Time is the most valuable currency we have. It’s also the one we trade away the most and spend on things that can turn out to be the opposite of what we wanted.
Time management is a universal concept and in this interview I’m joined by Steve Watson, a UK-based time management coach and the founder of 27andahalf.
An author and creator of the Time Mastery Pyramid, Steve has plenty of insight into how to spend time wisely and it was great to discuss themes of ambition, boundaries, productivity and more.
Thanks for taking the time to chat Steve. Since you help people get better at managing their time it’d be good to start off with what time means to you and how you started your business.
My background is that I’m a teacher and I was teaching leadership and management qualifications. I was working with accidental managers, so people who were good at their job and were rewarded with a promotion into a job where they were doing things they no longer felt they were good at. But they had to manage other people.
I was working long days and around that time my mum was diagnosed with a terminal brain disease and she was told there was no cure and that she had six years to live. During that time she would lose all of her independence and I made a quick decision to get a lot better at my time management so I could be with her in the week.
I started with Googling time management and found there were four and half billion results. I began thinking that if there’s so much stuff out there about time management, why are people still struggling?
I tried different techniques and eventually managed to cut my working week in half and grow my business at the same time. People started asking me how I’d done it and one of the key things I found was that it was important to cut 60-minute meetings down, as that’s usually the default setting in a calendar.
Usually you can get the outcomes of that same meeting done in less than half of that time. So we started scheduling meetings at 27 and a half minutes. If you say 30 minutes, people don’t really think about it.
When you say something specific like 27 and a half minutes, people are sensitive to that. That’s where the name 27andahalf came from for my brand name.
We’ll have to see if we can keep this interview down to 27 and a half minutes (laughs).
We’ve chatted a bit about your book Transform Your Busyness Into A Thriving Business before. I’m curious about the process behind writing and publishing the book.
Before lockdown most of my work was in person and it was training people either in groups or on a one to one basis. For a while, I’d been suggesting to people that it would be more time-efficient if we did something over Zoom or similar.
Lots of people were sceptical of it and think they felt like it wasn’t going to be as good. Then lockdown pushed us into that and there was no choice.
With more time on my hands, I wanted to start a project and had lots of content I’d been using to teach. I put that content into a book, was offered a publishing deal and then it was released.
As part of your time management training, you’ve developed a framework called the Pyramid Of Time Mastery. How did you create the framework and are you trying to evolve it?
There were two things that came up from my research of time management. The first one was a lot of the content suggests that choices, decisions, and priorities are the keys to time mastery.
But the content doesn’t take into account that a large portion of what everybody does on a day to day basis has nothing to do with that. It’s to do with habit and what you do naturally without even thinking about it.
I wanted to help people understand their current habits with their time and develop them into things that are more helpful. The second thing I learned was people present symptoms with their time management.
So they’ll say they have an overflowing email inbox, or they’ve got too many meetings booked in and they don’t have time to do any of the stuff that they need to do for themselves. What I’ve found is these symptoms usually aren’t the core problem. There’s usually something deeper than that.
People make the mistake of trying to solve the symptom and that might work in the short term but as soon as there’s pressure or a deadline the whole thing crumbles.
The Pyramid Of Time Mastery is the structure that I worked through with my teacher. It’s based on the principle that there are certain key foundation blocks that have to be in place first if the rest of it is going to stick. It’s what my book, my course and my coaching are all based on.
That makes a lot of sense. Since I’m a quoteaholic I’m going to hit you with one of my favourite time management quotes and it’d be good to hear your interpretation of it.
“Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who organises every day as though it were his last neither longs for nor fears the next day.”
Love it. I think it’s it’s really important to focus on the present. There are a couple of quotes that I like and one of them is “learn as if you’ll live forever but live as if you’ll die tomorrow.” People overestimate what they can achieve in a day, but they underestimate what they can achieve in a year.
Another one I like is by the classic business guru, Kung Fu Panda. “The past is history and the future is a mystery.”
Those are great quotes. I think repeating small lines like that to yourself can be great for reframing your mindset in whatever situation.
Across history are there any great masters of time that you admire?
I absolutely love Dale Carnegie and his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. I think the six ways to make people like you in the book are so pertinent to time management because they’re the best use of time.
If you make the other person feel important, if you smile, if you talk in terms of the other person’s interests, those are all ways of making the most of your time and building relationships in the quickest way.
What do you think of the concept of ambition in relation to time?
The first thing is for people to understand what they actually want to achieve and what success is for them. I can look back to some of the foundation blocks in the pyramid here.
The first one is why, which relates to your personal values and how they shape the decisions that you make about your time. There’s awareness. It’s being aware of what you’re currently good at and not so good at. Then there’s vision and having a plan of what you want to achieve.
The final one is mindset, which is things like respecting your own time and people chronically undervalue their own time.
In terms of what I think about people trying to achieve things with the time they’ve got? It’s about being deliberate. Time mastery is being deliberate about what you’re doing and I’d urge anyone to have a clear vision, break it down into milestones and how you can achieve it.
That’s great. I enjoy asking philosophical questions like that because I tend to get a different answer with everyone I interview.
You’ve touched on a couple of time management tips already and I’d like to hear if you have any others in relation to productivity.
In productivity, a lot of behaviour is shaped by the environment. This is especially true for people working and home and is still applicable for people working in offices too. It’s important to get your working environment, your work bunker, sorted so that you’ve got a space where you can get into that zone of being productive.
There are a lot of things that contribute e.g. how it looks. People talk about a cluttered desk leading to a cluttered mind and it’s true. Have the things you need there but don’t have clutter.
Sound contributes too. I love using headphones and listen to classical music when I’m stuck on a task and need to get in the zone. The way things smell also helps. If you’ve got a particular candle that triggers certain behaviours then that may make you more productive.
Creating a productive working environment is also about how you set things up digitally with your notifications, putting do not disturb on, develop an efficient automated email process etc.
There was a study thrown around a while ago that said that, on average, people working in offices are disturbed or distracted every 11 minutes. And the time it can take from working on a deep task to being distracted to then getting back to where you were can take 28 minutes.
Now that’s math that doesn’t work! If you’re distracted every 11 minutes and takes you 28 minutes to get back, it’s no wonder that people don’t achieve things during the day.
You can forge out a couple of hours and get in that zone where you can be productive and you’ll probably get more done in those two hours than you would in a week.
All great information. In terms of being a parent, what kind of time management tips would you suggest for business owners who’re looking to balance work with kids and how do you incorporate that into your role as a dad?
It’s about boundaries and comes back to the first block in the pyramid about your why and personal values. For me, my personal values are family first. If I’m presented with an opportunity to either spend time with my daughter or take extra work and I’m supposed to be spending time with my daughter, it’s a no brainer for me.
So, you set boundaries and be strict with them. You can use accountability with your family to hold you accountable. I think people are surprised and think they can’t block out certain times of the week to not work. I do that. I’m off every Tuesday, every Wednesday afternoon and Friday afternoon.
There’s a principle called Parkinson’s Law. It says that stuff expands to fill the space that it’s given. Let’s say a student is given a three-month deadline and they don’t do anything about that piece of work for the first month.
They might start to look at it a little bit in the second month and in the third month when the deadline comes up they’ll do it at like 2 am. So stuff will expand to fill the space it’s given.
It’s the same principle when people go on holiday. How productive can you be in one day? When you tie up all the loose ends you get everything done and dusted and finished off because you’re going away tomorrow and you’ve got a deadline.
Having those boundaries for your work allows you to create space for other things in your life.