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Dealing with ‘answerholism’

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Are you an answerholic?

You may suffer from this stressful, distracting disorder if:

You live in North America.

You work for a large company.

You have an irresistible urge to answer every phone call.

You may suffer from this stressful, distracting disorder if:

Your “new e-mail” alert is as tantalizing as Pavlov’s bell.

You routinely put off other work to respond to messages and colleague requests.

If any of these symptoms sound familiar, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Or maybe you should worry, says Steve Prentice, author of Cool Time: A Hands-on Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time (Wiley, August 2005, $26.99). He coined the term “answerholism” in his new book, and says it’s just one of several counterproductive and time-draining traits of many modern business executives.

“You’re conditioning people to expect instant responses from you,” says Prentice, a leading workplace consultant and workshop facilitator on time management and productivity. “Every time you respond to something when you’re focusing on something else, it takes your brain 15 to 20 minutes to get to the same level of focus.”

Cool Time serves up fresh insights on time management — outlining the barriers that make it seem impossible to achieve, and providing concrete solutions to be less stressed, more productive, and to lead a balanced life.

“Cool Time refers to the art and science of never breaking a sweat, either mentally or physically, as you go about your day … Working, travelling, and speaking in Cool Time ensures that the highest, most useful faculties of your mind are present and ready,” Prentice writes.

The first step to effective time management is to take stock of your inventory — what Prentice refers to as the tasks you complete on a daily basis. Predictable tasks include phone calls, e-mails, regularly scheduled meetings, administration and focused work. Expectable tasks are less common but bound to happen: a colleague calls in sick; your manager drops additional work on your desk; an unhappy customer shows up to complain.

You should be able to generally quantify the lengths of these tasks and plan them into your calendar, affording you more control over your day.

“You are allotting time for them in advance and allowing them to become parts of your project plan, rather than simply reacting to them when they happen. That’s control,” Prentice writes.

Critical to managing time and being productive is scheduling what Prentice calls Keystone Time into each day — a block of time dedicated to almost completely undisturbed work. By consciously blocking out interruptions such as phone calls, e-mails, colleague requests, etc., you allow your brain to do what it does best: intensely focus on one task at a time and achieve the best results (Prentice says multitasking leads to unrealistic expectations about productivity).

For Keystone Time to work, you must also factor in Payback Time — the time you allot to returning messages and addressing colleagues’ concerns. By setting these parameters and making colleagues aware of the time you’ll be available to them, you gain a further measure of control over your day.

Cool Time also pays attention to biological factors such as our circadian rhythm and our need for light, which make us more productive in the mornings than the afternoons. As well, our innate fear of the unknown, combined with our desire to please others, both play a role in the need we feel to answer every call and respond to every request immediately.

“We haven’t evolved to handle this amount of stimulus,” Prentice says. “If we don’t manage our responses to it, things fall through the cracks, and that’s what people remember. You can still be accessible without having the immediacy people expect, and if done right, they will still respect you.”

How to prioritize

A major barrier to time management is the inability many of us have to assess the urgency and importance of tasks. To help you prioritize, Prentice advises asking yourself some of these questions:

– Is this task directly related to one of my top three current projects?

– Does this task need to be completed today?

– Does this task need to be done by me or should it be delegated?

– Does this task have high value to my manager or client that he will notice if it is not done?

– Can this task be quickly taken care of?

– What will this task mean to me a week from now?

– What if I don’t do this task at all?

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