650 billion (not million) in Interruptions

An interesting article in the New York Times entitled”Lost in Email, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast.”

Their effort comes as statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.

The article describes one study that shows that some 28% of a professional’s day is spent deal with interruptions by things that aren’t urgent or important.

This seems all well and good… until they give the example of “unnecessary email.”

That made me pay attention, because I know from experience that the problem isn’t the technology, but instead it lies in people’s habits. In others, don’t blame Microsoft Outlook for the habit of checking and acting on email ten times per day.

Not surprisingly, the article cited the example of Intel workers who were encouraged to “limit digital interruptions” and were way more effective as a result. No surprise there! Limiting the interruptions allows for a greater opportunity to enter into the flow state, which is one of the goals of the 2Time Management system.

On engineer has apparently introduced a tool that will prevent a user from having access to his/her email inbox! I thought this was funny at first, because it’s a little like freezing one’s credit cards in a block of ice to prevent impulse purchases. It works, but it doesn’t really change the underlying habit.

The effect of poor habits is now being seen as quite costly:

A typical information worker who sits at a computer all day turns to his e-mail program more than 50 times and uses instant messaging 77 times, according to one measure by RescueTime, a company that analyzes computer habits. The company, which draws its data from 40,000 people who have tracking software on their computers, found that on average the worker also stops at 40 Web sites over the course of the day.


Right at the end of the article a typo caught my attention that stopped me in my tracks altogether…

Correction: June 18, 2008
An article on Saturday about efforts to cut down on information overload in the workplace, using data from the research firm Basex, gave an incorrect estimate in some editions for the annual cost of unnecessary interruptions at work. It is $650 billion — not million.

Why MultiTasking Isn’t Working

This is a great article on Tim Ferriss’ blog written by Josh Waitzkin.

Ever since I read the book Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, I have been a believer in the power of focusing on a single task at a time.

At the same time,  the manufacturer’s are churning out more and more reasons to be distracted during every waking hour, and are busy adding on entertaining distractions to what used to be productivity devices.

The author describes  his visit to the classroom of a favorite professor, and what he found — students hardly paying attention but instead doing everything but listening to the lecture.

It’s a provocative read.

A Time Management System for a LifeTime

One of the goals of 2Time is to help users create time management systems that last a lifetime.

What does that mean?

Most people start to think about time management when they become overwhelmed by some life change, such as getting married, having a child, being promote, being given additional responsibility, adding a new hobby or making a New Year’s resolution to lose weight.

As they take on new time demands they become acutely aware that their system is out of synch with their needs. Either one of two cases occurs.

Case #1 — Too Much New Stuff

The first mismatch happens when a user finds that their old practices don’t work, and that they simply are not keeping up. Time demands fall through the cracks, and if the job is an “important” one, they may have other people getting upset at their inability to deliver. They might even get upset with themselves, and blame themselves for either being lazy, procrastinating too much or having a bad memory.

Case #2 — Too Much of a System

In the odd case, users may either retire, get demoted or become disabled to some degree, and find themselves with a system that is geared for ten times as many time demands as they have at this moment in time. They might stress themselves out by trying to maintain a time management system they no longer need, with practices that are no longer necessary, but have become habitual.

The Answer

In both cases the answer is the same. Their time management system needs to be re-created to deal with the reality they are now dealing with in their lives. When the 11 fundamentals are known, this is not a difficult task.

A time management system that lasts a lifetime is easy to accomplish when users understand the fundamentals, and have mastered the practice of “Reviewing ” on a regular basis. The result is a flexible approach that allows them to evolve their system whenever their situation changes.

In this way, their time management system lasts a lifetime, as long as they are willing to do the work to make it current.

“Yeah, But I Remember the Important Things”

This sentence is said perhaps thousands of times per day by someone who has just forgotten to take out the garbage, pay a bill, return a phone call or send an email with that phone number you wanted.

It’s the kind of phrase that a novice in time management (or White belt) often says in response to one of those daily situations in which yet another one of their time demands has fallen through the cracks.  In their minds, it’s not a problem, because they are better at remembering the more important things.

This is a myth, but why so?

In the first place, the speaker doesn’t realize that they are over-depending on their memory to get stuff done.  They think that their ability to execute depends on their ability to remember, rather than the quality of the practices in their time management system.  They don’t know that the very way in which they conceive the problem they are facing is fundamentally flawed.

Secondly, it’s true that they remember the important things, because those are the things that loom large in front of them, and therefore get the most attention.  It’s more accurate to say that they get the most urgent things done, because the items that are not urgent are gradually making their way to the cracks because they are not on their immediate horizon.

The inevitable result is that a person comes to feel haunted and overwhelmed, simply because the combination of their memory and their  attention does not provide enough capacity to get everything done.  The haunted feeling comes from knowing that while I am busy on this urgent item in front of me, somewhere else I am forgetting to do something of importance that  I will only find out about when I get into trouble.

This happens  to everyone in their career at some point. Some get to this point earlier than others, simply because they either can remember more items (some people are truly gifted,) or because the number of time demands remains at a low level for some time.

All this is not to point the finger at White Belts, because we have all wanted to feel as if we are not screwing things up that badly… because “at least we get the important things done.”

Cutting the Volume of Email

I picked up the following quote from a post in Tim Ferris’ blog:

Jim — May 29, ’08 – 10:17 PM

“Another effect of reading and replying to e-mail frequently is that you don’t allow others responses to build up. Which means you may cover the same ground they do (costing you time you didn’t need to spend), or jumping into a thread early may prolong it (and sometimes lead to flamewars), again costing you time that either/both waiting to reply or waiting to read at all can reduce.

(Of course, replying sooner when you have the actual info can save time for everyone. It’s the jumping in with opinion rather than fact that is more likely to expand the time requirements, I think.)”

This is such an interesting email. He’s not saying something as simple as “the more email you reply to, the more you get.”  That doesn’t seem altogether true.

However, the more  trivial the email, and the more pure opinions are shared, and the less hard facts are used… now that creates a lot of email volleying back and forth, especially from people who just can’t resist the temptation to tell others their point of view.

I also like the idea of waiting until the dust settles.   I understand that Ronald Reagan did this — allowing opinions to be shared back and forth before weighing in.  This has a lot to do with timing a response for when it can have the greatest impact.

Or in other words, for a moment when it creates the least unnecessary new time demands.

This seems to be a worthy goal — to act in a way that creates the least number of new and unnecessary time demands.  I wonder what the impact of having mobile email has on expanding the amount of superfluous email that is sent around?

Bought — a New / Old PDA

My agonizing is over — after a few days of heavy thinking I replaced my broken Palm Tungsten T… with a refurbished Palm Tungsten T.

Q. What lead to this particular bout of insanity?

A. Well, in a word it boiled down to “convenience.”

I resisted the temptation to buy the aging (but much newer) Tungsten T|X. The price of US$299 had something to do with it.

I also found a way to withstand a purchase of the new iPhone. I read over the reviews carefully, and after I assess the way in which I would use my PDA, I concluded that I didn’t really want to change any of my current habits without a damned good reason. The iPhone, Tungsten T and all the other PDA’s out there that I could find were more about adding features that had nothing to do with being more productive.

That is, unless you count being able to surf the internet and send and receive email on the train as a sign of greater productivity. Or listen to music. or figure out one’s latitude and longitutde.

In other words, I couldn’t find a single PDA that would help me execute the basics of time management and productivity even a little bit better. I could do a lot of other new things with greater speed, but nothing I really cared that impacted my peace of mind would actually change.

For that reason, in the absence of proper feedback on this dimension, I chose the option of continuing to use my spare batteries, add-on programs, chargers, Palm wallet with notepad, screen protectors and portable keyboard. If the new devices are’t able to improve my execution of the fundamentals then they just aren’t useful to me.

And until a “PDA Designed for Productivity” comes out, I expect to make more decisions such as this one.

Tips to Install New Habits

I just read an entry in Steve Pavlina’s blog and he makes some good, in-depth observations about his own attempts to install new habits, such as getting up at 5:00 am each morning.

He has spent some time looking at his own habit patterns, and found different ways to help himself to keep the new behaviors intact. It’s some pretty insightful thinking, and I recommend this post highly to all readers of 2Time.

Changing practices or habits takes the kind of focus and insight that he has demonstrated in this post, and even if the specific actions he takes are not for everyone, his “self-knowledge” about his habits is a remarkable quality that we could all emulate.

At the same time, the point he makes about turing a habit that’s done 5 out of 7 days into one that’s done daily makes all sorts of sense, as habits are easier to implement when there is a commitment to execute them every day.

Here is the post at Steve Pavlina’s blog.

The Case Against the Zero Inbox

mess-mso907_1b_stackofclutter_w609.jpgThere are a couple of arguments floating around out that militate against the idea of a Zero Inbox.

In my last post I gave the example of someone who has the problem of having thousands of unread emails.

The first comes from author Tim Ferriss, who has a practice of checking email only once every 1o days. He has an email autoresponder that lets people know that he has this practice, so they know not to try to reach him through this channel on urgent matters.

This strikes me as a non-solution to the issue of having too much email for most professionals.

For example, there are some places that one could move to here in Jamaica that are unreachable by cell phone, land-line, mail or donkey, but if I moved there tomorrow it wouldn’t stop people from trying to reach me. All that would happen is that they would stop trying.

When I made up my mind to come out of the bush the chances are good that I would have missed a few things… but I would have to set up my life to live with the consequences of my decision, and that, I think, is Tim’s goal.
However, lopping off channels of communication does not stop people from needing to be in contact with me, any more than going deaf would all of a sudden change my work-load. This is why I label Tim’s approach a non-solution to the problem most knowledge workers have. It solves his particular problem, but not many others’.

The underlying principle that he is using is sound, however. Check email on your schedule, not on anyone else’s. That is useful and worth implementing whether email is checked once an hour or once a month.

Another post I read by Scott Rosenberg entitled Empty Thine Inbox argues that the author does fine with his Inbox of 16,000+ messages. At the end of every year, he moves some 20,000 emails into a massive folder and starts all over again from ground zero. He claims that he is not suffering from overload, and that he can easily find whatever he needs, whenever he needs it, so to speak.

He says “At least under Allen’s “GTD®” model, you (along with maybe some relatives or colleagues) control the flow into your own in box of “things to do.” But anyone can stuff anything into your e-mail in box. If you accept (Mark) Hurst’s mission of “getting to zero,” it will keep eating up more of your day no matter how efficient you are. And you’ll be letting other people control your time.”


There seems to be some confusion here between a piece of email and a time demand, to use 2Time language. The author seems to be conflating the two, and saying that the act of removing email from the inbox is the same as “letting other people control your time.”

Hitting the delete key once for each non-spam-filtered email doesn’t seem to me to be a big investment of time.

He continues to say: “The argument for the empty in box depends on the notion that a crowded in box is a psychic burden. But that’s only true if you feel that a crowded in box represents a failure. What if you don’t care — and you still Get your Things Done? What if you believe — as the book “A Perfect Mess” argued earlier this year — that neatness is overrated, and moderate disorganization is a sign of creativity and productivity? Messy is exuberant, and exuberance is beauty…”

I agree that an inbox of 16,000 items can become a psychic burden, but not because of the reason he gives – “that a crowded in box represents a failure.”

While setting aside the rest of the paragraph, I think that he might not be understanding the issue.

This might not be the case for him, but I have noticed that what remains in my inbox is not the stuff that I can easily delete, or even the items that require a short reply before being deleted. Those are easy enough to dispose of.

Instead, emails with the following attributes are the ones that cause me the most trouble:

1) they require some further thought before I decide what to do

2) they have important information that must be stored

3) they must be scheduled into my calendar for a convenient future moment of time

4) they have data that must be added to a list of items

5) they need to be married to some other information before action is possible (this category is especially troublesome!)

It might be the case that Rosenberg doesn’t have email that looks like the list I just made. From my work with knowledge workers, however, I know that the vast majority have a challenge of deciding which practice to employ when faced with email that they cannot make a simple decision about.

Ferriss’ solution is simple: ignore it, and train others to change the way they communicate to fit your habits.

However, most of us get stuck, and fearful that we might put the email in question someplace where it can get lost or forgotten, and we opt for the next best solution, which is to leave it in the Inbox.

At that moment, we realize that we have something that we need to remember, and in the absence of a quality time management system, we try to make a note of it in our memory. Take this simple, invisible action and multiply it by 16,000 times.

This is what causes the psychic burden that Rosenberg refers to, not the emails themselves. In other words, it’s not the sense of failure (there is none that I can see that needs to occur) but it is the “unfinished business” that gets started by us when we read email and don’t have an effective practice to deal with it.

The solution is to develop a set of individual habits that we can use to deal with the “unfinished business” in those emails. The 11 fundamentals of 2Time are one sample set of components with which these habits can be created.

Making a Case for the Zero Inbox

In the recent argument between the time management gurus mentioned in my prior post, I came across an interesting articles that emphasized the need for a breakthrough in inbox management.

First  off, let me start by saying that it’s not a goal that everyone should seek, and this kind of commitment can only be entered into wholeheartedly by the individual user.

In the article “Escaping Email Overload,”  Lena West gives a great example of Michael Arrington, of TechCrunch, who has 2400 unread emails in his email inbox and 721 unread emails in his Facebook inbox.


I just hope that your urgent email to him isn’t sitting around unread.  (Unfortunately, after only a few days of silence, un-replied email sometimes leads to thoughts and feelings in the mind of the sender so I hope that you aren’t feeling too bad if this is the case…. LOL)

West mentions the different approaches that people have taken to try to tame the email monster, ranging from various methods of sorting and filtering.  Some advocate ignoring the urgency of email as a matter of course, refusing, as Tim Ferris does, to answer email until he clears his inbox once every two weeks.

Hurst comes closest to the argument I make here in 2Time:  “Digital overload isn’t a function of too much e-mail; it’s a product of not managing your action items appropriately,” he says. 

When he responds to her email within twenty minutes she takes that as evidence that he must be doing something right.  I’m not so sure about that…

However, I agree with West completely when she says at the end:

“E-mail overload isn’t going to be spontaneously solved by installing software or adopting one guru’s approach. The right solution for you may not be the best solution for someone else. Because of that, addressing the issue takes trial and error.

When one system doesn’t work, try another until you find an approach that works for you–whether the solution is process, software or a combination of the two. E-mail is here to stay, and we all have to figure out what works for us individually.”

Well said. More help is needed on that front.

A Public Fight Between the Gurus

boxing-gloves.jpgA bit-based fight has opened up between the productivity gurus, Tim Ferris of 4 Hour Work Week (4HWW) fame and Mark Hurst, author of the book “Bit Literacy.”

It all started with  an article in Entrepreneur Magazine written by Lena West entitled Escaping Email Overload.  In the article, Hurst had a few critical words to say about the 4HWW approach, which Tim took exception to his blog post entitled Time Management Guru-itis:  Mark Hurst vs. David Allen and Tim Ferriss.

Hurst replied to Ferris’s post with one of his own, entitled “My Take on the 4 Hour Work-Week“.

While I don’t encourage anyone to get caught up in the gossipy side of the argument, I think that there is an underlying tension that is useful to distinguish.

When a guru (of any kind) describes a system for others to follow, it often becomes something that they start to identify with, and therefore grow to defend against criticism.  If you have ever seen someone react to a dent on their car as if it were a broken leg, then you might know what I am talking about.  The human tendency is for our concept of ourselves to gradually include our successes, our possessions and also our ideas.  We will sometimes resort to killing other people when the threat grows to be too great.

The problem is that each approach has merits, and none of them is complete.  None of them were created with the intention to be the end all and be all, final answer to every question.  They each describe a particular approach that works for the guru in question.

It is a fact that there is no-one on the planet other than the creator of each approach who is using it the way it is designed, down to the last habit.  Instead, users are taking a bit from here and a bit from there to fashion time management systems of their own.

This makes the squabble unfortunate, because what people want is help to design unique systems that work for them, and they could be helped greatly by getting some assistance in understanding the underlying principles behind the recommendations that the gurus make.

For example, Tim Ferris recommends a particular approach to responding to email that involved checking it twice per day (to choose a random example.)

Users want to know…. “Why?” What’s the logic behind the recommendation?  How can I use that logic to craft my own approach that works for me?

Part of the criticism that he actually received in the mix of posts and comments came from people who just don’t understand why  he makes that recommendation.  Some think the motive is to cut the raw number of email that is sent.  Others think that it has to do with cutting the total time spent processing email.

Both are useful goals, and I have my own ideas about why I would make such a recommendation (which I do) but it’s clear that users are struggling to apply the idea in their own lives ina way that works for them.

As the argument continues, the burden still remains on the user to dig behind the words on the page, or in the blog, to find the underlying principle, or fundamental, that underlies the specific recommendation or approach that the guru advocates.  Once these fundamentals are understood, it’s not so hard to assemble a unique system that works.