Negotiating to protect our time

One of the primary reasons people negotiate is to allocate scarce resources. And one of the scarcest of all resources is time. So it should come as no surprise that protecting our time—much as it seems little like a negotiation—is. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that our success in preserving certain amounts or periods of time strongly shapes the negotiability of our lives.

With that in mind, let’s consider some lessons from negotiation research with direct relevance for protecting our time:

  1. Define your positions and interests: You can’t protect your time unless you know exactly what you want to protect—how much or what period? And you won’t have much success in protecting it unless you deeply understand why you need to. A few extra minutes at the office doesn’t seem like much unless you link it to your inability to coach your kid’s soccer team. And your interest in coaching soccer highlights new (and somewhat obvious but surprisingly underexplored) solutions like coming in earlier instead of staying later.
  2. Establish a reputation: After deciding how much time to protect, establish a reputation for protecting it! As in any negotiation, a true bottom line—a latest possible hour in the office, unavoidable family commitment—shouldn’t slip. And bolster your reputation for protecting your own time by showing an unwavering respect for other people’s right to protect theirs.
  3. Propose solutions: It’s easier to protect your time if you replace a “no” with a “no but.” That is, when someone tries to encroach on your time—as someone always will—don’t just reject them in a flurry of frustration. Reject their specific request but seek to satisfy their underlying interest. “No, I can’t come in on Saturday because I’m coaching my kid’s soccer team. But what if I hustled and got everything done on Thursday? Or stayed late on Friday? Or took the Saturday call from home?” It’s not rocket science, but it’ll elicit a substantially warmer response.
  4. Highlight the win-win: It won’t work with everyone, but certain time-encroachers may be convinced by appeals to their enlightened self-interest. “It’s good for both of us if I set a regular schedule—that way, we’ll both know what to expect, I’ll always avoid the traffic and have more time to work from home, I’ll do a better job in the long-run, etc.”
  5. Find complementarities: Maybe you want to leave early for soccer practice and a coworker wants to come in late to get their kids to school. Or you feel dead-tired in the morning and productive at night, whereas a coworker feels the opposite. Reaching an arrangement with complementary parties like these might just allow everyone to protect their preferred periods of time while providing continuous coverage of the workload.

As with so much of life, then, protecting our time is a negotiation, and the lessons from negotiation research can make life negotiable. With that, I’ll take no more of your time.

Negotiating your time back

Left to their own devices, people in organizations tend to take your time away. “Would you serve on the birthday committee?” “Would you contribute to our twice-weekly newsletter?” “Would you take our new hires out to lunch?” And who, with half a heart, could say no to such harmless extracurricular requests? The problem, of course, is that many harmless extracurriculars add up to one stressed out employee—someone who can’t get their job done.

In these moments, it’s time to get your time back. I would offer the following five negotiation principles as a framework for making the process more negotiable:

  1. Interests. Your interests are what you really want or need. In this case, they’re the tasks you really need to complete to satisfy your job. And perhaps the extracurriculars you really want to tack on because you like them. What do you really need and want to do, and how much time will it really require? Answering those questions provides a baseline for deciding how much time is left for the birthday committee.
  2. Alternatives. With respect to any particular extracurricular, what would you alternatively do with the time if you had it back? In other words, what’s the opportunity cost of being on the birthday committee? If they’re higher than inherent benefits of the birthday committee—to you, but particularly to the rest of the committee and whoever’s having a birthday—chances are it’s not worth your time.
  3. Bottom line: Given your interests, what is the absolute maximum amount of time you can spend on extracurriculars? That’s a rhetorical question for your consideration, not a question to answer in front of the birthday committee coordinator, lest they see your free time as an opening to ask you about the anniversary and holiday committees too.
  4. Perspective-taking: If you’re considering quitting a particular extracurricular, how’s the organizer likely to react, and why? The organizers of some extracurriculars will probably be more concerned than the organizers of others. And the very concerned organizers will probably be concerned for some particular reason, which you might be able to address by proposing a…
  5. Creative solution: Sure, the organizer of the birthday party may not do a happy dance when you resign from his or her committee. But could you bring back some semblance of a smile by understanding the underlying concern and doing something to address it? If the underlying issue is your refined knowledge of the birthday planning process, perhaps you could train someone else? If the concern is that no one else will volunteer as much time as you (providing further justification for your qualms), perhaps you could create a team of dedicated birthday planners, subdividing by month? If it’s that your absence will spell the end of the beloved birthday emails from the company, perhaps Microsoft can offer an automated solution?

In sum, we all, out of the goodness of our hearts, find ourselves agreeing to serve on something like the birthday committee from time to time. But when the scope of our goodness expands to include the anniversary committee, holiday committee, and everything else—and when we consequently find ourselves stretched too thin to even read our boss’s emails—it’s time to get our time back. In these instances, I’d suggest that considering some basic negotiation principles is well-worth your time.

Learning to love deadlines

Oh, deadlines…even the word stresses us out. Whether it’s the last minute to submit the meeting minutes or the last day to sign up for daycare, the prospect of an approaching cliff challenges even the calmest to remain calm.

Yet, wisely imposed deadlines can make life substantially more negotiable. To illustrate, consider three big benefits of deadlines in negotiations:

  1. Deadlines focus the mind: The deadline effect indicates that deadlines, not timelines, indicate when negotiators get serious. In other words, whether you’re negotiating for two hours or two days, the most productive part of the negotiation may well happen in the last two minutes. That’s because deadlines focus the mind, raising the costs of delay for both sides and leading both sides to say what they probably should’ve been saying the whole time. The bottom line? If your negotiation has a deadline—if you’ve both booked flights at 2 on Tuesday, for example—savor the deadline rather than sweating it. And definitely don’t change your flight! Your collective deadline is likely to make everyone’s life more efficient.
  2. Deadlines are contagious: Another important feature of the deadline effect is that one party’s deadline becomes both parties’ deadline. If you’re really going to turn into a pumpkin at midnight, losing your ability to negotiate any further—and if the other side knows that—well, then the other side effectively turns into a pumpkin at midnight too. Since they can’t accomplish anything without you, they really have no choice but to finish by the time you say. The bottom line? If you really have a deadline, make really sure your counterpart knows it.
  3. Deadlines are tactics: Sometimes negotiations are going approximately nowhere. Both sides’ intransigence is generating universal frustration. In that case, you might consider imposing a deadline yourself. Knowing that deadlines contagiously focus the mind (and that you could probably fudge your own deadline if you had to), an imposed deadline will probably generate the stress necessary to get your counterpart talking, if not yourself. Of course, use this tool with extreme caution, as you lose credibility if your deadline passes and you keep on negotiating. And you lose the whole deal if your deadline proves a bit too aggressive.

And so it is that one of the most feared words in the English language—deadline—has a rather positive connotation in negotiation. Bottom line: Don’t shy away from the deadline, but embrace it and impose it as required.

Have you ever imposed a deadline to move a process forward?