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Time management for time wasters – minimising distractions

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

Procrastination is the thief of time

The old proverb needs rewriting. It should read distraction is the thief of time. Because since the saying was penned by the poet, Edward Young, in the 18th century, distractions have grown to become the bigger criminal. In fact, I’d argue they’re now the biggest crook of all when it comes to time wasting. Way ahead of not keeping a to do list, multi-tasking and failing to prioritise.

Young wasn’t distracted by smart phones when he was writing Night Thoughts where the line first appeared. He felt no uncontrollable Pavlovian urge to scan news websites every time he heard a corny jingle. Wasn’t constantly checking his social media accounts for thumbs and hearts. Or snowed under drifts of non-urgent emails. His was a simpler life. Shorter I’ll grant you. But the price we pay for progress – for literally living longer – is that we waste more and more of that extra time on pointless, frivolous and unproductive tasks. Little wonder we’re becoming less and less efficient.

Some studies reckon we waste up to two hours a day at work by being distracted. I’d argue that in some organisations that’s a conservative estimate. Indeed, the Institute for Public Policy Research in it’s report Prosperity and Justice: a plan for the new economy, highlights the fact that productivity in the UK is 13% lower than in other G7 countries. But whatever’s being lost why waste the most precious commodity of all? So if you’re serious about getting back some of that invaluable time, to become more efficient, more productive, then learning how to manage distractions and interruptions is a really important part of time management. And as a consequence I can say, without a hint of irony, that it’s something delegates spend a fair bit of time on in my time management workshops at ACM Training.

So if you haven’t got the time to attend (and, of course, I think you should make the time) here are my top five tips for managing distractions:

  1. Recognise what’s truly distracting you in the first place by listing the source of the distraction every time you’re distracted over, say, a period of a week. The distractions are very likely to be digital – text, email and social media pop ups for example. But don’t forget to list the analogue too – a noisy office, and open door, a room with a view…
  2. Switch off, shut out or turn your back on those distractions that you can reasonably do so to. In digital terms that means going into your phone, tablet or computer settings (and preferably all three because of multi-screening) and switching off audio and visual notifications. Better still, turn off the phone entirely. In analogue terms it might mean closing your office door and putting up an old-fashioned do not disturb sign or rearranging the office furniture so that you’re not endlessly daydreaming over the view from the window.
  3. Limit those distractions that are genuinely unavoidable. For example, you may be on call and, therefore, unable to switch off your phone. You can always turn it face down to avoid visual alerts but still hear the ring (generally we’re more easily distracted by vision than by sound). Can you limit email receives to once an hour or even less frequently? The always on, always available attitude may make us feel important but it’s rarely necessary in most workplace settings.
  4. Take regular breaks. If you’re hungry or tired, getting deep vein thrombosis from sitting still for too long or out of breath from rushing about too much take it easy, if only for five minutes. Abraham Maslow was right – we simply can’t ignore our physiological needs and the harder we try to ignore them the more distracted by them we are. If you try concentrating on a really important task on an empty stomach (and, therefore, an energy-deprived brain) I can guarantee you’ll be distracted. So stop. And during your break by all means be distracted momentarily by all those things you’ve listed in point one. Think of it as your reward. I call it compartmentalising. You have a big compartment for work. You have a smaller one for distractions. Not one big noisy space where they all compete for your attention. Because the distractions win pretty much every time. They’ve been designed that way. Attractive distractions if I can coin another phrase.
  5. Schedule the most important stuff for times when you’re least likely to be distracted. That might be early mornings before everybody else has got to work (or got up if you work from home). Or it might be in the evening when everyone else has gone home (or to bed). I’m a big believer in handheld technology freeing us from the constraints – and distractions – of the desk or office. Sitting in the corner of a coffee shop where nobody disturbs you because nobody knows you. Pecking away at your tablet screen to finish that annual report. Or blog post. Now how about a slice of cake (see point 4) or, better still, a bag of nuts?

I should add that these points refer mainly to what could loosely be called external, physical distractions. But, of course, we can also be mightily distracted by the internal, mental and emotional stuff swirling around in our heads and hearts. I’ll make dealing with these the subject of a separate post in this occasional series, Time Management for Time Wasters. If I can find the time!

Sandy Keating

This poster on the London Underground reminded me there are “internal” distractions too!
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Chequers Mate – how to break the deadlock in negotiations

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Beyond Boris’s inelegant turd-polishing outburst exactly what went on behind the heavy doors and high windows of Chequers during the Cabinet’s Brexit awayday negotiations will be kept secret under the Thirty Year Rule. And by the time the minutes are released to the National Archive Brexit may have been such an unalloyed success/disaster (delete depending on your own disposition) that only the nerdiest constitutional historians pore over them. But we don’t have to wait until 2048 to find out because ACM Training’s mediation and negotiation techniques trainer, Sandy Keating, has imagined, in her inimitable Australian way, how the discussions might have been handled…

Even before the ministerial limousines started sweeping down the narrow Buckinghamshire lanes, the most eagle-eyed hacks would have noticed an Office Depot van turn into the Chequers’ driveway. In the back a stack of flipchart pads and a dozen or so boxes of fat felt pens. You really can’t negotiate without these tools of the trade. Oh, and Post It notes. Everybody loves Post It notes although, because this was a Conservative get together, the driver was told in no uncertain terms not to bring any of those pinko lefty ones. Or orange ones for that matter because the colour would remind them too much of Nick Clegg. In fact, the only exception to the fifty shades of blue rule was to be several rolls of crimson sticky tape to mark out those uncrossable red lines.

Joking aside, the language you use in negotiation is important. All this talk of red lines is incendiary. It’s perfectly acceptable to make clear you have a position that would be difficult or impossible to give way on. But you must articulate it in an even-tempered way. Cool heads and dispassionate language are, or at least should be, the order of the day. Because, of course, once tempers flare and people start taking things personally positions tend to become entrenched.

When this happens and people are deadlocked I suggest both (or more) parties work separarely in break out groups and list what they want – which is where those flipcharts and pens come in. Then I ask them, in discussion, to put that list in order of importance. The items at the top will necessarily be the things they’re not prepared to give up. But in order to keep those things maybe they are prepared – willing even – to give way on some of the items towards the bottom of the list.

It may seem very old fashioned in this age of tablets and smarphones but actually writing stuff down – making a mark on a piece of paper – is a penny drop moment for so many of the people I’ve trained to negotiate and mediate. When the sides come back together to compare and contrast notes it’s almost always easier to see (literally) the negotiation in terms of WIN-WIN-lose-lose rather than WIN-LOSE. What’s the difference? Well I’ve used upper and lower case letters to emphasise that in order for both sides to win big they both have to lose small – rather than one side winning big at the expense of the other losing big.

The challenge with the Brexit negotiations at a UK-EU level is that one side at least doesn’t seem to know what it wants. Perhaps there weren’t enough flips charts in the back of that van. Possibly they forgot to order enough BluTack. Or, more likely, the caretaker at Chequers wouldn’t let them stick it on the antique wallpaper. That’ll be it. We’re coming unstuck literally and metaphorically.

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Ten tips for dealing with difficult people

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes
  1. Try to stick to facts, not feelings when communicating with a difficult person.
  2. Focus on the main issues that need solving, rather than any minor ones. If you can resolve the big ones the small ones often turn out to be inconsequential or resolve themselves anyway.
  3. Your stomach may be churning and your mind in turmoil but it’s better if you can get your points across in an unemotional way.
  4. Agree to disagree, at least temporarily, because it’s better than arguing. Putting aside your differences allows progress.
  5. Resist the temptation to argue, shout or swear – whatever the provocation. Your point may be right so why undermine it by doing something wrong?
  6. Make the most of anything you agree on so that you can stand shoulder-to-shoulder and not shout across the vast gulf of what you disagree on.
  7. Separate issues from people – things can become very personal, very quickly.
  8. Easier said than done, but don’t take things personally. Developing self-belief as a part of your Emotional Intelligence is a good long term strategy.
  9. Say ‘no’ when you mean ‘no’ rather than ‘yes!’ You may think this will placate a difficult person – believe me it won’t. All the ‘yeses’ will do is contribute to unrealistic expectations.
  10. Finally it’s worth bearing in mind that we can’t change other people’s behaviour. We can only change our behaviour or our view of their behaviour.

Sandy’s been running ACM Training’s none-too-creatively named Dealing With Difficult People workshop for more than 20 years now and demand for it shows no sign of abating – which is a pity because difficult behaviour – whether it’s from colleagues, friends or family – causes untold pain and suffering to the victims, makes office life miserable and does nothing for productivity or health and well-being. The course is run publicly in London, Manchester and Bristol and often has discount places available from just £99 per person.

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Training – the investment that pays dividends

Approx. reading time: 1 minute

We’re always banging on about the value of training at ACM. How it’s a great way of increasing productivity. Boosting loyalty. An investment that pays dividends…

But as a training company we would say that wouldn’t we?! So it’s great when other people say exactly the same and validate our thinking. Here’s what a French academic had to say about the value of training on the PM programme on BBC Radio 4 recently. And it’s worth bearing in mind before you listen that productivity in France is way higher than in the UK. No coincidence.