A cool approach to time management - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
September 30, 2014

A cool approach to time management

Cool Time and the Two-Pound Bucket
Steve Prentice
Stoddart, 298 pages, $21.95

Cool Down
Steve Prentice
John Wiley, 279 pages, $26.99

As I rush-rush-rush through the day, I occasionally remember the notion of “cool time” from a book published 12 years ago by Toronto time management consultant Steve Prentice. The title was enigmatically captivating, Cool Time and the Two-Pound Bucket, and both parts of the title refer to important concepts. Indeed, I’d be better off if the notion of the two-pound bucket stuck as well as cool time.

Cool time involves putting aside enough time so you can proceed through life calmly and without breaking a sweat, mentally or physically. Your subsequent relaxed, confident air will give you an edge over those anxious and angry souls, like me, always behind schedule and rushing madly to catch up.

The example he gave in a subsequent book, Cool Down: Getting Further by Going Slower, may ring a bell. Frank and Ernest are both in an airport departure lounge. Frank worked to the absolute last minute in the office before grabbing a cab and paying the driver double to get to the airport as fast as possible. Ernest left his office an hour early to negotiate traffic and airport security without pressure, and has been able to get an hour of focused work completed in the lounge without interruption. When it’s announced that their flight will have to be on a smaller plane and is oversold, Frank succumbs to the urgency of the moment and joins other passengers storming the airline agent, venting their anger. Ernest goes online and rebooks for another flight, and returns to work.

But it’s not just airline flights. If you understand cool time, when you have a 2:00 p.m. meeting at another office and it generally takes 45 minutes to get there, you will show the session in your calendar as starting at 1:10 p.m., which is the exact time you should leave the office so that you can arrive with a few moments to spare. If you ignore cool time – well, you know what happens, don’t you? You arrive breathless, irritated, and probably late.

In introducing the concept in the initial book, he says: “Cool Time is both a state of mind and a mode of planning that focuses on excellence, as well as comfort.” Excellence. Comfort. Sounds tantalizing, right? The key: Planning. Or perhaps, before that, accepting the notion of cool time as possible and worthwhile.

He stresses that planning can’t wipe away the fact your day will have unexpected events. But adequate planning takes into account contingencies so when the unexpected happens you are able to handle it – indeed, handle it well. Coolly. “In this fashion, the inevitable crises can be managed with your higher-level brain functions intact, ensuring a speedy and satisfactory result. In short, cool time is about putting aside enough time to be truly ‘ready’, and in so doing, recognizing that this is quite the opposite of wasted time. It’s your investment in excellence,” he says.

That brings us back to the two-pound bucket. It sounds mysterious but is a metaphor for time, more meaningful, he believes, than the popular ones we fall back on like “time flies” or “killing time.” He believes those concepts contribute to ineffective time management because they suggest an elasticity of time that isn’t there and place the blame for our problems on the shoulders of time itself.

Instead, think of time like the two-pound bucket you might use for chores around the back yard. The size isn’t expandable. “The trick to time management, just like the trick to cleaning the yard, is learning how to fill the bucket rather than trying to find a bigger one,” he says.

That means starting and ending your day with a planning period to pick out the priority tasks according to importance as well as urgency. Virtually every day should also include a two-hour “keystone” period in which you block out all distractions and work intently on a significant task. That means symbolically or actually closing your door to others, not answering the phone or checking your email, and not leaving your desk since that will open you up to ambush.

After two hours of solid work, you can then leave the rest of the day for scheduled meetings, a few clearly defined periods for returning messages, and any other tasks that you can squeeze in. Since not taking calls during your keystone period can generate telephone tag, you’ll want your voice mail to indicate when you are available and when you will be returning calls.

He acknowledges that the common response to the keystone period is “that will never work here.” He counters that if a two-hour period is impossible consider two one-hour blocks, or maybe just one hour, or 45 minutes. “The length of the keystone period is up to you. The point is to find some time throughout the course of the business day in which you can focus and complete your highest priority task. It really works, people will still be able to find you and talk to you throughout the rest of the day, and, above all, it is a matter of survival,” he insists.

Prentice embraces the “slow movement,” which has appealed to urban reformers and food connoisseurs who prefer to eat at a more leisurely pace. He applies it to our busy work life, but knowing that the word slow is anathema in today’s go-go workplace, he gives it a more acceptable label, urging us to cool down.

He warns that we have become so obsessed with speed that when we look at our daily calendar we are as terrified of empty spaces as deadlines. “People tend to schedule things according to the old notion that one event must follow another in close succession because gaps of wasted time are evil,” he observes.

Instead, he wants us to savour those empty spaces, creating more, so that we can be relaxed, focused, and productive. Empty spaces don’t become wasted time, they become productive time.

If you’re in an elevator, for example, instead of grabbing your mobile to check email or watching the elevator’s television to cram in the latest news, he suggests relaxing and thinking. If your day consists of meetings, schedule them with a break between to hit the washroom, refresh, and calmly check your e-mail. Cool time, cool pace – better productivity.

Slow down in delegation. Instead of throwing work at someone, he suggests recognizing that delegation is a slow act of education and trust rather than a quick act of dumping. View delegation as a four-step process. The first time you delegate a task you must be there to instruct and will probably do the work anyway. The second time you can expect the other person to go it alone and get it about 50 percent satisfactory, so set aside enough time to handle the other 50 per cent. The third time, the person will be able to perform about 75 percent of the task and by the fourth time it will be close to your standards, although even then you still will need to allow time to finish it off. Those precise figures, of course, may not always apply, but the approach of step-by-step delegating is worth applying.

“Cooling down is possible. It is healthier, and it will get you where you want to go, faster, and in better condition. Life’s just to short to live at high speed,” he stresses.

The notion of cool time stuck with me because it’s valuable – and ignored – routinely and repeatedly. The two-pound bucket is a useful metaphor. Coming back to these books after a number of years, the concepts still ring out as valuable and the details of implementation helpful if people are willing to rethink their workplace behaviours and situations.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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