November 14, 2011

The Power of Time-Blocking, Solitude & Focus

Too few of us appear to be in control of our calendars. Smart phones and perpetual connectivity have turned many of us into addicts. Solitude is so seldom practiced that the thought of being alone and unreachable, even for an hour or two, makes us twitch.

As a coach and consultant, I continually see sales leaders and salespeople who are not focused, not proactive, not owning and guarding their calendars. They respond to every whim whether from inside their own company or from their customers. Every where I go I preach about time-blocking – the discipline of making appointments with yourself to focus on the important rather than just the urgent. More than ever, proactive is one of the most important words in our sale success vocabulary.

I have penned a Sales Law regarding new business development: No one defaults to prospecting mode. No one. That is as true as anything I’ve shared here previously. I have yet to see a salesperson who finds 15 free minutes and says, “I’ve got some time I didn’t expect to have. Let me grab my target prospect list and call a few companies to see if I can move the ball forward or set up that meeting with my key contact.” It doesn’t happen.

Well, I have also discovered something else that doesn’t just happen: writing a book! I am under contract with AMACOM, the publishing division of the American Management Association, for a book about prospecting and new business development. I could not be more excited about it or more pleased with the wonderful folks at AMACOM.

However, like many of you, I am an addict. There, I feel better just admitting it! I love being connected. Twitter. Email. Text messages from the CEO of my largest client. News feeds. Fantasy Football. Moving weather radar. Stock quotes. Too long without the internet, iPad or iPhone (you are welcome for the plug Apple) and I squirm, even getting a little twitchy. Admit it, so do you.

On top of the connectivity addiction, add a full client-load, some travel, the sales effort for my business, three active children, an incredible wife who works full-time, a marriage that needs and deserves investment, and life is full to the brim. Probably more than full. So, once the book contract was executed and a deadline established for the manuscript, I knew it was time to take some of my own time-blocking medicine.

When I sat down with the calendar to plot out the timeline for writing 15 chapters, I sensed I was in trouble. Why? Because I know myself. A three hour time-block at Barnes & Noble (where I love to write coaching content) is not really a full three hours. As a service to their customers, Barnes & Noble provides free wifi. And free wifi + an undisciplined connectivity addict = productivity trouble. That’s a pretty accurate little equation. Wouldn’t you agree, fellow addict?

Committed to doing this book, doing it well and hitting my deadline, I scheduled three book-writing retreats. Last week was the first, and I headed out to a remote farm in southern Ohio. My wonderful, gracious Uncle Bill invited me to spend four days on his farm. 150 year-old house on 100 acres. The “road” pictured here was the last mile to the farm house. No internet, television, radio, cell phone coverage. Bill was there to bow hunt and I was there to write. Four days disconnected in this beautiful setting was incredible – for me personally and for the book:  Walks in the meadows and wooded areas, the most gorgeous night sky I’ve seen, and countless hours sitting on the porch writing at that table shown above.

What an experience. Don’t get me wrong. There was pain involved. Withdrawal from connectivity was not easy. Not knowing which clients were emailing requests made me nervous. Missing out on news, the European debt crisis and Sunday NFL games frustrated me to no end. But it was all worth it. My mind was in high gear. Stories of my early days in sales flowed. I remembered specific selling situations that were perfect illustrations for the chapters I was writing. And I wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more.

The retreat was a success in more ways than I would have predicted. I completed the amount of writing I set out to do, but I learned so much more. I returned to reality, the family and the business with a fresh perspective and more committed than ever to time-blocking and finding ways to disconnect more frequently for shorter periods. If I can survive four days, surely I can go a few hours without checking emails on the phone.

Salesperson and sales leader, how is it going in terms of owning and guarding your calendar? Are you controlled by the tyranny of the urgent or are you carving out blocks of time to proactively focus on what it is important? What might happen to your productivity if you closed your email for two hours or were not thumb-scrolling your phone every unoccupied moment?