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To manage time, understand fear

Emotion is a driving force behind action

By Steve Prentice

March 08 2013 issue

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Lawyers are crunched for time. Whether it is working late nights or on weekends (or both), the profession is not cut out for lawyers who can’t manage their time.

Almost all time management problems stem from people: there is always someone waiting for a response, waiting for delivery of work, or quite simply demanding time for meetings and discussions. Effective time management, then, is more about people management than about tasks. When people are involved, emotion takes over, and one of the biggest emotional dragons of all is “expectation.”

Expectation is a by-product of emotion — the emotion of fear. All human beings are controlled by emotion, even those who work in highly logical, rules-driven professions such as law. Emotion is the primary motivator of people’s actions, and fear is the king of all emotions. Logic — the rationalization of our actions — follows suit, substantiating our choices or priorities, but not driving them. When someone needs something done or is waiting on a response, the desire for resolution becomes paramount and springs from the fear of not receiving what is desired. This fear transforms into expectation, which is transmitted to the person doing the work, who in turn translates this expectation into a sense of pressure, which is simply another by-product of the emotion of fear — the fear of not delivering on time, of getting into trouble or of losing one’s job.

Emotion and logic dance around each other like a misshapen yin-yang symbol, with the emotional side larger and dominant and the logical side seeking to keep balance.

The antidote to the emotion of fear is the logic of certainty. In any area of life such as health, work, relationships or money, the fear of the unknown — the worries, sleeplessness, anger or mental paralysis that can occur when the emotion of fear takes over — can be tamed through certainty: an action plan, a negotiation or a discussion. Think for example of the classic time management problem of prioritization. The inability to prioritize comes from mental paralysis — an emotional reaction based on fear — over too many tasks and too little guidance. Problems with prioritization come from not being able to “think straight” — in other words, emotion (fear) clouds logic. The solution for lawyers to the problem of prioritization is to write out all the tasks and deadlines along with their relative importance rankings on a whiteboard or a sheet of paper. Why? Because seeing all of the tasks laid out in a visual format allows the brain to process knowledge more rationally. This clears the jumble from the emotion-dominated brain and paves the way for a workable action plan.

Clarity, then, slays the emotional dragon called expectation. It is a tool of influence, and therefore a terrific tool for lawyers to manage time, since it delivers a clear understanding of the boundaries or limits of activities, satisfies the need for immediate resolution, and quells the underlying fear of the unknown. It has a name: it is called the Law of Sharp Edges.

Live conversations

The Law of Sharp Edges is extremely effective, for example, in controlling the duration of live conversations, while maximizing their value as a productivity tool. There is no substitute in the legal world for live conversation as a tool for resolving problems, communicating ideas, improving client relationships and getting things done. Live conversation is far superior to e-mail in terms of time efficiency and productivity. E-mail, by comparison, is sterile and prone to misunderstanding and inflation — e-mails create more e-mails. The problem with getting together face-to-face, or even over the phone, is the fear of getting trapped in a conversation with no end, drifting off into small talk and wasted time. But it need not be that way.

The Law of Sharp Edges states that when a conversation partner is given a clear delineation — a guideline as to where and when an event is to start and end instead of merely a vague idea — they are be more likely to accommodate and participate.

Therefore, the best way to ensure a successful conversation is to start with the delineation: “This event shall only last 10 minutes.” This can be done easily and subtly by simply making it clear.

The wrong way: “Pat, can we talk a little about next week’s meeting?”

The “Sharp Edges” way: “Pat, I need 10 minutes to talk about next week’s meeting.”

Such an overture establishes the boundaries of an otherwise organic, potentially free-growing conversation and allows for an easy exit. People are far more likely to accept a conversation request when they see a clear end in sight. It eliminates their fear of the unknown — “how long will this conversation go on?” — and replaces it with a sharp-edged certainty.

The suitable alternative to now

There is always a suitable alternative. Everything can be negotiated, once the emotion of fear is identified and handled. For example, a suitable alternative to ‘now’ is ‘later.’ Too often people, including lawyers, cave under the emotional pressure of the moment, accepting a drop-in visitor or answering an incoming e-mail or phone-call, simply because there seems to be no other choice. However, when that interruption derails focus or delays completion of a current task, there is a greater price to pay.

Take dental appointments, for example. Does a dentist ever say: “Any time next week is fine. Just come on in?” Highly unlikely. Dentists work by appointment. So why do so many non-dentists (like lawyers, for example) treat interpersonal communication so softly, accommodating requests on an ad hoc basis?

The specific fear that people feel when receiving an e-mail, call or visitor, is the fear of offending or other negative consequences should the interruption not be answered straight away. The specific fear that a caller or visitor feels, not knowing when they might expect the response they need, motivates them to push harder. The net result is that all people, both senders and receivers, are forced into a state of reactionism, losing their focus and productivity along the way.

The pressing needs of others constantly seek to overrule one’s own sense of importance from both the outside (the caller’s expectation) and the inside (one’s own pressure to respond). However, in most cases these discussions, e-mails and requests can wait. Yes, there may be exceptions to this rule — the senior partner, or a key client — but even these special cases can be carefully managed through the same Sharp-Edged technique

The Law of Sharp Edges offers visitors and callers comfort through certainty. For example, the following responses are negotiation statements that come with an exact time: “Can you come back in 20 minutes?”; “I will be available at 11 a.m.”; “I respond to my e-mails within two hours of receipt”; or “How about I call you tomorrow at exactly 2 p.m.?” They are clear and specific and serve to overcome the fear of the unknown being experienced by the sender/visitor.

As a technique for surviving, thriving and managing time in the workplace, it is essential for lawyers to step away from reactionism and move into a more proactive mindset, in which understanding the underlying motivations of colleagues and clients can be addressed and matched by tools of influence that satisfy their needs without sacrificing time and productivity.

Steve Prentice has dedicated his career and energies to pinpointing the perfect juncture of productivity between humans and technology in the workplace. He has been awarded Platinum Status for consistently high ratings by Meeting Professionals International (MPI) and leads a course called Time Management — Surviving Your Schedule for the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario. For more information, visit

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