A New Frontier for Time Management

There are some exciting technologies being developed in the world of gaming that will produce a tremendous breakthrough in time management skills.

Here’s why.

Time management as a field has suffered over the years from a problem of measurement. There is currently no single, easy, agreed upon way to measure one’s personal productivity.  This is a big, gaping hole in this field of study, as it prevents us from clearly comparing one technique to another, and one person’s skills to another.  It makes it difficult to do experiments with one’s habits, tools and technology and know whether they work or not.

Instead, we are left with anecdotes, feelings, impressions and opinions about what’s better, the same or worse.

It’s an awful state of affairs that allows the charlatans to promise that programs will “double your productivity,” “help you gain an extra hour each day” and “make lots more money” from improving your time management skills.

To make matters worse, there isn’t even a decent program that monitors and warns users about the defects of simple problems like email Inbox abuse, which becomes a problem when time isn’t being managed well.

But I recently found some hope.

In the Fast Company issue from December 13, 2010 I bumped into an article entitled: How Video Games are Infiltrating and Improving Every Part of Our Lives.  I haven’t played a video game in a long time… probably too long as I think I have lost touch with the joy and learning that comes from being a player.  I have had a hunch that improving one’s time management skills could be turned into a game that professionals play, which is part of the reason why I created the belt system here in 2Time, and in my training programs.

The article is based on a speech given by Jesse Schell, a professor and game designer, that is based on the premise that “a real-life game can be stacked on top of reality.  You’d get points for well, everything you normally do in the course of 24 hours.”  (Imagine getting points for every minute of the day you kept your Inbox empty!)

The key is to embed sensors in every part of your life, that together give you collective feedback on how you’re doing in whatever area of your life you choose to measure.

Have trouble waking up to your alarm?  Get a sensor that will give you points for how quickly you leave the bed, and have it show you your score at the end of the week.

“Sensors,” he said, “have gotten so cheap that they are being embedded in all sorts of products. Pretty soon, every soda can and cereal box could have a built-in CPU, screen, and camera, along with Wi-Fi connectivity. And at that point, the gaming of life takes off. “You’ll get up in the morning to brush your teeth and the toothbrush can sense that you’re brushing,” Schell said. “So, ‘Hey, good job for you! Ten points’ ” from the toothpaste maker.
After work, you go shopping. Points. Your daughter gets good grades in school and practices the piano? More points. You plop down on your sofa for some television, and “it’s just points, points, points, points,” because eye sensors ensure that you actually watch the ads. In the meantime, you chat with other viewers, play games designed around the ads, and tally more points. Sure, it’s crass commercialization run amok, Schell conceded, but “this stuff is coming. Man, it’s gotta come. What’s going to stop it?”
Part of this is a bit scary, but I also found great hope.  There must be better ways for us to measure time management skills with all the sensors that will be available to us.

What he’s saying has an inevitable air to it when you consider the stats he quoted:  “Sure, 97% of 12- to 17-year-olds play computer games, but so do almost 70% of the heads of American households, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The average gamer is 34 and has been at it a dozen years; 40% are women. One survey found that 35% of C-suite executives play video games.”
(Wow.  I’d better buy a new joystick and sign up for some video games!)

He also says that many succcessful games are already in play that might not be thought of as such, such as Weight Watchers, and Hundred PushUps which is sold as an app on the iPhone and tracks your progress to that particular goal.  Schell goes on to point out what he got from an early experience:” He was learning that a game is, at its root, a structured experience with clear goals, rules that force a player to overcome challenges, and instant feedback.”

This is a great outline for the ways in which games could be designed to help us manage our time better.

Back up a minute to the fact that time management is a misnomer, and what we are really looking at is habit management… or habit, practice and ritual management.  Participants in MyTimeDesign and NewHabits (my training programs) are taught that each belt level consists of certain habits that are practiced at a particular level. For example, a Yellow Belt must practice each of the 11 fundamentals at the minimum of a Yellow Belt’s level.  No mystery in that.

The thing I don’t like about this game I created, is that each person is left to be their own judge for the most part, unless they want to be “officially recognized” at a belt level, at which point they have to take a “test” with me, that’s essentially a phone call.  they have to go through a verbal “test.”  A lot of it is very subjective, and connected only to my judgment of their report, rather than hard data.

It would be much better if that weren’t the case, and if there were some sensors that would give the user immediate feedback on his/her performance, taking all the subjectivity out of the picture.  As their evaluator, I would also use the feedback to award them a particular belt.

A good game, after all, must have “a structured experience with clear goals, rules that force a player to overcome challenges, and instant feedback” according to the article.
The problem with the current game I have set up is that there’s no instant, objective feedback which makes the goals a bit fuzzy.

To be more specific, let’s look at some simple games that could be played using the 2 fundamental skills of “Capturing” and “Emptying.”

Game #1 – how long do you spend dispensing email once it enters your inbox?  Lose points for taking too long.
Game #2 – how many times do you check email per day?  Lost points for checking too often
Game #3 – how often do you use your smartphone during a task that requires your full attention (like driving)?  Lost points for checking
Game #4 – (this one requires an electronic pen such as livescribe) how long does it take for a manually captured item get emptied fom the pen/paper into your system – Win points for speed
Game #5 – how many time demands are in your capture points on average (lost points if the number is too high— or maybe even too low)

Here are some other games that I just made up on the fly…

Game #6 – how many times do you need to reschedule due to poor time estimation?  Gain points for good estimates (this would need some good sensors)
Game #7 – how much time did you plan between scheduled activities? Gain points for proper spacing
Game #8 – how long are your lists?  What’s the average sitting time for items on lists that are fast moving? Gain points for quality lists
Game #9 – a report each day/week on how well a user kep to the habits of their belt, and which areas need to be improved
Game #10 – An upgrad readiness report, which indicates whether or not the system is stable enough at the current belt level to contemplate an upgrade to the next

Then there could be a host of smartphone abuse games the measure the number of policy violations that a user incurs after promising himself not to do things like:
– text while driving
– check email in meetings
– send messages from the bathroom
– use the device on holidays

These could actually trigger a set of alarms, or in more extreme cases, actually shut down the smartphone for safety’s sake.  A company might have smartphone exclusion zones such as meeting rooms which block all outside communication with the flick of a switch.  There are, after all, some companies that are banning the devices from their meetings altogether, due to their employee’s inability to control their smartphone habits.

I imagine that apps, and even specific devices could be developed for each belt level, and given as tools for those who are at the appropriate belt level.

These are all games that are meant to encourage the right behaviours, and it’s conceivable that a belt could be rewarded to an individual based on completely measurable scores, or points.  These could translate into designations (such as “Green Belt in Time Management 2.0) that someone puts on their resume, as a sign that they are able to handle a certain number or kind of time demands.

With the right sensors measuring the right data, this is a possibility.  The only question is, who will turn it into a reality?

A New Vision of Scheduling Tools

I just saw an amazing video that shows the real-time progress of civilization over the past 200 years.

The content is inspiring, but this post is actually about the technology. Following on the heels of my post on Migrating from Listing to Scheduling, can you imagine a time when you are able to manipulate your schedule with this much ease? That is, you could turn on a switch from your smartphone which would then project as many days as you’d like in front of you.

You’d then be able to move around time commitments from one time slot to another effortlessly, between different days if you wanted, and be able to see where the errors are in overlaps, overly-ambitious time-frames, not enough exercise and the like.

You’d also be able to add in newly scheduled items from your email with the touch of a button, or from your paper pad or capture pen with the flick of a switch.

It’s futuristic stuff, but how close would we have to get for most of us to rely on schedules rather than lists?  I just completed a time management book that argued, as most do, that it’s too hard to keep a calendar of tasks.  That was probably inspired by the memory of trying to keep a schedule on paper.

Watch the video, and let me know if you get a glimpse of the future.

Why New Employees Struggle with Time Management

In the area of time management, it turns out that some vital skills we picked as kids have to be un-learned, if we have an interest in being successful working adults.

Grade school and high school turn out to be nothing more than extended memory tests for many people.  A bunch of facts and techniques are thrown at them, and their challenge is to remember as much of them as possible, mostly in order to pass tests, quizzes and exams.  Good students are the ones who are able to recall this information when tested, and they come to take pride in their ability to remember even trivial information, such as the names of all the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Period.

This ability to commit data to memory, and to recall it at will, quickly becomes a habit that they apply not only to factual information but also to their future commitments, such as “the meeting 2 weeks from Friday with the marketing department.”

Here at the 2Time website, we refer to the latter as “time demands” — commitments that ones makes to oneself to complete a task at some point in the future.  For example, a commitment to “pick up the milk on the way home” is a time demand, whereas the route to the supermarket is different — it’s useful, factual information.

It turns out that we humans relate to these two kinds of information – time demands and factual data – quite differently, which is a useful thing, because they are in fact quite different.

Factual information, such as the route to the supermarket, carries with it an objective quality that is unchanging.  Time demands, on the other hand, are individual creations that exist only in the mind of their creators.  They are ephemeral in the sense that they have a finite lifetime – they come into being once they are created, and disappear once they are completed.

When we die, of course, they all vanish.

At the same time, they are critical to human beings as they allow us to think about and plan future actions, even if they are never written down.  You can hardly think about tomorrow without surveying the time demands that you have created for yourself that you think you should complete in that 24 hour cycle.

In very early grades, we are taught to manage time demands by keeping a schedule of classes so that we turn up at the right place at the right time, and we are taught to write down our homework so that we don’t forget.

Smart students eventually learn to discard both practices as they get older, and instead use they learn to use their finely tuned memory to manage these time demands.  This works well for the most part because they have few time demands to juggle.  After all, there are no bills to pay, and their weekly schedule of activities is a simple one to follow.  They can’t understand how their parents could forget simple time demands, like picking them up from school to take them to soccer practice.

Very few time demands slip through the cracks as a result, and they conclude that others (like their parents) who suffer from frequent mishaps, as just not as smart.

They take this practice with them into the workplace, in their first jobs, and for a while it works.  They appear at meetings with nothing in their hands to wrote with, or on, and when asked will scornfully tell others: “Don’t worry, I’ll remember.”

However, the time comes when they don’t.

At some point, their habit of committing time demands fails, and it happens for any number of reasons.

One may be that their managers give them additional responsibilities, and assign them complex projects that are too big to be managed by even the smartest person.  Another might be that as they marry, have children, assume mortgages, handle finances, pay taxes, play roles in their communities, and jump on volunteer projects , the number of time demands rapidly increases.

Also, even the smartest notice that as they get older, their powers of recall start to fade.  They realize that their parents’ momentary inability to recall their own children’s names is a malady that is about to befall them.

They need to develop some new habits in order to continue to be as effective as they once were.  Some persist however, and convince themselves that they can do no better.  They insist that that “their plates are full,” “they have too much to do” and “get too much email.”  They blame their circumstances for the number of balls they drop each day — I’ve known some to conclude that they simply cannot seek a promotion, or accept a new project because they cannot imagine a way to craft the 26 hour workday they think is required to be successful.

The solution is a simple on to describe — adopt new habits that are required in order to handle a new volume of time demands.

It’s much harder to do, and many smart people develop never develop these new habits, insisting that they already have good time management techniques.

What they really mean is: “I’m the most productive person I know, and I already know everything I need to know about time management.”

For some, it’s not until they are shown a multi-belt system like the ones that I give them in MyTimeDesign or NewHabits classes, that they begin to see that there are people who are way more productive than they are, even if they don’t know them.

A few never get to learn the lesson, and instead they use their ability to think fast on their feet to talk themselves out of trouble.  This works for a while, but it never moves them up the ladder to greater productivity.  Instead, it just helps them stay stuck at a low standard… just a little bit better than those around them.

Unfortunately, learning new habits has nothing to do with being smart, and has more to do with being resilient, or stubborn, and more than a bit humble.

It’s difficult (and sometimes scary) to admit that your strengths don’t work as well as they should, especially when they have never really failed

Green Belt vs. White Belt Excuses

One of the key differences that I explain in my training classes between White and Green Belts is the excuses they give when something fails.

Let’s imagine that both are late for a function such as a wedding, by 30 minutes.

White Belts would often explain the error by using an excuse that’s memory based:
– “I forgot what time it started”
– “I couldn’t remember the directions”
– “Another appointment I didn’t recall came up at the last minute”

These excuses are consistent with the White Belt habit of using memory, following on the memory skills that were were all  taught in school.

On the other hand, a Green Belt who arrives at the same time would say something like:
– “My capture point was destroyed”
– “My emptying has broken down”
– “I didn’t follow my schedule”

In other words, they look for problems in their personal time management system, and attempt to diagnose it in a way that would allow for a permanent solution.

The White Belt, however, has no easy remedy, because there isn’t a tried and true way to improve memory, especially when it comes to time demands that get created each day.  Over time, in fact, their memory is likely to worsen, and so will their time management system.

White Belts depend on memory.  Green Belts depend on reliable systems.


How Gadgets Force Habits

I have been playing with the idea that time management systems are more complex than I originally described in my early writings on this website.

I originally described each person’s system as the collection of the habits, principles, practices and rituals that they use on a regular basis.

I recently expanded the definition to include a user’s choice of mobile gadget, software, webware and email client.

As I continue my assessment of whether or not to purchase a personal smartphone for productivity purposes, one of the downsides of any upgrade I make is that I’ll have to develop some new habits depending on the smartphone I choose.  I base this observation on the fact that I’ll have to create at least one new habits…. which is to maintain not just a power cord for the device, but also a backup cord in case of emergencies.

I’ll obviously have to develop the habit of keeping the unit charged, and now I’m wondering how long the battery charge will last during periods of modest use.  It’s clearer to me that every mobile device bring new habits that must be learned, and having a smartphone means that I need to be more careful.  (My current cheap cellphone held a charge for several days, and lots of people had chargers.)

I’m also looking for ways to keep certain habits that I don’t want to change.  For many years, I have always carried a paper pad with me that acts as a manual capture point.  Why haven’t I upgraded to an electronic method of manual capture?

The advantages of paper are:
– it’s inexpensive
– it can get wet without failing too badly
– there’s no need for it to be charged
– it’s faster to write than type, or use handwriting recognition
– other pieces of paper can be used in a pinch
– it can be used to record diagrams as well as text

I’d prefer to keep this habit going, and I’m looking for a wallet that allows me to carry both a smartphone and a pad of paper at the same time.  If I have to carry a separate notepad, I’d be willing to do that, but it would be so much easier to have the two connected.

Blackberry Protocols

I was assisted greatly by email from Cees Dilwig, who shared with me the need to develop protocols for Blackberry usage.

The first thought I have is a list of practices to avoid, such as using the device to:
–  check or send messages while driving, or to answer the phone or make non-emergency calls
–  interrupt events such as meetings and conversations in order to check or send messages
–  switch to work during established blackout periods – vacations, holidays, weekends, odd hours, weddings, in the bathroom, etc.  This may require keeping a schedule of some kind of times when the device is closed off to external communication.  For example, I don’t have internet access at the location I’m typing this post.
– check email more frequently

In my video on How I’m Choosing a Smartphone, I talk about passing the knapsack test, which simply means that I want my smartphone to do more than a knapsack full of gadgets that it’s “replacing,” in order for it to allow for greater productivity.   Cees made a great point in his email to me — it’s easier to pick up email with a Blackberry than with a laptop, due to the difference in protocols being used.

I hadn’t fully realized this fact, and it’s quite true.  During this weekend, at a temporary location, I have no internet access, which means no email access as I’m working on a laptop.  With a Blackberry, however, I’d have access to my email, and to the internet in some form.  Also, when I travel, gaining access to email is always a hit or miss affair due to the availability of wireless access.

This means that using a smartphone for email access passes the knapsack test with flying colors, as it’s providing internet access where none exists — and that is important to my productivity.

My greatest concern is developing the Blackberry Itch — that feeling that I need to check email just in case there’s something important.  My wife recently saw a woman at the beauty salon who grabbed her device while her head was back in the sink getting her hair washed.  She simply couldn’t wait the few minutes it would take to wait for the hairdresser was finished.

I’m eager to not join the ranks of the addicted!


Saving Time in Costly Ways

A hilarious new video from Windows Phone 7.

On a serious note, each of these people is trying to save time and be more productive – using unproductive habits. (At least none of them is driving… that would be a bit too realistic, and not-funny-at-all.)

Why Emergencies Should be Handled Outside Email

A few weeks ago, I visited The Bahamas and mentioned to a NewHabits-NewGoals class that it’s becoming clear that companies need a way to communicate emergencies outside of email.

We had a discussion about the different reasons why email doesn’t work for immediate notifications and emergency requests:
1. not all email is delivered
2. sometimes email is diverted to a spam folder
3. too many people read email and don’t let the sender know that it was received
4. email messages are difficult to craft well and often result in mis-communication, especially when the content is emotional in nature
5. urgent messages can get lost in the hundreds of other pieces of email sent each day
and the biggest reason of all….
6. the practice of sending urgent email trains all employees to keep checking their messages continuously, just in case something important has just come in — making them all slaves to email – a pernicious and unproductive habit

The fact is, companies to establish alternate ways to communicate urgent messages, and avoid using email wherever possible.

Some have decided to use face to face conversations, phone calls, Skype or instant messages instead. The one thing these methods have in common is that they are synchronous communications that allow for immediate responses, and some degree of negotiation back and forth about how quickly an issue should be addressed, and whether it’s more important than every other time demand someone might have.

It would help the millions of people who waste time checking their email tens and even hundreds of times per day, just in case something juicy has come in within the past few minutes. Too many companies are encouraging their employees to become “more responsive” via email, and fast responders to urgent email, even as they damage their own productivity and that of others.

Migrating from a List to a Schedule

I have been doing a little research on some of the popular time management systems described in books and blogs, and most of them tell their users to do two things:

1) keep lots of lists

2) keep a minimum schedule of appointments

In 2Time, this thinking is the equivalent of telling people that they should give up on ever earning Orange Belts in time management, because Orange Belts have found ways to make the transition effectively, and are able to handle more time demands as a result.

What they do is simple:  they remove time demands from places like their email Inbox and their paper pads, and they immediately put them in their schedule.  Yellow Belts (who are below Orange Belts) add them to lists.

Let’s slow the action down a bit to see why it’s easier to work with a schedule than a list when one is trying to manage a high number of time demands.

When a Yellow Belt decides to take an action in the future, they simply add the item to a list.  However, when they do so, they are also simultaneously and mentally recording the following:

  • how long the task takes – they make an estimate
  • when they believe the task will start and end
  • what else might be pre-scheduled for that time-slot, and they determine this by scanning their memory
  • a decision not to schedule anything for the same projected time period

As you can learn in my free program – MyTimeDesign 1.0.Free – and on this website, this is not a problem for low numbers of time demands.  It’s quite a bit of mental activity, but it’s inescapable if you decide to add this information to a list.  At some point, you must account for the difference between doing simple tasks like picking up the milk and complex projects such as finishing the annual marketing strategy.

Some Yellow Belts have pretty long lists, which means that they carry around mental schedules that are quite hard to remember.  The way they compensate is by scanning their lists frequently.  They need to check their entire list when they do a review, which might be completed at the start of a week or the start of a day.

Once again, it depends on how many time demands are added  to the list and how fast.  Those that find themselves adding 10 items each morning, might very well have to check the entire list just after lunch in order to rejigger their mental schedule.

Some have gone a step further, and put together lists that correspond to time-spans.  They might have a Today List, or a Tomorrow List or a Next Week List.  This helps a bit, but they still force one to remember the timing of each item on the list.

As an example, take a look at the following list made by someone on Monday morning for work that can be done at his/her desk:

As you glance at the list, you may notice yourself  quickly making an estimate of how much time it will take to complete the entire set of items.  Some may think it will take a week, while others may believe that it should be done by lunch-time.

There is no right answer, of course, but notice that if you were to start the week you’d be carrying around these estimates in your memory.

You could improve things by making a list of tasks for each day, like this:

These could be separated into three lists, but the principle would be the same.  Here the user has accounted for the time realities by dividing the list into separate parts.

However, they are still keeping a mental schedule of each day.

Here is what the original task list would look like in an Orange-Belt schedule:

There are some apparent advantages to be gained from navigating the next three days with this kind of schedule.

  • at any point in the next three days, the time demand to work on next has already been pre-planned
  • there is very little that has to be remembered if this schedule is accessible via smartphone, PDA or laptop
  • it’s easy to see when each item will be done, so that when the boss asks when he’ll be able to see the draft email for the VP-IT, you can tell her when you plan to work on it
  • space can be allocated for important items like lunch, breakfast and time each morning to plan the day
  • possible problems can immediately be seen:  the activity at 6pm on Monday night – “edit white paper for conference” – looks as if it’s a scheduling problem waiting to happen, with its proximity to the prior task and its placement at the end of the day
  • with this kind of schedule, it’s much easier to say No to anyone who wants something done during the next three days.  On a White Belt calendar, these days would appear to be blank, but the fact is, they are filled with important items that don’t involve other people appointments

With the advent of electronic calendars comes a tremendous gain:  this schedule can be easily changed around at will.  When paper calendars were the only ones that were available, this kind of scheduling was onerous. but the software has now become easier to use, allowing us to use a schedule like this to make a plan that is entirely flexible.

With a schedule such as the one described above, there are none of the things that a list requires you to try to remember.

This is a fairly simple example, with only a handful of time demands, but you can imagine what happens when that numbers grows.  Someone who is stuck with Yellow Belt skills is forced to review frequently, and remember a lot about each item.  It’s a lot of work that can quickly become overwhelming.

Some of the books I have read argue against this kind of scheduling because they say that it’s too cumbersome to change a schedule on the fly.  That point of view needs an upgrade… it WAS too cumbersome, but today’s software has made things much easier, and there is evidence that college kids who never had to make lists on paper are doing  this kind of scheduling on their mobile devices with ease.  I can speak from experience – I once experimented by reverting to lists after using schedules for some time, with disastrous results.  (Here’s an article the describes how How Smartphones are Transforming the Mobile Lifestyles of College Students and you can search for the Survey of Students’ Technology Use for Time Management.)

And the fact is, new technology is making it easier every day.

I have used Orange Belt scheduling techniques for years and found it be a powerful tool that requires important habit changes, but is well worth the effort.  It’s a scalable habit that can accommodate way more time demands than lists ever can, and its much closer to the project management best practice of laying out activities in time using a similar tool:  Gantt Charts.

Many years ago, they made the switch from running projects using lists, and were immediately able to complete larger and more complex projects.  Now that the tools are readily available, it’s time for professionals to upgrade their personal practices so that they can avoid the experience of overwhelm, even as they handle more each day.

P.S. If what I’m saying is accurate, it points to a few possible new industries…


More on Time Demands

As I re-read my prior post on time demands, I started to have some additional thoughts.  Not second thoughts, but old ones that I failed to add.

In the original post I listed 8 characteristics of time demands that were a bit incomplete as far as my current thinking goes.  Here are some others:

Characteristic #9: There are a finite number of time demands in play at any point in time.  Some might be in our memories, while others sitting are in our time management systems.

Characteristic #10: Time demands differ from each other in time length, and in the mental time-slots we assign to each of them.  The actions to be taken to complete each one are also different.  However, a time demand may occupy a range of start and end-dates, or a range of durations for completion.

Characteristic #11: Time demands sometimes come bundled together in a single message, email or commitment.  For example, a single message might include several time demands, and a complex commitment such as a project might have to be broken down into numerous time demands.

The management of time demands differs widely from person to person, depending on their belt level.  Yellow Belts tend to put a great deal of effort into making lists of time demands sorted in different ways.   Some use contexts, others use priorities, a few use lists based on time horizons.

Orange Belts, however, have schedules in which they put all the time demands they have committed to complete.  Lists are used in other ways.

White Belts, of course, keep the majority of their time demands in their memory, and often talk about remembering and forgetting them.

Once time demands are well understood, it’s not too hard to envision them moving through different points of your time management system.

Promo Video – Bahamas

I put together a short video to help promote an event I’ll be doing in The Bahamas on January 20th, 2011.

The day includes a seminar I’ll be leading from 9am – 4pm — and the URL for the site is http://timemanagement2011.com

I actually visited Abaco last week for the second time, and got excited about returning in January, and spending some time in Nassau.

Here’s the video — I used some new techniques that I have been observing on other videos… let me know what you think.