Book Review: Masters of Time

Cool Time by Steve Prentice emphasizes controlling human behaviour rather than creating reactionary to-do lists.

It's with a certain amount of dread that one picks up a book devoted to time management. Beyond the topic's dryness, there's the consideration that the more likely you are to read it, the less likely you are to need it. After all, if you have space in the day to read 229 pages on the issue of managing your schedule, then you're probably doing a pretty good job of, well, managing your schedule. Nevertheless, it's a popular subject. lists 7,135 books that at least touch on the topic, suggesting either that good time managers are obsessive about honing their skills–or that a lot of tomes on handling the pressures of work, family and life are going unread.

Into this paper sea comes Cool Time (John Wiley & Sons Canada, $26.99), written by Canadian Steve Prentice. What sets Cool Time apart is its emphasis on controlling human behaviour, as opposed to creating reactionary to-do lists, filing systems and agendas. Prentice, a time management consultant, argues stressed-out workers need to figure out how to be in charge of their lives while influencing others to play along. “When you feel in control, then your body and mind respond accordingly and that's when you get the best,” says Prentice. “You can think more clearly, do more, assess more and strategize.”

The central tenet of his philosophy, which borrows heavily from project management, is what he calls the three I's: inventory, influence and implementation. In short, “inventory” means understanding your workflow and allotting time for regular work, crises and surprises–something Prentice says anyone who has worked at their current job for more than a week should be able to do. That's a classic project management technique, but the trick is how you then use that inventory to influence–not manipulate, Prentice stresses–those around you so that you can get your work done, but still be seen as a team player.

It all seems common sense, which is probably why Cool Time is one of the bestselling business books in Canada. There's nothing in its pages we couldn't have figured out for ourselves if we had thought about it, but that's the point. We generally don't give planning much thought. We're genetically programmed to respond to even the smallest stimuli, yet modernity has outstripped our ability to answer everything. Look, there's another e-mail to open. Geez, the phone is ringing–I better answer it. Oops, Todd needs help–I better get over there. When you figure we have only an hour or two of sheer brilliance in us during the day, it doesn't help wasting it on trivial tasks.

Although Prentice occasionally lapses into jargon and new-agey bon mots, most of his prose is light, and the book's easily understood stories typically use lesser-known historical vignettes featuring the likes of Michelangelo, Hoover Dam project manager Frank Crowe, and Victor Lustig, the man who almost sold the Eiffel Tower. One common trap Cool Time stumbles into is trying to solve a problem before all the variables are understood. For example, Prentice goes into some detail about establishing 15-minute blocks at the start and end of each day to review the day's activities. It's not a bad idea, but one easily derailed by others who see you in the office and assume you're open for business. Prentice has a solution, but doesn't fully explain it until 10 chapters later.

Minor quibbles aside, there are dozens of good ideas here, from the rather pedantic–buying a better alarm clock, the attributes of which Prentice goes on about at some length (a list of good clocks can be found on his website)–to the nearly sublime, including a great deconstruction of why many view meetings as complete time wasters. His suggestion? Meetings should be no longer than 55 minutes in length, start on time and be focused. While 55 minutes isn't that much different from an hour, the subtracted five minutes give everyone a psychological boost, in much the same way store prices end in 99¢ rather than being rounded up. But if the information can be effectively delivered using the phone or e-mail, or with a quick visit to someone's office, avoid calling a meeting at all.

Another of Prentice's good suggestions is to schedule the most important items of the day when we're at our most alert. The best time is between 9 and 9:30 in the morning, when exposure to daylight, that first jolt of caffeine and the activity of getting to work all combine to heighten the ability to think and act straight. Other good work opportunities–what Prentice calls keystone times–occur between 10:45 and 11:30 a.m. (after a snack) and between 1 and 2 p.m. (assuming that you've had a lunch break). The worst time? Mid-afternoon, from 2 to 3:30, when the body is at its lowest physical ebb.

In the introduction, Prentice says Cool Time “refers to the art and science of never breaking a sweat, either mentally or physically.” He hopes readers will figure out how to go home at night and have a life: “I want people to enjoy the feeling of control that comes from a little bit of planning and a little bit of influence. I want people to enjoy their work and enjoy their life, and those two things shouldn't be separate.” Cool Time has some answers. Now all you have to do is find time to read it.