyone except the organizer. Don’t assume you can go and quietly do work at the back. It’s more discourteous than staying away and it rarely works.
  • Practice at least a dozen firm but polite variations on “no” until you can say them in your sleep. Then use them whenever needed—which will be all the time. The best way to stop yourself becoming overloaded is to refuse to take an anything else. If the person giving you yet more work is your boss, ask for clear priorities, explaining that you need be sure what to drop to make way for the new piece of work. You’ll be surprised how often this will make a boss reconsider.
  • Learn the two key ways of reading: skimming for relevance and filleting for data. When you skim a document, your sole purpose should be to decide whether it contains anything worth reading. Let your gaze run down the page looking for key words and phrases. If you find any, put a small “x” in the margin and move on. Then glance over the number of “x” markings. Less than 5-6 means don’t mess with it further unless one of those is essential. Filleting is going back to the “x” marks and collecting the data you need. The best way is to make your own notes in a small book. Then toss the original.
  • Don’t accept what you’re told on trust, save from proven sources. When you’re rushed, the temptation will be to “save time” by accepting what you’ve been told. Always check. It’s well worth the time. You’ll look an idiot if the information isn’t true, and no one will accept the excuse that you were in a hurry.
  • Become familiar with the notions of estimates and orders of magnitude. You can often spot an error or problem almost instantly, without any calculation, by realizing that it is impossible. That’s especially true with numbers. If you know the answer has to be less than 10, and if what is on the page is 14.7, it has to be wrong. No more analysis is needed than that. One of the most useful skills I ever taught myself was the ability to estimate the order of magnitude of the right answer. I rarely needed to know any more to save myself huge amounts of time on analysis.
  • Know when to stop. The more you’re under pressure, the more you will be tempted to press on working well beyond the point where your attention and effectiveness begin to fail. Don’t do it. It seems as if it will help, but you’ll most likely either have to do all that work again or waste time clearing up the mess you made for yourself. And you’ll have denied yourself the rest needed even to do that properly.

Coping with turbulence

Imagine someone in a kayak, negotiating a river full of rapids. That’s you, facing all the turbulence and unexpected pressures of your work.

An inexperienced and foolish kayaker is totally occupied with trying to deal with every twist and surge of the current. His or her attention is fixed on what is happening right now. The ride is a nightmare of hidden rocks, violent eddies, and constant threats of being overturned and drowned. Time flashes by in a blur of near-panic. Any patches of calm water are used up in exhausted collapse, desperately trying to catch a breath before the next horror.

The more experienced kayaker faces the same perils. But that person has learned to look always a little way ahead, sensing the flow of the river and avoiding some at least of the hidden rocks and shallows. By doing so, he or she has more scope to find areas of slightly calmer water, where rest is possible and there’s a moment to look around and enjoy the view.

Although both kayakers may pass the same time in the rapids, as measured by the clock, the experienced one feels as if he or she has much more time. Time is always as much subjective as objective and when we’re in a turmoil of short-term fire-fighting, it passes with such speed that it causes stress by itself.

If I had to sum all of this up as simply as possible, I would say that the key to coping with stress and pressure is to do just about the opposite of what feels most called for: slow down as much as you can, look ahead as much as possible, drop everything non-essential, and do the rest as carefully and thoughtfully as possible so you only have to do any of it once. And always, always, try to avoid making yet more work for yourself by rushing, cutting corners, and making needless mistakes.

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How to win back large parts of your day.

When people write about time management, they usually focus on impersonal matters: prioritization, organization, various forms of distraction and loss of focus. All sound topics, and all safely open to being dealt with by training or some teachable techniques. But when I look back on my own career, I can see that these safe topics miss at least five of the most common—and most greedy—thieves of productive time. These are the five.

Not only do these five behaviors waste time on a grand scale, they’re all notable stress producers as well. You can’t deal with them by techniques, fancy software, or skill training. The behaviors I’m thinking of are too personal for that. The only way to deal with them is to bring them into the open and see them for what they are: brazen thieves of time, attention, and—most pernicious of all—peace of mind. Then determine to wage all-out war on them to break yourself of the hold they have on you.

Holding grudges

Like a corpse rising from its grave, putrid and stinking of decay, the habit of holding grudges digs around in what’s dead and gone and drags it out to corrupt the present. How many actions are taken in the workplace with the express intention of paying off old scores? How many projects are derailed, how much information withheld, how much time and money wasted, just so that one person can take pleasure in making sure another’s plans fail or career is harmed?

Scoring petty points

The second habit consumes significant amounts of time and effort to no purpose, and is almost as shameful as the first. Meetings are often riddled with items there for the express purpose of scoring points. The sole purpose of this tawdry activity—the cause of hours wasted on needless reporting, worthless presentations, and sham questions—is to score some insignificant victory against a rival. Do these activities produce anything beneficial? Nothing whatsoever. Do they waste time, increase stress, and send people away angry and humiliated? I think the answer is obvious.

Jealousy

Jealousy defiles too many choices and actions: jealousy of another’s achievements, career progress, popularity, or even looks. If holding grudges is like a science-fiction corpse climbing from its grave, jealousy reminds me of vampire stories; of some smooth and cloying creature that sucks the blood out of living people to sustain its own existence. I have seen fine creative ideas shelved, product improvements reversed, customers deliberately lost, and false accusations raised, with the sole purpose of feeding someone’s jealousy.

Anyone who steals from their employer is rightly labeled a thief. Someone who wastes resources through lack of ability is likely to be fired for incompetence. But the jealous ones—the ones who often destroy far more value and throw away resources on a larger scale to feed their obsession—all too often get away with it.

I began deliberately with the most obnoxious and serious habits. My last two are, in many ways, ridiculous and childish. Yet they still consume huge amounts of time that might otherwise be put to good use; and they probably cause at least as much stress and pain as any of the other three.

The habit of gossiping

That’s certainly true of gossiping. How many hours are wasted in idle, often malicious tittle-tattle? How many e-mails, instant messages, and phone calls are sent with no other purpose than to spread tales, or delight in cruel or salacious rumors? And don’t waste time pointing out to me that various media publications consist of nothing else. People make money out of peddling drugs, but that isn’t seen as a reason for encouraging the trade. Gossip is a total waste of time at best, and usually considerably worse: mean-minded, self-righteous, bigoted, and petty.

Countless people suffer stress and pain because others gossip about them, knowing full well the hurt they will cause. Time and resources are wasted, communication systems abused, and reputations undermined for the same reason. Saying that it’s common doesn’t excuse it.

Showing-off

The final item on my list is showing-off. How many presentations have you sat through that were put together for that purpose? How many pointless meetings are organized so that someone can indulge in a public display of their importance? How many useless reports have been generated in pursuit of personal aggrandizement, or fatuous requests made for unnecessary data? The pompous jerks who inflate themselves at every opportunity may be ridiculous—even comic—but they still waste massive amounts of time and cause extra work for everyone around them.

Any organization—or any leader, come to that—that truly wishes to cut costs and eliminate waste could do no better than start by declaring total war on these five habits, personally and organizationally. And any individual—yes, maybe even you—who wants to cut their stress levels and increase their peace of mind should look deeply into their mind and actions and tear out all traces of these miserable habits.

They are worthless, they are poisonous, and they are hateful. Treat them like the malignant diseases they are. Don’t tolerate them for another day in yourself, and do all that you can to discourage them in others.

It’s my guess that you will be amazed at the time—and cost reductions—that will follow; to say nothing of the massive improvement in the working atmosphere.

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Sufficient time is the key to making personal changes that stick.

One of the worst aspects of modern working life is the constant pressure to hurry. Not only does it create needless stress and tension, it goes a long way to making people seem dumber and more resistant to change than they are. If you want to make some personal—or organizational —changes, and make them stick, slow down and give yourself some time and space in which to work.

In all the discussion on the subject of personal or organizational development, one subject that occurs far too rarely is time: the necessity of giving yourself and others sufficient time to allow change and development to take place properly. Time is an essential component in any change involving human beings. Despite all the rush in today’s world, and the constant demands for the gratification of desires now, almost any progress people make in their lives takes far, far longer than they usually allow for.

Time to learn

Your first requirement should be plenty of free time to learn, to think, to reflect, and to internalize fresh ideas. Everyone has the experience of thinking they know something, only to find they’ve forgotten it after a few days. Say you’re learning another language. In the class, what the teacher says is clear and obvious. You know you have it straight this time. But 24 hours later it’s gone. Your brain isn’t a bag that you can stuff with knowledge and ideas and expect them to stay there. Most people’s brains are more like boxes full of holes that allow a great portion of whatever is put in to escape rather quickly. New learning is ‘liquid’ and easily runs out through the holes. Only by repeating the learning experience, typically many times. can you make whatever you’re trying to learn ’sticky’ enough to stay put.

Time to see patterns

You also need time to reflect and see the links between items or areas of knowledge. The human brain finds it hard to hang on to disconnected pieces of information. Unlike a computer disc, it doesn’t cope well with large amounts of more or less random data. What it does best is see connections, linking information together and remembering the patterns, not the individual bits and pieces of data. Remembering a principle is far easier than recalling facts or some specific set of procedures. Do you see such links instantly? Usually not. It takes time to register them fully and understand them well enough to recall them whenever you want.

Time to think

Thinking time is also vital: time to plan, to prioritize, and to choose how best to expend your attention and energy. Doing anything in a rush increases the risks of missing key elements, making needless mistakes, and wasting effort. I’m somewhat suspicious of today’s fashion for simply getting things done. Which things? For what purpose? Are they the right things anyway? All the to-do techniques and software programs may make it easier to ‘recall’ tasks and list them in some kind of order, but they don’t seem to me to help much with recognizing how much garbage doesn’t need to be on the to-do list at all. Lists easily become clogged with items if you don’t allocate enough time to thinking carefully about what you are doing. It’s a good idea to periodically go through any to-do list to see how many items can simply be dumped, with little effect other than saving valuable time and effort.

Time to change

Of course, change itself also takes time. You aren’t going to be successful with every change or idea for development every time. Many people, faced with change, behave like the investor who buys a stock today and sells it immediately if it doesn’t double their money overnight. Experienced investors allow enough time to grow their money steadily. They don’t get into situations where they must act on a particular day, since that may force them to buy or sell when the market is unfavorable. They don’t become ecstatic at every up-tick in the indexes, or depressed by every down day. They take the long perspective. Warren Buffett is famous for saying the best way to treat the ups and downs of the market is never to think about them at all. His kind of steady, thoughtful, long-term investment strategy works just as well for implementing change as it has for building his enormous fortune. Focusing on small, consistent improvements builds a solid foundation for long-term alterations that go deep enough to last.

Time to be creative

Finally, you need time to be creative. I’m not talking about sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. That’s a romantic idea that bears no relation to what genuinely creative people do. In all those ‘gaps’ where they appear to be doing nothing at all, the world’s outstanding creative minds are hard at work reflecting, ruminating, ‘noodling’ with odd ideas: tinkering with patterns and unexpected connections. What you see as the result is a mental iceberg: nearly all the activity that brought it about is hidden below the surface.

Most people don’t achieve anywhere near their creative potential because they never give themselves time to do so. They’re so conditioned to quick action that they give up on fresh thinking long before it has a chance to develop into anything. Don’t make the same mistake. Time spent day-dreaming or running over odd ideas in your head is the ’soil’ in which creative ideas grow.

Give yourself time. Give others time. It’s essential, if you truly want to improve your own prospects and advance a more civilized way of living and working.

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