Re-Negotiation and the *Ding* – Merlin Mann Productivity Talk, Macworld Expo

Last week, I downloaded a talk given by Merlin Mann (who runs entitled “Living with Data.”

For anyone out there who is feeling overstressed, overworked, overwhelmed with the feeling that they’re tasked with doing more than is possible in the time allotted… you need to listen to this talk. If you are someone who is a knowledge worker (a phrase coined by Peter Drucker in 1959, describing someone who adds value to information), this is worth your valuable time. I cannot stress this enough.

Recently, I got a promotion at the company where I’ve been working for the past 5+ years. I’ve found myself working with more projects. There are more people I need to consult with, more people I need to update and talk with. Conversely, there are an equal number of folks out there (if not more) who want to consult or update or talk with me.

My emails have increased dramatically. The speed and breadth of messages I receive on a daily basis is, quite frankly, a little unnerving at times. Day to day it seems incredibly difficult to find time to focus on any one given task without someone else needing input or advice or some fire attended to, immediately. It’s a constant fight, it seems, to even get the most basic of tasks done.

I see this in my own workday. And looking around, I see it happening to my coworkers, to those that I consider peers as well as superiors. The stress and the amount of work that exists is looming and ever present. It’s there so much it’s damn near palpable.

Here are two quick things I’d like to mention, before going further into evangelizing Merlin Mann and his ideas on productivity. There’s a sea of text below, so I want to properly entice you, and convince you that what follows is worth your time, and worth reading.

First – while I was listening to his talk on the El… I was so engrossed in what he was saying, I almost missed my stop.

Second – Since listening to his talk, I’ve implemented two of his suggestions (re-negotiation and resetting the “Get Messages” default in Outlook). Both have drastically helped me navigate my workday better, I am accomplishing more, and I am feeling a marked reduction in terms of stress.


Ok. A bit of what I liked from his talk: Merlin has some great ideas regarding access, and how people who have access to you pull you away from the things you should be focusing on, the things you should be doing:

If you’re the kind of person, like me, who is a knowledge worker, you’re seeing a disruption in particular in the amount of access that people have to you.

It’s my contention that… if we do not find a way to wrangle our time and attention in such a way that it stays directed on the things that are valuable to us… we’ll be entering a world of pain.

One thing he said that really resonated with: “My time has become too much of a bargain for other people.” The notion that my time has a certain value was a new idea to me. If I’m called into a meeting where I’m not needed in any direct way, why am I there? What purpose does it serve? If someone asks for my time, are they putting my time to good use… or are they wasting it?

Here’s a walkaway: Your time is valuable. If you feel constantly bothered and interrupted, then most likely the people bothering and interrupting you aren’t recognizing the true value of your time. Don’t be a bargain.

Beyond simply saying “no” to people who are asking for your time… Merlin brought up the notion of re-negotiation. Even though I’ve only been trying this out for a few days, I’ve found it to relieve a great deal of stress.

Example time. Someone asks “Hey, can you come to a meeting about X today?” Normally, I’d say “sure” and then be stressing out during the entire meeting, thinking about all the other stuff I wasn’t getting done.

Renegotiating would change my response to something like this: “I’m really interested to learn more about that. But I’m pretty busy, and I can only be in for the first 20 minutes. Is that okay?”

Renegotiating is about saying yes, but on your own terms – it’s a more active approach to saying yes. Instead of constantly reacting to someone else’s desires/wants, you’re placing boundaries and limitations on where you choose to focus your time and attention. I can’t tell you how much less stressful this approach is.

And the best part? You still get to tell people “yes.”


One of the best tips I got from the talk? The best thing that I could recommend to you? If you ignore everything else I’ve jabbered about here, and only remember one thing? Remember this: change your default email setting for getting new messages. Set it to manual. And to take that one step further… remove the audio *ding* as well.

Swear to god – this will change your day. After trying it out, I felt stress drop from me like a weight.

You have no idea who just made that *ding* happen. So you say to yourself “No, I’m not that guy. I’m not that guy who lets the *ding* stop him from what he’s doing.”

… Think about how many things in your life are represented by a single *ding*. Anytime we have notifications going on, that are taking us away from what we’re doing… that’s one super quick way to break your time and attention.

… Part of [this idea of] re-negotiation is understanding who gets access to you, understanding when they get access to you, and understanding for how long they get access to you. And for you to really turn into a total productivity ninja, you’re going to have to be able to make those decisions really quickly. But you’re going to have to make those decisions.

And as long as you’re letting the *ding* take you away, you’re not being a ninja. You’re being that guy.

The default setting for getting new messages in Outlook is 5 minutes. Per Merlin’s suggestion, I removed that automatic setting and instead, set it to manual. So I would only receive new messages when I clicked the “Send and Receive” button. And only then.

The result? I focused on the stuff I needed to do, and I got it done. When I felt compelled to check in with the rest of the world, those emails would show up: on my terms, not on anyone else’s. There were plenty of things that I might have considered fires, but ultimately… I attended to at a later time, and the world didn’t end. I stayed focused on the things I needed to focus on, and it was freaking great.

Merlin argues that whatever we focus our attention on… that thing immediately becomes a priority because we’re focusing on it. So if an email comes in from someone wanting X done… it’ll feel like a priority because we’ve shifted our attention to it. By receiving emails manually, we only deal with external requests when we feel prepared for them. Again – it’s on your own terms, not on anyone else’s.

Like him, I’m going to suggest you try it out. Try it for a day, and see what happens.

I know you’re busy, I know you have a lot of important emails from important people. But try it out. Set your email triggers to manual, and see how you feel at 5PM. I’m really encouraging you here – test it out and see what happens.

I’m genuinely curious – did it help? Did you feel any difference at all, regarding either how much you got done or how stressed you feel? I’d love to hear about your experience.


So far, I’ve written a great deal about this talk, and what I like about Merlin’s thoughts on productivity. I’ve gone to the effort of listening to certain parts of his talk, and then transcribing, verbatim, key passages that I think you might find enticing. I’ve also converted the talk to an .mp3, so that you can listen to it in your spare time, working out or while you commute.

I guess what I mean to say is that I’m feeling like a bit of a fanboy here. But I think this is really useful stuff. And I get the sense that there are others out there, grappling with the same struggles… these notions of time and attention.

If nothing else, I think the talk is a great validation that others are out in the world at large, dealing with the same, overwhelming feelings of too much work, too little time. But I feel strongly that there’s more here than simple commiseration. While it’s no panacea, there are good approaches, good strategies for helping us “make the right thing the easy thing.” Jane, Ben, Mike, Kashif, Sandra… I’m looking in your direction.

To all of you out there, especially the workaholics and the ones consistently staying in the office well after regular business hours: in all earnestness – have a listen. I’m all but insisting on this.

Living with Data (mp3)
Video: Merlin’s New Time and Attention Talk (43 Folders)
Getting Things Done and iGTD

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. you don’t have to push the send and receive button. If you want to be truly efficient, try using the key commands instead! That’s command-K, baby! This from the dork who spent an hour answering emails and making work-related phone calls on his day off.doh!

    ben Reply

  2. Just for the record – I totally use command-K.:P

    avoision Reply

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