Time Demands: Time Management’s Widget

It might be my training in industrial engineering and operations research, or just my love of factory environments, but I am still tinkering with the idea that the basic unit of time management is something called a Time Demand.

I just re-read a post I wrote back in 2007 on Time Demands and realized that there are some new concepts I need to add in that have become more clear as I’ve shared them in classes and here online.  I think of them as the widgets of time management, drawing on the times when I studied manufacturing, and the product being created was always a widget.

Time demands are invisible, and intangible, and are silently created by an individual when he/she decides to devote future time to accomplish some result.  In the 2007 post, I provide lots of examples.

For the purposes of this post, let’s imagine that you want to do some early work on your Christmas gift-list.

What prompted the decision is not very important, but the fact that you have created it means that you have placed a subtle pressure on yourself to get it done.

At that moment, all that exists is a mental commitment.  If you don’t write it down, or record it in some way outside your memory, then you will recall it at some future point when you happen to remember it, perhaps prompted by some event related to the season such as an advertisement on television.

Many people, however, choose to record their commitment in some way so that it enters their time management system in a manner that ups the odds that it won’t fall through the cracks.

What I have said so far can be summarized in the following:

Characteristic #1:  Time Demands are always and only created by the individual

Characteristic #2: Time Demands are comprised of a commitment to take action in the future

Characteristic #3: Time Demands disappear when they are not managed, and may never re-appear

Characteristic #4: Time Demands have a finite life-cycle from creation to disappearance

When Time Demands are reliably recorded for future use, they may be embodied in one or more more different ways. Here are some examples:

  • A note is written with a marker on a piece of paper and stuck to your fridge
  • An email that describes a Time Demand is kept in an Inbox or moved to a folder
  • A Post-It Note that mentions the Time Demand is stuck on your monitor
  • A letter you need to reply to is placed on your desk, where you won’t forget it
  • A string is tied around your finger
  • Your secretary is told to remind you of a Time Demand
  • You add a Time Demand to your To-Do List
  • In your calendar, you schedule a Time Demand
  • You leave an unfinished project in your garage to remind yourself to complete it
  • Before going to bed at night, you lay out your gym clothes where you can’t miss them so that you work out tomorrow morning
  • Today’s tweets are printed out and placed in a file

These are just some of the ways in which we give Time Demands some tangible reality, to prevent them from falling through the cracks.

After a Time Demand is created, it must be manipulated in order to move it from creation to completion.

After it’s created and stored, the next moment in its life-cycle occurs when it gets removed from its place of temporary storage.  On your fridge, you may have a reminder to yourself to make that Christmas list, and you decide to take the next step before the paper disappears.

This is a critical moment of decision, as the future of the Time Demand depends entirely on your next move.  You actually have some options at this point.

Option 1:  You decide to forget about making a list this year.  The recession is impacting your budget, and you throw the piece of paper away, never to think about it again.  A nice clear spot on the fridge now appears, awaiting your next Time Demand

Option 2:  You decide to make the list immediately.  Once you are done, the Time Demand disappears

Option 3:  Your note to yourself had included a website that helps people make gift-lists.  You store that site in your list of favorites for later use

Option 4:  You add the Time Demand to a To-Do list

Option 5:  In your calendar, you block out dedicated time to complete the Time Demand

Those are the 5 ways in which Time Demands can be handled, until they are brought to completion.  They help us to understand the other 4 characteristics.

Characteristic #5: Individual Time Demands can easily become lost in the clutter of other Time Demands

Characteristic #6: Time Demands can be manipulated and moved around a time management system at will

Characteristic #7: When a Time Demand has begun its journey within a time management system it can be safely forgotten, or dropped from active memory

Characteristic #8: Once Time Demands are completed, they disappear and cease to exist

Part of what I am attempting to do here is to catalog the universal nature of Time Demands so that those who have an interest in this area can start talking with a common language and concept.  In this sense, I am also saying that the 8 Characteristics are inescapable, and essential to an understanding of time management, much in the way that an understanding of the elements of an atom are necessary in order to do physics.

Once Time Demands are well understood, it becomes much easier to do other kinds of work related to the field of time management, such as:

  • helping a working professional carve out her own system
  • assisting designers of products that recommend specific habit patterns, such as those described by David Allen, Mark Forster, Sally McGhee, Neal Fiore and others
  • redesigning programs like Outlook and Gmail so that they do a better job of assisting users to manipulate time demands that enter their lives via email
  • coaching individuals who want to improve their personal productivity
  • writing better articles and books – fewer lists of simplistic tips and more solid insight into the way that time demands can be managed
  • creating apps for smartphones, and even reshaping their design, so that they promote productivity (rather than game-playing and other distractions)
  • researching the flow of time demands through an individual’s time management system with more precision using tools like digital simulation and
  • sum

The fact is, there is not a single employee in the world who is not constrained by the 8 Characteristics of Time Demands.  These characteristics are a simple fact of working life, and it’s better to understand how they work than it is to be unaware.

With greater understanding comes an ability to achieve more of the goals that we set for ourselves in our lives.

To illustrate the point, here are some slides from one of my live programs that I use to describe the idea that Time Demands make their way through our lives in a very structured way.  In the video, I use the language of the 2Time fundamentals — described elsewhere on this website.

P.S. This article is continued in a subsequent post, More on Time Demands


Jumping from a Yellow to Orange Belt in Scheduling/Listing

In the 2Time system, there is a critical point that must be crossed to make the jump from a Yellow Belt to an Orange Belt. At this point, a professional must change two major habits at once, doing much less Listing and more Scheduling.

This is no mean feat.

I’ll be covering this switch and all that it means in a series of posts, but let me start off by giving the reasons why someone would want to make such a major change.

Most adults who grew up without computing resources learned how to make lists somewhere in their teens or early twenties. These were paper and pen lists that were intended as memory joggers. They easily and cheaply expanded individual effectiveness, and allowed one to work on a greater number of time demands than their memories could manage. The results were easy to see: homework that would have been forgotten was remembered, phone numbers that would have been lost forever were stored later and the skimmed milk made it to the fridge at home as a result of a trip to the corner store.

At some point, they also learned to use a calendar as a method for scheduling meetings and appointments. The first appointment calendars were modeled after the ones used in doctors’ offices, and only included a few items. These were also built with paper and pens or pencils.

Most time management books stop at this point, and advocate this approach, with only minor variations. Some emphasize the way in which the lists must be categorized and sorted. Others say that the key list needs to be limited to only what can be done on that day, and other lists should be kept of future time demands.

There are a few systems, however, who advocate the upgrade to Orange Belt Scheduling, and it’s a shift that’s ctually being driven by today’s college students.

Smartphone, laptop and iPad penetration in tertiary institutions have placed powerful productivity tools at the hands of millions of smart kids. They aren’t limited to paper and pen like their parents were. Instead, they have a choice of using electronic calendars in a variety of devices.

For example, their classes are scheduled on their electronic calendars, and not on paper.  When they sign up for a class, their schedule is instantly updated.  Once that happens, many go the extra step and schedule other important activities that must be done if they are to be successful.

Most of who are effective will also create a study schedule at the same time, and if they are realistic they’ll also set time aside for life’s other essentials such as meals, exercise social time and leisure. Here is an example of a Darden School of Business student who has done just that.

He hasn’t scheduled all his meals, or exercise, and he hasn’t included all his study time, but you can imagine that this is an important part of his plan for doing well that  semester.

The reason that a schedule like this works so well is that students have a tremendous number of time demands to manage in any given week, and any item that falls through the cracks is likely to produce an immediate impact on their grades or some other part of their lives.

At the same time, it’s not too hard to see that managing an electronic schedule of time demands is more efficient than the alternative: keeping a list of these same items to be done each week.

Listing is a very efficient method for tracking a low number of time demands, and it was a decent tool to use before the advent of internet communication.  Now, life is different, with the average professional facing hundreds of time demands each day.

The old method of keeping a list on paper no longer works at higher volumes, for practical reasons.  Updating a paper list with more than 10-20 items is time consuming.  Also, paper lists don’t have backups. It’s a practice that can only be afforded by entry-level employees with light workloads, or someone who works part-time.

Electronic lists are better, but they become a mental burden.  Let’s use the example of the Darden student.  If he were to create a list instead of a schedule, he’d end up with a physical list and a mental schedule.

The reason is simple.  When anyone makes a to-do list of any kind, they automatically make a calculation, and need to store some information in their memories.

For example, the item: “Learning Team” appears on the student’s schedule five times.  If he weren’t using a schedule, and instead had the item on a list it might look like this:

  • Football practice
  • Learning Team
  • Dinner
  • Cold Call

As he glances down the list and his attention rests on “Learning Team” he instantly makes a calculation:

  • On what days will I perform this action?
  • What times will it start each day?
  • What time will it end?
  • How far ahead do I need to prepare for it?

Once he answers each of these questions, he’d store the results in his memory.  If you multiply these actions of calculating and memorizing by the number of items in his schedule, you could see that he has now given himself the difficult task of remembering a great deal of his schedule, rather than having it plotted out in front of him.

When someone asks him if he’s free on Friday night, he has nothing to consult but his memory at that moment, and he’s likely to make a mistake.

It’s obvious that an attempt to remember all these items for every item in the list is likely to fail.  It’s just not possible to manage a great number of time demands using memory.

This is precisely the challenge that many working professionals face today.  They have a large and growing number of time demands, that simply cannot be managed with a long list and a basic schedule of appointments.  When they try to do so they end up feeling overwhelmed, burdened and stressed out, with lots of time demands slipping through the cracks.  They spend inordinate amounts of time reviewing their lists each day, making sure that nothing has popped to the surface when they weren’t looking.

They need to perform the upgrade that will take them to a different blend:  short lists used infrequently, and a deeper schedule that includes all the time demands they are likely to forget, overlook or under/over estimate in terms of their duration.

(If you’re a fan of project management techniques, you’ll undoubtedly recognize some best practices taken from that discipline, and applied to individual time management practices.  The most recent mobile latest technology makes this translation a feasible option for the first time on a large scale. )

In future posts I’ll address other questions related to this upgrade, such as when it should be undertaken, how it should be initiated and who would gain the most from making the switch.

A Wealth of Information

The title of this provocative post over at the TimeBack Management website is “A Wealth of Information Creates a Paucity of Attention.”

I haven’t visited a campus in a while, but I imagine that this observation is true — students are learning how to NOW pay attention, just like adults.  Smartphones and other digital devices are giving us good reasons to listen and watch without really doing so, even in social circles.

How I’m Choosing a Smartphone – Speech

In this half-hour speech given at a conference here in Kingston, I took the audience through the reasons why I’m being cautious about purchasing a smartphone.

P.S. I use a word in patois the describe the kind of phone I possess now – a “skettel” cell-phone. It simply means common, vulgar or uncouth — definitely a word that’s hard to translate!

P.P.S.  If you are interested in having me speak at your upcoming meeting or conference, click here for more information.


A Treasure-Trove of Data on Time Management Needs

In prior posts I have made the point that Outlook and Gmail have become much more than email programs.

While they both started out as email managers, they have become the primary portals that people use to manage time demands of all kinds. I have argued that they do a poor job for the majority of users because they are designed for email management, rather than time demand management.

Recently, Google opened up a site to ask for suggestions on how to improve Gmail. So far, they have gotten 2844 votes on all aspects of the program, but to my biased eyes, it seems as if there is a theme emerging.

Instead of just using lists of tasks, users want to integrate them into their calendars. (In the 2Time ranking of skills, it equates to an upgrade from Yellow to Orange Belt in the practice of “Scheduling.”)

I read through a few hundred suggestions and it struck me that anyone who is interested in creating a time management portal could use the information as market research — after all, this is a lot of data gathered from some very committed users of Gmail who are essentially asking anyone to come up with something better than the Gmail portal they are forced to use now.

I am not too optimistic, however, that Google will be able to make the leap that users want.

As I read through the suggestions, voted on quite a few and added some of my own, it struck me that the worst thing to do would be to figure out the most popular requests and simply add them to the list of features to be developed in the next release.

That’s a little like polling one’s family members to find out which surgery they think Great-Grandpa needs in order to get better.  In other words, it’ a bad way to make a decision of this complexity.

What Google really needs is not a bunch of suggestions, but some kind of time management philosophy around which to design an entirely new kind of portal that will be fully integrated into Gmail, and Google Calendar in a holistic way that mimics the habit patterns that users are likely to follow.

In this blog I offer a philosophy of sorts, and there are a number of books and websites that do the same. Adding more features willy-nilly will simply leave the door open to a competitor who gets it, and offers users a portal that puts the task of email management in its place alongside a number of other tools that people use to manage their time.

This isn’t to say that the research Google is doing is useless. Far from it. But it needs a context or framework to make all those suggestions come to life, and to prevent Gmail from simply becoming another Outlook in terms of its zillions of features, and heavy ponderous feel.

Check out the suggestions or add your own here on the Google website.

If you have a comment or question about what I have said in this post, let me know below.


A Television Appearance on Information Overload Day

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to come on TVJ here in Kingston, Jamaica to help promote the fact that Oct 20, 2010 was Information Overload Awareness Day.

The interviewers had a good laugh when one of their Blackberrys, which were in their laps, went off right in the middle of the 12 minute segment — it doesn’t get any better than that!

There were a lot of laughs all the way around, as you’ll see.

P.S.  Contact me if you’d like to interview me on your show for television, radio or podcast.