A Tool to Help You Stop Being Late

This post is a slight re-wording of a post (Optimize Transition Time [and Stop Being Late]) I found on the Harvard Business Review blog pages by Peter Bregman. The author’s contention is that the only way to get somewhere (or complete an event like a call or meeting) on time is to micro-plan for it, taking into account each time-consuming step that you actually have to go through. This would seem obvious, but it has taken me years to face this fact. Transition time, like packing up your things in the office and walking to your car to go to a doctor’s appointment, feels neither efficient nor productive so most people (especially me) do not want to account for it in their schedules/planning. We want to feel like we’re doing something useful (sending email, filing papers, meeting with someone [back to back-no breaks, ugh]), not walking to the car. Consequently, we look at the clock after we get in the car and realize we’re going to be ten minutes late because, surprise, the process of gathering our things, putting a coat on, signing out of the computer, and walking to the car takes some time.

Making sure you have some transition time between events (not just walking to your car) is a special opportunity to be more productive and efficient. It's not just our time to travel. It is time to think and to plan. Junior Officers or executives typically do not think about this because, the more junior you are in the organization, the less structured your time is (that’s a good thing). The trouble is, you “grow up” in the organization taking transition time between events for granted until you become a Navy Captain and find out that you personally control only 20% or less of your entire day.

Readers have probably attended many meetings or conference calls that seem to lack pace and focus, dragging on a lot longer than might be necessary. How does this happen? Chances are, the organizer or leader of the meeting has not given enough thought in advance to what the outcomes should be. How often are those stated at the beginning of a meeting? If you took a few minutes before the meeting to really think about it what should be accomplished, what you need from attendees, and what they need from you, you might not actually shorten it (we can only hope), but you are very likely to get more out of it.

Leaders should spend transition time plotting how to maximize outcomes from phone calls, meetings, and “gemba” walks. Think about how you can involve attendees, solicit their input, get their perspectives, and engage them. Gaining some planning time will help spark the insight that, instead of composing a long email to someone, you should call them and talk instead (now there’s a concept).

While you might do some planning the night before the meeting (sometimes that’s the only planning time I have so it is better than nothing), Bregman suggests “there's no better planning time than the 15 minutes before you walk into the room or get on the phone. Do you know any athlete who would rush off her cell phone and jump into the starting gate of a race? Of course not. Because athletes know that transition time is productive time.”

As I noted above, I suspect very few junior officers need to worry about creating transition time (I know I did not), although they do need to think through the meetings they convene or attend to make sure their participation is value-added. When you get more senior, however, you have to physically schedule transition time or your calendar will “fill up.” Trust me on this (classic, unscheduled “fillers”: calls from Admirals, ship Commanding Officers with an issue that needs your personal attention, someone from a past command “dropping by,” an urgent data call from an outside organizations, etc). If you regularly schedule yourself back to back, you will not be very productive and will always be late. Bregman suggests busy leaders schedule meetings to end at least 15 minutes before the hour and schedule that time to prepare for the next one. This will give you the time to plan for keeping some 60 minute meetings to 30 minutes, time to walk about, answer email, or return a phone call. Speaking of phone calls, if you have to leave a message or voice mail, make sure to tell the recipient the best time to call back in case he/she is as overscheduled as you are. This will reduce phone tag. Here are some great podcasts (with written show notes for those who don’t have an iPod [or refuse to buy one])

A “cheat” I use to help me get to the next event on time is to keep my wrist watch set five minutes fast. This seems to be just enough to really help me finish one event early enough to get to the next (as long as no travel time is involved), but short enough that my brain does not fight back by thinking, “Relax, you really have five more minutes.


There's a whole book on the subject of creating buffers in your life called "Margin" by Richard Swenson, MD.

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