Change management expert Edward Brown knows why we’re stressed at work, and it starts with the fact that we’re wasting 40% to 60% of our time due to unwanted interruptions. The chief culprits are what Brown calls “time bandits,” the people or unexpected events that interrupt us, often with crippling effects on our professional pursuits.
Brown’s latest book, The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had (Cohen Brown Picture Co., 2014), is dedicated to professional people who are at the mercy of these bandits. In this Take Five interview, he discusses how to negotiate with office bandits and reclaim lost time without negatively impacting professional relationships.
“The one who suffers most from time banditry is a boss. A boss pays for the employee’s time, and if they waste any of that time, they are reducing the productivity of the people they are paying for.” — Edward Brown
It’s a serious problem because time is money — a lot of money. Brown noted that a recent CNN report estimated that in 2005, the cost of office interruptions totaled $588 billion, and he doubts that “timebanditry” has subsided in the past decade. Here are excerpts from our talk.
IB: Does the process you describe in the book, particularly Mutual Time Lock Agreements and Mutual Charter Agreements, require some level of diplomatic skill that people might not possess?
Brown: Most people don’t possess it, but it’s easily learned. It’s an acquired skill. We all sell. We sell to each other our points of view. What happens in an MCA, a Mutual Charter Agreement, or a Mutual Time Lock Agreement, is that we recognize that we are time bandits ourselves, and our time bandits have time bandits. Everyone’s a time bandit.
The one who suffers most from time banditry is a boss. A boss pays for the employee’s time, and if they waste any of that time, they are reducing the productivity of the people they are paying for. It’s not in the best interests of the boss to have interruptions that are unnecessary and unproductive and costly as hell in an economy that’s trying to recover.
When you learn that 40% to 60% of an employee’s time is wasted by unnecessary interruptions, which amounts to three to five hours per day, and then you learn that colleagues, not the boss, are the biggest offenders of interruptions, you’ve got to control your environment if you’re a boss and if you are a time bandit.
Once you understand how to say the right thing and use the right style in presenting your point of view, you will get their full cooperation and, if anything, their enthusiastic cooperation.
IB: So it involves explaining the mutual benefits of curbing interruptions.
IB: Is the biggest hurdle one of mindset, or feeling that you’re powerless to prevent interruptions unless it involves damaging personal and professional relationships?
Brown: To begin with, the fact that there are many psychologists who are going across the country, based on their knowledge of how expensive interruptions are, and telling the attendees, the companies at these seminars, to just say no. Can you imagine, you and I, if we report to somebody else, telling our boss we’re not going to accept his interruptions any longer? You’re going to have to make an appointment to see me. If you said that to a client or a colleague you would be very unpopular, very quickly. So yes, thinking about what I’ve just said, you feel absolutely powerless, but just saying no to interruptions is impossible. It’s the worst thing to do.
IB: When you’re thinking about how to do this, I don’t want to cite the Dale Carnegie approach, but …
Brown: Well, I absolutely believe in Dale Carnegie because Dale Carnegie tells us to have a positive attitude. That means don’t be afraid to speak to this issue, and do so with charm and finesse. But it’s not so much about Dale Carnegie as it is about learning communication arts and skills. The communication arts and skills are about knowing precisely what to say and knowing that if you say what you need to say, respectfully, it won’t backfire, and then doing it with the right style.
So you say to yourself, “How do I know that if I speak my mind and say to someone that as a result of your interruptions, it’s hurting the output of my productivity? It’s invading my momentum. It’s causing me a great deal of distrust and a great deal of pressure.” How do you say all those things unless you know it’s going to be safe? That’s what the problem is.
And say to them, “I can do a much better job, I think I can increase my productivity and the quality of my output if I’m given uninterrupted blocks of time within which to operate.” Now the boss might say, “That’s not going to work in our environment, or why are you asking for this now?” And you would know precisely what to say in the event that happens. You practice, you prepare, and you say to yourself, “I’m ready for my boss’s objections or my colleagues’ objections.”
So in the book, I write everything you could possibly want to know about the predictable objections that people are most likely to hear from the time bandits, and what you say in each instance so that you feel comfortable. And having you role-play and rehearse what to say, so that like anything else in life that matters, you’re prepared. You’re very prepared for those objections.
IB: As I understand, you’re not arguing there should be no time for collaboration.
Brown: Of course not. In fact, the quality of the collaboration improves as the quality of productivity improves with head-down time.