Have you got Time Asthma? It’s a chronic complaint where you just can’t get enough time, no matter how you try. If you have time asthma, the symptoms are easy to spot. Your time – especially work time – doesn’t flow smoothly, it feels like you’re struggling to get enough. If it gets really bad, you feel like your time is constricting too much for you to be effective at anything.
Time asthma sufferers don’t just want more time, they find themselves straining to get it, keep it and use it. It makes you stressed and unproductive. It’s almost as crippling to your business life as real asthma can be to your body’s need for oxygen.
You can’t just say “no” to everything when you’re managing your time. You need a more reliable system for filtering-out the things you really need to do from the things you would like to do if you had the time – and the things other people want to do that drag you into their own time management problems. Time Asthma isn’t just a condition, it’s a communicable time illness.
The causes are many, but it’s a mistake to think it’s a natural function of being busy or trying to hit a deadline. Time Asthma is a problem caused by a difficulty to prioritise competing demands, trying to marry-up your need to meet people, share information and get things done with a finite number of hours in the working day.
The good news is, you can fix it. You just need a Time Inhaler.
My own Time Asthma is caused by over-networking.
If you’re a freelancer or an entrepreneur, you’re probably a compulsive networker. I am. It doesn’t matter if it’s via Twitter or LinkedIn, conference coffee breaks or dedicated networking events, you have an intrinsic sense that making progress in your working life is like having an active social life, all about meeting people. The more people you meet, the bigger your network, the more opportunities you’ll encounter. The logic of that is unarguable.
You’ll also probably have a sinking feeling (deep down in the part of your mind that gives you mild insomnia) that meeting people is largely a waste of time. There used to be a photocopied sign up at Microsoft’s London offices that summed it up, it was a cartoon of some people sitting around making a joke of it:
It’s a thinking problem. Nobody can deny the logic of networking: The more people you meet, the bigger your network, the more opportunities you’ll encounter. But it comes at another logical cost: Time you’ll waste is will be multiplied by having a big network and meeting lots of people. Too.
This is a paradox of the modern, networked business world. Opportunity and time wasting go hand-in-hand, the yin and yang of the connected economy. For the independents, the networkers, the would be entrepreneurs, sooner or later, you need to wake up and smell the coffee, as opposed to meet somebody and drink it with them having a pointless chat.
That requires some thinking about time, meetings and how to be productive and focus amid the din of the modern business world.
What devalued the age old concept of ‘the meeting’?
Don’t misunderstand me. Meetings are important, but we don’t value them properly these days. There was a time when you only had a meeting for something important, like trading supplies with the local Celts or getting a whole load of Dwarves and Hobbits together to defeat Sauron or whatever. However at some time in recent history, I think around 1998, when the business world started taking websites seriously (yes, I can remember a time before that when serious business people thought the internet was a flash in the pan) I found that my meetings started to decay. I’d have one, and nothing would come of it, but then the people I’d met would come back, a few weeks later, and want another… but nothing would come of that. And then it would happen again.
Before 1998, as I recall, you met someone and progressed the thing you were meeting for (and therefore needed another meeting to discuss progress) or you didn’t need to meet again.
In that respect, you only ever had one kind of meeting – the meeting to talk about something that was actually happening. But now we have two meetings, the one to discuss real things and another kind, to discus something that isn’t actually happening but you have discussed before… in another meeting.
This decay cycle of meetings has accelerated since then. Back in 1998 you could measure it in weeks between pointless meetings. It’s now measured in days. In the future, it might become measured in hours, or minutes, perhaps eventually it will become measured in hertz, a real-time stream of pointless meetings that makes everyone die of bewilderment. Civilisation will break down. Humanity will face extinction.
Meetings need fixing or we’ll all die. They’re a threat to time itself.
Q. Why did meetings turn into time wasting?
A. Because our expectations of time have been transformed by social networks and digital communication.
The power of social networks, to blend our social lives and chat with business culture, is remarkable. Much (arguably too much) is written about the changing ways we do business through social media, but we seldom consider the reverse, the way our changing digital notions of networking has changed how we spend our time in the real world. But the effects are there, and toxic.
Let me explain… dropping into a discussion group on LinkedIn to talk about business is easy, it’s a click of the mouse and tapping on a keyboard. It takes a few minutes, you can do it in-between actual work tasks, you don’t even need to get dressed for it. I frequently do it whilst drinking my coffee in bed before I get up. It’s low effort and eminently forgettable.
But physically going somewhere, really meeting someone and having a discussion takes time, effort and planning, and unlike the digital equivalent, a lot of what gets said is lost in the ether. In a real meeting, unless you take pains to record it, you can’t recall it a month later like you could by revisiting an online chat. You need to work at the process of real world meetings to extract value from them.
However, the effect of social networking in business, its ease and efficiency, has given real world meetings a sort of chronic illness, which I’m calling “Time Asthma” because it makes your time difficult to manage and means you may well require life long intervention to stop it from spoiling your prospects.
Time Asthma is the tendency of people to treat real world meetings like posting comments on Facebook I.e. Too lightly.
How to treat your own Time Asthma
The first thing you’ve got to remember is you can’t cure it. Unless you stop having meetings altogether, which isn’t an option, any more than asking someone with real asthma to give-up breathing. The net result of that, for your business life and your actual life, would be suicide. You have to manage the condition. That means you need some sort of inhaler, something you remember to keep with you at all times and can reach for when you feel your chest, or time, constricting.
I have invented a Time Inhaler. Well, it’s a more of a prototype than a finished model, but you are welcome to try it… like all new treatments, I should point out that it might have unpleasant and unanticipated side effects, so use it at your own risk.
The Time Inhaler – how it works, and how to use it to fix your working time
The Time Inhaler works using a simple set of four lists, labelled S (speculative) P (progress) A (asthmatic) and M (mates) – you might notice spells the handy acronym S.P.A.M, which of course, is a good way to view pointless meetings, which are the time equivalent of SPAM emails offering you free viagra. The lists are pretty self-explanatory:
S is for Speculative: Everyone you know starts out here, because unless you can see the future (which you can’t) there is a chance every meeting with anyone could be useful.
P is for Progress: Meetings with people that give you something to follow-up on, i.e. make progress towards a tangible goal of some description, mean those people get moved from the S list to the P list.
A is for Asthmatic: Meetings where the only real outcome is to have another meeting i.e. Don’t yield a set of tasks to progress towards a tangible goal of some description, mean those people move from the S list to the A list. That’s because they’re giving you time asthma.
M is for Mates: Meetings where you ‘grab a coffee’ and have a pleasant chat, but don’t require another meeting or set a tangible goal of some description. Nevertheless you wouldn’t mind seeing the person again, which means those people move from the S list to the M list. They’re social contacts, not businesses prospects. They are your mates.
These four simple lists work with an equally simple set of four rules:
- Rule 1: Everyone starts from the S list and gets moved to the P, A or M list after your meeting with them. No exceptions. If you’re not sure which list to move them to, the default option is A, because if you don’t know if you’re making progress or not, they’ve given you time asthma.
Rule 2: Everyone can move back to the S list if you decide you want to have another meeting with them, but you have to move them back to P, A, or M after you’ve met with them again.
Names can’t move between the P, A or M lists without going back to S first. This rule is important – you’re classification of them is subject to change, but it’s not rational, it’s affected by emotions e.g. You like them, so you feel bad sticking them on the A list, or your social motivations, e.g. they’re some big cheese, so you think being an M lister somehow means you’ll get some business out of it, so you promote them to the P list even though they haven’t made any progress with you towards a deal.
You’ll inevitably feel the need at some point to change your mind about which list they belong on, but it doesn’t matter, it’s not about them, it’s about making an objective decision about how you make progress in your business deals. Your opinion of them may change, but whether or not you’ve got something to show for the time you’ve spent with them, on the other hand, is a binary quantity, it’s either something or nothing. That’s easy to measure and reliable, your opinion isn’t.
Rule 3: Everyone can only appear on the S list a maximum of 3 times if they have been A listers or M listers. Which means, as everyone starts there, you can only move names from the A or M list back to the S list twice. You can move them from P back to S as many times as you like. That’s because moving from P back to S and back to P is how you recognise a productive, profitable business relationship. Moving between A or M to S and back again, it how you recognise business time wasting.
Again, this is a mechanism to address your emotional or social biases. We all have a tendency to speculate on the future, and because we can’t possibly know the future, that means we often keep meeting people in the hope that one day, it will achieve something. The truth is, unless you measure it somehow (which is what this rule does) you’ll wind up wasting time having meetings with people who only ever waste your time. That is time asthma.
Rule 4: After A listers or M listers have used up their 3 S list lives, they’re permanently members of the A list or M list. If you then reach a busy spot in your life, where you need time for real work, you MUST prioritise your productive time (stuff that involves S listers or P listers) over meetings with A listers and M listers, who get cancelled.
That means, regardless of what you arrange to do with them, you cancel the meetings that have the least probability of being useful and prioritise the ones that will actually help you get somewhere.
You meet S listers and P listers. You avoid A listers. You meet M listers in your social life, like you do your other mates, not during your work time.
What this Time Inhaler does, like a real inhaler, is condition you to cope with an adverse chronic condition – time asthma. It means you’re generating a table of data that you can refer to, before deciding to meet anyone, that will tell you whether or not it’s worth the time and effort.
After just three meetings with everyone you know or network with, you’ll have a degree of certainty whether it will be a productive business meeting or a friendly chat. If you set a time limit for each meeting of two hours, that multiplies out to give everyone you know six hours of your time before you have a finite, objective measure for deciding if it’s worth spending any more business time with them.
Imagine that. Six hours of your life (which you would have spent anyway, without using the Time Inhaler) to save how much? If it saves you one meeting, it’s saved you two hours of wasted time. If it saves you a couple of meetings, it’s saving you half a wasted day, maybe more. When you multiply that out across a network of five contacts, or ten, you could save weeks. Maybe even a month.
In the world where meetings are set-up as much to be social interactions as productive business activities, you could reduce your wasted business prospecting time and increase your productivity. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Who cares, it’s still more of what you need and less of what you can’t afford to lose.
Does it work?
Yes. So far. It’s working out great.
To put that in perspective, I’ve just moved four business contacts, all really nice people, to my M list. Last year, I spent at least six hours meeting with each one, discussing projects or deals that didn’t come to anything. That’s three working days wasted in 2013 that, by moving them to the M list, I’ve saved for 2014. That’s a full working week if you factor in the time I’d spend travelling to and from meetings with them.
They all want to meet me again, and I want to see them again, but they are permanent M listers now, which means we’ll meet for drinks and dinner down the pub in social time, not my working week. If I have to cancel something to accommodate work, they’ll get cancelled. If I’m struggling to fit in meetings with P listers or S listers, they’ll get cancelled. I don’t have to think about it. The Time Inhaler has worked it out for me.
But the magic of it the Time Inhaler is this: I won’t be struggling to find enough time any more, because I’ve just freed-up a week of wasted time, so I can have more meetings that have a chance of paying off and more social time to see people on my M list. It’s win:win.
This win:win factor is where the Time Inhaler differs from a real inhaler. Unfortunately, you can’t cure real asthma with a real inhaler, but the cumulative effect of the Time Inhaler is much more effective, keep using it and you won’t suffer the negative effects of time asthma any more, because you’ll have more time to spend, and waste less.
Of course, you might find some negative side effects, the most obvious one being you lose touch with A listers and M listers, but losing touch with unproductive business contacts or friends is a fact of life, shit happens. The reason for that is probably because everyone unconsciously ranks people into preferential lists anyway. The only difference with the Time Inhaler is you know you’re doing it and you’re measuring why you’re doing it. It’s taking an unpredictable, organic thinking process and turning it into an evidentiary, systematic, time management tool.
The Time Inhaler is a way of taking an unconscious process and making it conscious. By doing that, you can control it with a degree of logic and reason, as opposed to being at the mercy of your emotions and physical state. To put it another way, there’s a world of difference between feeling like you’ve had enough, and choosing when to call it a day.
Maybe some of my A and M listers would have turned into the deal of a lifetime. Maybe my Time Inhaler will mean I miss out, somewhere down the line. Maybe. But I can’t see the future, so that possibility is as much a daydream as a genuine risk. I am, however, seeing a lot less wasted time in my future working life.
Get yourself a Time Inhaler. Who knows, it might just save mankind from extinction…