Optimize Transition Time (And Stop Being Late)

At 6 pm, my wife Eleanor was looking tense. “We are so late!” she said.

After a great day of skiing in the Catskills, we were driving back to New York City, for a dinner party that was called for 7 pm.

“What do you mean?” I responded, “The party doesn’t start for an hour; we’ve got plenty of time.”

“Peter.” She didn’t hide her annoyance. “We’re 100 miles from the city. There’s no way we can make it on time.”

“We’re not late yet.” I smiled. “We’re still an hour early.”

This explains why I am always late and Eleanor is always on time. Eleanor, you see, plans for transition time.

The night before the party, she figured out that we if we needed to be there by 7, we should plan to arrive by 6:45, which meant leaving our apartment in New York City at 6:15, which meant arriving at the apartment by 5:30, in time to drop of our bags, take showers, and dress, which meant arriving in New York City at 5 to give us time to park the car, which meant leaving Windham at 2:15, in case there was traffic, which meant stopping skiing at 1:15, giving us time to pack up and clean the house, which meant starting skiing at 8am if we were going to get in any decent runs, which meant waking up at 6:30, which meant going to sleep by 10:30 so we could get our full eight hours.

“Uh oh,” I had said to her the night before, as I looked at my watch. “It’s 11 pm. We’re already 30 minutes late for tomorrow night’s party.”

Eleanor, of course and as usual, is right. The only way to get somewhere on time is to plan for it, taking into account each time-consuming step.

My intentions are good. I don’t like being late. Most people who are late don’t like being late. And I never plan to be late or intend to be late. I understand that it’s disrespectful and unprofessional. Not to mention uncomfortable.

Here’s my problem: I have a very high need to be efficient and productive. And transition time is neither of those things; it’s annoying.

I’d rather just be somewhere. I don’t want to waste the time getting there. So, even though I know I should leave more time, I push it, clinging to the illusion that I can get places faster than is humanly possible.

I’m not the only one. Anyone who has ever scheduled back-to-back meetings lives under the same illusion. How can we end a meeting at 2 pm and start the next one at 2 pm? Even if they’re just phone meetings, we can’t dial that fast. Or switch our mindset from one task to the other in so little time. And when you throw in a bathroom break? It’s pre-meditated lateness, and we do it all the time.

At one of my clients it’s policy not to start teaching until 10 minutes after a training program is scheduled to start. That’s institutionalized lateness.

But the joke is on us late people. Because being late causes the exact things we’re trying to avoid: inefficiency and counter productivity. Not just for the people who are waiting, but for the people who are late. Because nothing is more productive and efficient than transition time. It’s not just our time to travel. It’s our time to think. And to plan.

How many meetings have you been to in which, halfway through, you begin to wonder, now what is the point of this meeting?

How many times have you been on a phone call and found your mind wandering, or — be honest now — surfed the web, because you were bored?

How often have you thought: you know, this 60-minute meeting should have been 30 minutes?

And you’re right. The meeting probably should have been 30 minutes. Or 45 at the most. Because almost anything that could be done in 60 minutes can be done in 45. But because we haven’t thought enough about it before hand, the meeting drags on.

If we took a few minutes before the meeting to really think about it, we could drastically shorten it. So, here’s the one thing you should think about as you transition leisurely (gasp) to your next commitment:

How can I make this shorter, faster, and more productive?

Even five or 10 minutes of that kind of planning can shave 30 minutes off a task. Think about your outcome. Think about what you really need from people. And then, in a move that will make everyone else in the room overjoyed, let them know you want to make the 60 minute meeting 30 minutes and tell them how you plan to do it.

Spend your transition time plotting how to maximize your outcome. Need people’s ownership? Think about how you can involve them more openly, get their perspectives, and engage them. Going to a dinner? Ponder how you can have more fun.

Maybe you’re thinking: but I already plan. Sure you do. But there’s no better planning time than the 15 minutes before you walk into the room or get on the phone. Do you know any athlete who would rush off her cell phone and jump into the starting gate of a race? Of course not. Because athletes know that transition time is productive time.

To make this work we need to schedule it — literally put the transition time in our calendars. End meetings at least 15 minutes before the hour and schedule that time to prepare for the next one. Maybe, then, we can keep that meeting to 30 minutes and have an extra 15 minutes to go to the bathroom, answer email, or surf the web. That would be more efficient than doing those things during the meeting.

I have more to say about this — like how inefficient multi-tasking is — but I’ll have to save it for another article. It’s only 15 minutes until my next meeting so I’ve got to go. And besides, it’s 4 pm and by my calculations, I’m already running late for a 2 pm meeting tomorrow.