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Using Space and Time to Increase Your Effectiveness

October 13, 2010
Tony Alessandra
Tony Alessandra: Master of the Space-Time Continuum

On the second day of a two-day seminar, and you walk into the conference room with its scores of chairs, and someone has the nerve to be sitting in your seat, the one you had occupied only yesterday! Of course, you know you have no claim on that chair. But still, you feel a slight pang of pain that someone took “your” seat!

Or you show up promptly for your 2:45 P.M. doctor’s appointment. But after flipping through old magazines for fifteen minutes, you start glaring at the clock and thinking how this doctor probably purposely schedules patients too close together just to maximize income. Doesn’t he know you have a job? What, you ask yourself, would happen if you charged him at his rate for the time of yours he wastes?

Use of space and time, indeed, sends important signals. For example, if you violate others’ physical comfort zone by, say, standing too close to them or touching them when you shouldn’t, you may offend them and cause tension. Similarly, if you abuse another person’s sense of time-by being too late or too early, for example, or by leaving too quickly or staying too long-you can negatively affect the relationship. How you honor or violate another person’s personal space and time will affect the amount of tension or trust between you.

Here are some ideas about how you might use space and time to increase your effectiveness:

  1. Signal your time shifts. What if you had a friend who for years called you about once a week, and then, suddenly, stopped calling? You’d wonder whether you had said or done something to offend. The point is, because we tend to read messages into time changes, it’s important to signal others when our time priorities change. This will keep others from making the wrong assumptions about your priorities.
  2. Learn to say no. Because of the need to please, the fear of offending, or other emotion-laden reasons, we sometimes undercut our own priorities and undervalue our own time. So we say yes first and regret it later as we let others squander our time. Above all, keep your own priorities firmly in mind.
  3. Start using your office proactively as a tool. Close the door when you invite someone in, even if it’s just for an informal chat. They’ll feel more important, and you ward off most interruptions. Don’t answer your telephone, reply to E-mail, or attend to other such tasks when you have someone with you. It’s rude and sends the message that you don’t care what the other person is saying. Similarly, how you arrange your office furniture affects your visitor. If you sit in your chair behind your desk, there’s a barrier between you and them, signaling a short superior-subordinate interaction. If you want a more informal, relaxed, one-on-one atmosphere, sit closer to the visitor, without the barrier of a desk.
  4. Learn to manage interruptions. The telephone is one of the biggest time wasters. There are several strategies for dealing with interrupting phone calls, such as call screening, voice mail, and the like. But perhaps the simplest solution is to put a three-minute egg timer on your desk. When the sand runs out, you know to call a halt diplomatically to all but the most critical of calls. An open-door policy is fine, but it can destroy your efficiency if taken too far. So, arrange your office so you aren’t readily visible and thus a target for people passing by with time on their hands.
  5. Honor space and time in the “virtual office,” too. With so much work now being done via electronic formats, it’s easy to forget how many of the same tenets of time and space apply. Be sure to start or enter teleconferences promptly, not late. If you E-mail requests to colleagues, tell them how urgently you need the answer, or whether a reply is needed at all.

Because you may just be sending and receiving typed messages on a computer screen, be especially mindful of your “table manners.” So think how others will likely receive your message before you launch it into cyberspace.

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