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present & listening

Paying attention

Paying Attention. Focus. Being Present. Mindfulness. Whatever you call it, people think we have lost the ability.  They say we’re more easily distracted, because there are so many more distractions than there used to be. I’m slightly sceptical of these statements about the hectic pace of modern life. Mostly because people have been making them for 2000 years. Here’s a quote from Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor who ruled from 160 to 180 AD, I guess in response new papyrus technology, or recent increased chariot performance.

“Confine yourself to the present”

So how do you actually do that? What’s the instruction manual for being present? There’s been an upsurge in courses and writings on Mindfulness, because of the perceived benefits in treating depression`and anxiety, and reducing stress. It’s a bit of a mash-up of different Buddhist teachings, with a 21st century spin, and it seems to work. But for me, being able to pay attention to your own thoughts, and not judge them, isn’t being in the present. If your mind wanders off, wondering “What’s for Dinner?” , and you consciously attend to it, that’s being in a present that feels a bit irrelevant. I’m probably missing something, because it’s becoming big business –  Google are running courses in it for their employees. Note to Google’s HR department, being present is different to presenteeism…… but they probably already knew that.

Here are some really easy tips for not only being present, but showing other people you are as well. I know they work, because my clients tell me they do:

  1. If you find your mind wandering while someone else is talking to you, you can keep yourself on track by silently repeating their words to yourself.
  2. Any form of exercise gets you back in touch with Now. Including sex.
  3. Become a good listener. Stop yourself from formulating snappy responses in your head, while someone else is talking. Just attend to what they’re saying, tune out those voices in your head.
  4. Do one thing at a time. However great you think you are at multi-tasking, you’re actually crap. You can’t check  email and pay attention to your kid’s football match at the same time. You’re actually micro-switching from one task to another, and doing neither very well.
  5. Be spontaneous. Get comfortable with unpredictability. Learn improv,  tell jokes. Take up a sport where you have an opponent, or a whole team of them.
  6. Stop making numbered, ordered lists.

Good Luck and let us know how you get on by leaving a comment.

 

I’m one of the pioneer service providers for Google Helpouts, giving 30 minute coaching sessions to walk up clients.

Helpouts

Google Helpouts

 

This is the logo for Google’s new video-based service. He’s waving, not drowning.

Being a Helpouts dude has  been a combination of great satisfaction and niggling frustration.

 “I make sure they come away with at least one practical step they can take to solve their issue”

On the plus side,  it’s been brilliant with the guys that made the time to navigate the new service. Establishing rapport over a video link isn’t too difficult, even though the clients are from all over the world. I’ve learnt to be even crisper than I normally am, and I make sure people come away with at least one step they can take towards solving their time management problem. I like the discipline of the half hour slot, it really concentrates the mind. The trickiest part is figuring out if the customer wants to just hangout (it’s all based on Google Hangouts technology) and get a bit of free advice, or if it’s a really pressing problem that they need fixing NOW. If it’s one of those, I can’t over-complicate things. Diagnosis and cure have to be pretty rapid, especially if they don’t intend having a second session. We normally think of coaching as a process. Not as long as therapy, but usually more than one half hour slot.

The feedback has been embarrassingly (for a Brit) excellent, and I’m hoping to get repeat business as a result, which is the whole point of me doing this.

On the sucky side……

“My head space becomes like a hotel room. I have to remake it so the next guest believes they’re the first occupant.”

We have just finished the first week, and the sessions have all been free, just so we can all try it out and see how it works. But there have been about 50% no shows. I guess this is because there’s no cost for non-appearance, just my time. I’m now charging a nominal fee, and I hope that will make people show up. The worst part for me, though, is getting ready for the next client. I’m half expecting them not to turn up, but being in a state of readiness if they do. My head space becomes like a hotel room. I have to remake it (in 60 seconds) so the next guest believes they’re the first occupant.

Speed coaching – for people who don’t have time. It could catch on.

Why not try it out? You need a computer, a video camera, some free software and 30 minutes

 

Team Meeting Time

Time for a Team Meeting

Time management for teams is vital. Colleagues demand your time. Meetings are a major time-suck. Being time poor is a tragedy of the commons.

Why’s it vital? You and your colleagues hold the key to you all being more productive. If you can just work uninterrupted for 40 minutes at one stretch, you’ll be 66% more productive.

There are two kinds of interruption that disrupt your workflow and kill your productivity:

Interruptions Controlled By You:

  • checking email every time you get a notification (yep, you control this – it’s your choice)
  • checking Facebook
  • getting up for a break
  • interrupting someone else
  • answering the phone (see email)
  • multi-tasking

Interruptions Not Controlled By You:

  • meetings
  • a colleague interrupts you
  • last-minute requests for urgent information
  • needing more information before you can progress
  • an emergency

Step one is to eliminate the ones that you control, by turning off alerts and just focusing on one thing for 40 minutes.

Step two is to make the interruptions that you don’t control more controllable. That means negotiating  with your colleagues, your boss, her boss. You all need to agree that, when your special sign is up, you can’t be interrupted – unless there’s an emergency. You all need to agree that meetings have a declared purpose, that everyone turns up and leaves on time, and that everyone is present during that time – so not covertly checking email or doing something else that wastes your collective time.

So that’s the short-term taken care of. You can then look at longer term distractions. Here I’m thinking of those “initiatives” and “special projects” that management cook up. You have to get them done as well, but how do they align with the company’s strategic objectives, and your own? It’s important to know this, because if you understand the reasons, you can then increase your own sense of control. They belong to you, and you can prioritise yourself. You don’t have to go running back to the boss every time you have a conflict in your schedule.

Because when you do that, you get recommended to go on a Time Management course, and no one wants that, do they?

“At the Harvard Business School, the philosophy has long been to eschew formal training in time management, instead overloading students purposely to force them to learn for themselves how to prioritize and become better time managers.”

Source: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/7146.html

 

 

Time's in your head

Time’s in your head

My earliest memory is when I was about four years old. As I remember it, there was a snowy winter that seemed to go on for ages. The snow was deep and didn’t melt for weeks – a rare thing in England. I remember making snowmen, and throwing snowballs at/ with my brother and cousin.

I don’t really know whether the snow lasted for weeks – it certainly seemed like it, but I hadn’t started at school, so time wasn’t yet divided into weekends and weekdays. It was a continuous, unstructured Present. And my memory of it now is a distorted, reconstructed version of what actually happened, fifty years ago. All of this is taking place in my head, it’s the only place I can locate my Past.

But time is obviously a thing, you say. We have clocks. We divide those years into months, weeks, days, femtoseconds. It must be a thing if we can manipulate it and measure it like that. I can see the distinction between yesterday, which has already happened, and tomorrow, which hasn’t yet.

Here’s what Einstein said:

“….the distinction between the past, the present and the future is only a stubbornly  persistent illusion”

Have a think about your last holiday. What kind of time did you have? Compare the quality of that time with queueing at the post office. I’m willing to bet that they feel different, even though they both had a duration that could be measured.

When you procrastinate, you’re doing some mental gymnastics to keep you from completing a task. It’s not that you don’t physically have enough time. You put off doing something important to you by choosing to do something less important. Maybe you don’t know why, but it’s definitely a mental operation.

But so what? What if time is an illusion. How does that change things back in the real world?

If it’s an illusion, we’re not all seeing the same thing. That means we’re not all having the same experience at the same time. It’s different for all of us. And that’s important at work, at home, with colleagues, friends, kids, lovers, neighbours – whoever. In the present,  we’re not having a digitally perfect “experience” being played to us, and when we remember the past, we’re not replaying the same DVD. It gets filtered, distorted and remade at all stages, like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy.

And then we have to take into account how different cultures view time.

It’s no wonder that guy in sales never gets his monthly report in on time. If your boss is always late for a meeting, is it poor-timekeeping or disrespect? When you’re told that the meeting next Friday (8th Nov) has been moved back to Tuesday, what date is it now on? Feel free to use a calendar to work it out.

Answers on a postcard, or better still, leave a comment.

 

Time Anxiety

Time Anxiety

 

The Big Business Man smiled. “Time,” he said, “is what keeps everything from happening at once.”

…….And space is supposed to stop it from all happening to me.

It usually happens on a Friday, a few hours before a looming deadline, the day before a holiday. The printer stops. The computer goes into update mode, or crashes altogether. People you need to talk to vanish off the face of the earth, just to spite you. All you want to do is get out of there, close the door and run away, very fast, and very far. But you can’t, because you’ve remembered that you’re a grown up, with responsibilities and people who are depending on you. And shouting at your laptop isn’t a good look.

So what can you do when time anxiety grips you? It’s about managing your state, as well as your time.

Step 1. Stop.

Stop and breathe. You’re going to need oxygen, but not for running away. You’ll need it to think straight and clearly and come up with a plan. But for the moment, just stop and recover. Stand up. Feel the weight on your feet. Relax and drop your shoulders. Move your centre of gravity down to your navel and breathe slowly, from your belly. Be present. You might need to repeat this from time to time,as we go through the next steps,  if you feel that your centre of gravity has shifted upside your head.

Step 2. Gather Resources.

Gather resources, starting with yourself. Go back to the past. Think back. This is probably not the first time you’ve needed to deal with a deluge of demands, 90% of them unreasonable, unfair and poorly timed. How did you overcome? What are your strengths, that you know you can rely on in a crisis? Name them and gather them in a circle in front of you. Bring to mind a few more of those sticky situations and the resources you used. Put them in the circle in front of you. Then step into the circle and take them on board, one by one. Use a key word as an anchor to bring this state to mind when you need it in future.

Step 3. Plan

Using what you now know from Steps 1 and 2, look around you. Who else could help you, if you asked them?  Ignore the voices in your head telling you it will take too much time to involve other people. Pretend you have loads of time, just for now. Even if you just bounce your ideas off someone else, you won’t be on your own.

Now put together a visual plan to get you where you need to be, broken down into timed chunks. If you have an hour, split it into 10 minute chunks. If you have longer, split it into 30 minute segments. Be clear, and write down how you’re going to use each timed segment, including a small amount of time to review each chunk. This will keep you in control.

Step 4. Do.

When you’re pressed for time, the easy thing to do is to start here, in the belief that you don’t have any time to plan. But steps 1 to 3 should only take you ten minutes in total. Your return on this investment is regaining your sense of control and agency. Your anxiety level has dropped.You’re back in the driving seat. Things aren’t just happening to you.

Step 5. Review

When it’s all over, take stock and get a wider perspective. If you could get a re-do, how would you change things? Start from further back than when the shit appeared to hit the fan. You’ll probably find that things were set up to go wrong at a much earlier stage.The warning signs often get ignored. You should review dispassionately. This isn’t beat yourself up time, it’s a genuine discovery process, so you’re being curious, not the Witchfinder-General.

In summary, you combat time anxiety by getting back in control. Of yourself, mostly.

Many people will tell you that Time Management is really about Self Management, because you can’t manage time. They’re right, if repetitive. But it’s not about a Spartan regime of discipline and self-denial. I prefer to call it Self Mastery.

If you liked this article, you might like this one: “Time Poor. You’re Probably Making Things Worse”.

And you might want to subscribe to our email list, so you won’t miss out in future. There are links over on the right hand side.

 

Eric Ries Lean Startup Book Photo Credit Betsy Weber

Lean Startup – Innovation at work.
Photo Credit Flickr Betsy Weber

Lean Startup rocks. If you’re starting a new business you should read Eric Ries’s book. If you work for an established business, and want to innovate, you should read it. I’ve just been listening to a webcast with Eric Ries, Patrick Vlaskovits and Brant Cooper. They were talking about Lean Startup, and how to roll Lean Startup out into bigger organisations.

“The Future’s going to be the same as today. Right? “

Eric said something that struck me hard. That big companies (and the people who work in them) fundamentally believe –  “The Future is going to be the same as today, right?”.

As humans we need to have some dependability and predictability in our lives. That’s why people work in a big organisation isn’t it? They get security,  structure and stability in exchange for their labour. The trouble is, in the new normal, it’s not like that any more.

“Even when they saw it coming, they couldn’t do anything to stop their own extinction”

Just five years ago, Nokia and Blackberry (then called RIM) were the kings of the mobile phone industry. Today, they’re both in their death-throes. Apple launched its first iPhone in June 2007. By 2011 they were the largest mobile handset vendor in the world (by revenue) having shipped 100 million units. Nokia has recently been bought by Microsoft. Blackberry has canned 10,000 people in the last year. They’re both toast. Even when they saw it coming, they couldn’t do anything to stop their extinction.

Successful today no longer means successful tomorrow. Start ups are disrupting and fragmenting established industries by using new technology. The barriers to entry are very low. Dropbox gauged whether people were interested in its product just by getting people to sign up on a website. They knew they had a product people wanted without writing a line of code, and they had a queue of early adopters ready to buy when they launched.

“No one knows where the next upstart startup is going to come from”

So the security and stability of a big company, is illusory. They can’t count on the future being the same as today. That’s why today’s buzzword is innovation. No one knows where the next upstart startup is going to come from, but if you don’t innovate, they’ll eat your lunch and eventually they’ll eat you.

That’s pretty scary (unless you’re the one doing the eating). So it’s no wonder those firms want new ways of working that need more agility, the ability to turn on a sixpence and to change direction if it turns out that no one wants to buy their killer new product. In a big company that’s hard to do. I’m talking to you, Microsoft.

What’s this got to do with time management and teams ? Well we believe that time management is right thinking about the past, present and future. And these are three distinctive skills, that you can learn. Innovation is understanding that the future is going to be very different to the present, and it’s not one big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey wimey stuff.

 

 

Time Poor

Time Poor

According to a Harvard behavioural economist and a Princeton psychologist:

“If you have very little, you often behave in such a way so that you’ll have little in the future”

These guys have just published a book entitled “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much”. It doesn’t just cover being money poor, it looks at being time poor as well.

What they found is that money and time poor people have trouble escaping from the poverty trap because they have to single-mindedly focus so much on the problem, they lose perspective. They only look for immediate solutions that will fight the fire in front of them. They can’t see the longer term consequences of something that appears to fix the problem right here, right now.

Scarcity saps your mental energy so much that you can’t think straight. You have tunnel vision. That’s why people take out pay-day loans, and borrow short-term if they can’t afford to pay off other loans – it gets them over this hump.

How did this play out with the time poor? They carried out experiments on Harvard students, with video games. They had a fixed time to answer a question or complete a task. Some were allowed plenty of time. Others weren’t, but could to borrow time (time they would also need in the future). The borrowers got into a debt spiral, and they never won back enough time to pay the debt. These very smart people behaved incredibly irrationally under time pressure.

I was thinking about the irrational things I’ve done, and seen other people do, when I’ve been so squeezed for time that I can’t see my nose in front of my face. Here are just a few I’ll fess up to:

  • Saying “I haven’t got time to show someone else how to do this” and doing it myself.
  • Soldiering on through gritted teeth, as proof that I’m tough
  • Working stupid hours covering three time zones, instead of dropping one
  • Imagining that I was making myself indispensable by working long hours

Funny that they didn’t seem so stupid at the time, but looking at them now, they’re absurd.

Which gave me an idea for a competition.

We’ll give a £20 Amazon voucher to the best true life story about how you did something that only made things worse, when you were already time poor.

Please tell us your (true) story where it says “Please Leave a Comment” below. The more ridiculous, the better. We’ll pick a winner and announce it in two weeks’ time, on the 19th of October.

Burnout

Burnout

Are you worried about burnout? If not for yourself, perhaps for your colleagues. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do all of the work. Staff cuts and lack of job security mean that everyone has more to do, with fewer resources in the same amount of time.

Deadlines have to be met and we all need to deliver, otherwise, we’re toast. That’s definitely how it feels for many people today. So we end up working late, at weekends. at home, and it’s still not enough. There’s still more to do, everything’s urgent, piling up and threatening to over load your system.

“There’s no one to delegate to any more”

People get sent on Time Management courses to fix the problem, but the new normal at work isn’t about prioritising. It’s not about being better organised, or being able to delegate there’s no one to delegate to any more. It’s probably not about In-box Zero, either.

It seems like all we can do is, like a galley-slave, row faster and keep up with the drum beat.

This is where I’m supposed to tell you about our new, improved, turbo-formula Time Intelligence, with added Psychology. A magic way to get more done in less time.

Not going to do that this week. I just want to ask you………..

If this is the new normal, and most of us are heading for burnout…..

What can you do about it, for yourself and members of your team?

  • Say “No” more often?
  • Renegotiate time scales and deadlines?
  • Review your objectives, and your team’s?
  • Be ruthless in identifying waste work, especially when it’s being allocated?

And what can a company do to adjust to the new normal?

  • Update objectives?
  • Focus on a maximum of 5 strategic priorities and execute them?
  • Be ruthless in saying “No”?
  • Identify waste work, and stop doing it?
  • Make it safe for people to identify their own waste work?

One thing’s for sure. Work can’t go on like this can it?

Please leave a comment below. What’s the new normal like where you work?

 


Future

We humans are really bad at forecasts.

“Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law” 

Daniel Kahneman literally wrote the book about the Planning Fallacy. He won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002, even though he’s a psychologist. He’s as smart as you can get. But he still fell into the very trap he himself identified.

“But we did not acknowledge what we knew. The new forecast still seemed unreal, because we could not imagine how it could take so long to finish a project that looked so manageable.” Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow

The problem is, thinking about the Future is hard. It’s a long way away for most of us, particularly Present Hedonists. It’s so far away, we have to construct it by airlifting the present and plonking it down in the general area. Maybe we’ll embellish it a little, but it looks a lot like today.

However, the Future is not more of the Present. It’s not today delayed by 12 months. When you finally arrive in the Future, it’s definitely not like it used to be. You find that your forecast failed to factor in an economic downturn; a change in management; contractual disputes; specification changes; mission creep; illness; holidays; bad weather. Plus it was just plain over-optimistic, because you needed a good business case to get your project authorised.

 So what can you do?

Tip #1. Phone a Friend. Once you have your forecast. Double it. Double it again. Then throw away your forecast and ask an experienced colleague who’s not connected to your project. Before you ask them, get them to bring to mind similar projects they have done in the past. That way they draw on real-life, rather than joining you in your over optimistic fantasy world.

Tip#2. Do a Pre-Mortem. I’ve written about pre-mortems before, here. They’re brilliant for eliminating group-think and the euphoria that pervades the early planning stages of any project. They force you to live in a dystopian future and explain how you got there. You wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s nice to visit, once in a while.

Have fun, and please let us know how you get on with your forecasting, in the Future.

 

 

Time Geography

We’re not in Kansas any more…

Read A Geography of Time, by Robert Levine. It’s a really witty, well-written book about time culture – how different cultures behave with time, based on his personal experiences and his own and his students’ experiments. We all do time differently. In Brazil, arriving at 4pm for a 1pm appointment is not necessarily being late.  Hopi North American Indians have no verb tenses for Past, Present and Future. The Spanish use one word for “expect”, “hope” and “wait” – esperar.

Levine has a unique way of measuring the pace of life, and he’s measured it in 31 different countries.

  • Walking speed in downtown areas (time to cover 60ft)
  • Waiting time in the post office to buy a stamp
  • Accuracy of public clocks

He adds these proxies together, to rank countries by pace of life. The 1,2,3 is Switzerland, Ireland and Germany. Mexico brings up the rear in 31st place. There are all kinds of surprises in there – I’ve spent a lot of time in Ireland and would describe my experience overall as relaxed, rather than fast paced. The USA is only in 16th place, when it feels like they should be higher (yes, they walk fast, but have massively long waits in the post office, and the clocks are way out of time).

So all countries have a time culture. And within countries, all regions and individual cities have different time cultures. In the US, Boston is the fastest pace of life, Los Angeles is the most laid back. In general, the North-East industrial area occupies the top slots, and California takes four of the six bottom places (together with Shreveport, Louisiana, and Memphis Tennessee).

“CFOs tend to look rearwards, at last month, or last quarter. “

What does this mean for you at work? Well, if you work for an international, or multi-national, there will be many sub-cultures, where time works differently. You’re regarded as an alien if you fail to see this, and conform to those (often hidden) cultural norms. Even within departments, it only takes a moment to imagine how differently they perceive time:

  • Finance – essentially looking in the past. Last month, last quarter.
  • Sales – In the present, but slightly future focussed on the next quarter
  • Legal – trained to look at the past to assess risk in an imagined future
  • R&D – looking way into the future
  • Operations – existing in a continuous present. The past is rewritten.
  • Maintenance – issues occur in the present. But they plan for the future
  • CEO – Strategically working to a 3 year plan

Now imagine you’re a CFO, whose looking for their next move to CEO. This article Forward Looking CFO (pdf) by the Wharton Business School describes how CFOs find it so hard to make the transition from a rearward looking discipline to a forward-looking CEO.

Have you experienced a culture clash like this? We’d love to hear about your experiences. Leave a comment below. And read the book, it will get you thinking.