What is the rhythm of your work? What is your operational tempo? Are things more stressful at the end of the month or the beginning? Do you work against a major annual deadline like the fiscal year end or tax-day April 15th? Are you a doctor who starts your day with rounds to review patients’ progress? Are you a Wall Street trader whose day changes completely at the sound of the closing bell?
Time is a big deal. Success is contingent on your ability to align with the temporal constraints of your biology and your intentions. This article offers three specific ideas for getting aligned with time. Take a few minutes to read and reflect and like Mick Jagger in his 50th anniversary as a rock star you can put time on your side.
Ready, Set, Go
In Edward Hall’s classic book, The Silent Language, “chronemics” or “time sensibilities” are a significant part of the “primary message systems” that are present in all life forms. He argues that all biology operates in time and that time and tempos are meaning-makers. It is true for all animals but Hall says that time profoundly influences everything we say and do both biologically and symbolically.
Examples abound: It may be easy to do something slowly that is impossible to do quickly. Think of Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory stuffing their mouths and pockets with chocolates as they are unable to keep up with the production line.
Time is a commodity that can be earned and spent. It’s a good bet that you made a decision about time before you read a word of this blog. Do you have the time? Can you waste some time? No doubt you will make a decision about time at the conclusion of your reading. Was it worth the time? Will you reject my blogs in the future or be more likely to read them based on your evaluation of the ROI for your time spent?
Have you noticed that the boss can take a long lunch and you can’t? Have you seen the first class people getting on the plane first—and getting in the shortest lines? So, time (and money), performance, value and power are closely linked together.
I know there is nothing new in these observations. But hopefully you have the communicative dimension of “time” in your mind. So let’s get right to it. Here are take-away ideas. Don’t be so impatient!
Time is inexorable
I am writing this on June 18th at 2:07 pm. I have a call at 3:00 pm. I will need to stop writing to take the call—or be finished with my writing. It is a certainty. I can be certain that June 30th will happen—and Microsoft’s fiscal year will end regardless of what I think, say, or do. If I have an exam on July 10th at 10 am—that point becomes a hard-stop for my preparations; I will have to perform. While time clearly influences us—there is little we can do to influence time.
Here is the tip: connect important organizational milestones to the calendar. The calendar is absolute and unflinching. If you achieve the results you sought, great: If not, then adjust and set a new goal out in time and start again. There is something brutal and unforgiving about a calendar based deadline—and that is why they work so well.
Consultant-Guru Kevin Behr, co-author of the outstanding new book The Phoenix Project calls this “time-boxing.” Says Behr, “Time-boxing is the act of applying a limitation of time to a project or process to drive improvement”: It is the addition of a time as a constraint to drive innovation and what he calls “striving.”
It hearkens back to the marvelous story of the NASA engineers faced with the reality they will lose all oxygen on Apollo 13 at a specific point in time. We see them pull out all of the stops and engineer a solution that would have been unthinkable without the profound “time-boxing” constraint.
Behr also talks about how time-boxing is integral to Toyota style manufacturing processes. “Every morning there is a fifteen minute meeting and the same five questions are asked every day. What is your target condition for your workspace? What is the actual condition? What are the obstacles? Which obstacle are you working on? When can I expect to see results?” Time is used to drive intensity and focus. It is a way to sharpen concentration and eliminate distractions.
We can’t predict the future, but we can map the future
The single most important thing you can do for your company is develop a calendar that calls out events, milestones, and deadlines so that every can see it at the same time. At Microsoft, they call this the Rhythm of the Business (ROB). It is incredibly important for every executive at MSFT to work in accordance with the milestones described in the corporate “rhythm.” Similarly, every division and department will have their own ROB that should synchronize with the larger corporate ROB.
Many of our clients have benefited by simply calling out key events—budgets due, board planning retreats, completion of employee evaluations etc. Simply publishing and working against this corporate calendar can significantly reduce turmoil and resistance inside the organization.
One client recently wrote me the following: “We put together our calendar and I know it was incomplete and it wasn’t very pretty but we are already talking about not stacking up project deadlines when the budget numbers are due. We are avoiding traffic jams in workloads before they happen. We also discovered that our business really operates on a two year cycle since we have so much public oversight and review needed to implement anything. We knew that intellectually, but we didn’t really realize the implications. It has been an eye opener.”
There is a lot of power in mapping the future. It calls out priorities and allows people to anticipate and prepare.
Time is a Cultural Phenomenon and the Web is defining our culture
I have a t-shirt that reads, “I not late, I run on Hawaiian time.” If you have been to the Hawaiian Islands (or really almost any islands…Caribbean, Mexican whatever) you will experience a slowdown in pace that is great if you adapt and maddening if you are still operating in New York time. Perceptions of time seem to be connected to our economies and means of production. We can see how our perceptions of time shifted when we went from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing economy. We can remember Charley Chaplain hanging from the clock in the classic silent film “Modern Times”. We can see the role of time in the classic work of Henri Fayol and Fredrick Taylor as they connected production with “time and motion.”
Now we are in the cultural muck of “internet time.” Our smart devices keep us dialed in 24/7/365. Time off is paid for by the rapid digestion of hundreds of emails, tweets, and Facebook posts. To connect is to be hit by a huge wave; It’s almost impossible not to get swept up in the non-stop churn of the internet when your work demands you login every day. One of my clients talks about “two starts”.
“My day starts at home with coffee at 6 a.m. I read the news, delete spam from my in-box, see if there are any fires burning, check Facebook and Twitter and other news feeds—then I shower and get ready for work. When I arrive at work I am ready my second start of the day. If I miss the first start I am behind and distracted all day.” Another executive said he feels “shot from a gun” when he arrive at the office—flying high-speed through his day with no opportunity for rest or course corrections. “I can only adjust in the morning, before it all starts.”
In their book The Attention Economy, authors Davenport and Beck relate that this era will be defined by our ability to control what we attend to—and what we ignore. With so much information to process in such a short period of time, our analyses are necessarily superficial. We are living on blurbs, bullet points, and sound bites.
Here is the good news: organizations create culture too. Great organizations are aware of (a) how to define their own ideal operational tempo and (b) how to find time for focus on the elements that are critical to their long-term success. They break the false urgency that leads them to believe that they have “no time to plan.” They can marshal resources when there needs to be a quick response.
They have learned to cultivate what I call “the luxury of focus.” Focus is so precious; we will even value a crisis because it helps bring focus. “Sure it was terrible when the tornado hit. We were thankful just to be alive. Then we all came together and started pitching in and helping we could. It felt great. It was clear what we had to do and it was obviously helpful.”
- Take control of the time in your day and you take control of your day.
- Map the future as best you can and use the inexorable passage of time as a motivating constraint to do your best work.
- Don’t be trapped by the cultural shifts that would tell you that everything is important all the time. That is the stuff of madness. Give yourself and your team the luxury of focus and give time to the efforts that demand it for your well-being.
One of my favorite time stories comes from a young man finishing his Ph.D. in Geology in North Carolina. He described his research that involved “shooting” iron spikes into the base of several mountains in Western North Carolina. He said the research would conclusively resolve the issue of tectonic movement in the region. I asked when the data would be collected. He said, “Over the next 400 years.”
Now that is perspective.