Do time management programs achieve their objectives?

This article doesn’t quite go far enough, but it gives some food for thought.

The bottom line is that professionals who are good at time management are also good at estimating the time it takes to complete tasks.  As far as I can tell, those who wield schedules rather than lists would naturally fall in that category as they have at least decided to include the practice of time estimating as a daily habit.

Click here to read: Pitting their wits against the clock

What Happened to Smart Technology Choices?

Corporations making large-scale technology changes have learned over the years that it’s a big mistake to go out and buy the biggest, newest flashiest product available on the market without first doing a thorough study of the company’s needs.

In fact, there are procurement guidelines set up for precisely that purpose and best practices that govern the process so that all the right factors are appropriately weighed before a decision is made.  Some professionals make a career in this area, and have developed skills that are highly prized due to the critical nature of certain technology choices, and the high costs involved.

However, up until now, academics and corporate executives have focused on the purchase of single large, complex systems.  My research isn’t complete in this area, but I can’t find any critical thinking to help executives make another kind of technology decision that corporations make — the decision to equip their employees with individual, portable technologies like smartphones.

What are the differences between these kinds of decisions?

Purchasing a Single Large System
– the price per unit is high
– a failure is highly visible
– the processes and requirements are usually well defined before vendors are sought
– implementation, training and maintenance are seen as important elements of the process
– total-cost-of-ownership methods are used
– there is clear accountability for, and measurement of the business impact

Purchasing Smartphones
– the price per unit is low
– failures are almost invisible (such as a near-accident brought on by texting while driving)
– the processes that people use are not defined before vendors are sought
– no training is offered
– the cost of owning the gadget is seen as the price
– there is no-one accountable for the business impact, or any measurement

Here is an imagined “worst case process” that takes place when a company decides to make a smartphone purchase:

1.  The CEO or other executives fall in love with their new smartphones, as it enables them to communicate with each other outside hours, during vacations, weekends, sick days, holidays and from any point in the world
2.  They decide to make the units mandatory for all employees
3.  They offer no training, and no new company policies are crafted
4.  Anecdotal evidence floats up to the executive suite that the devices are being abused, and the CEO takes them seriously when he notices that his meetings at all levels are taking longer because at any moment, half the attendees are someplace in cyberspace via their smartphones.  Among his executives he seems unable to conduct a half hour conversation without someone stopping to answer a call, check email or send a text.  He learns that some companies are banning smartphones from meetings altogether, citing addictive behavior driving up the time spent in meetings
5.  He commissions a study which shows that among his employees, smartphones are being used in the following way:
– 85% are texting while driving
– 72% use their smartphones in the bathroom
– game playing and social networking are the most popular everyday use
– 80% use their device in meetings
– 28% are afraid that they’ll lose their jobs if they are not available on weekends
– 35% answer messages on sick days
– 45% check messages between 12am and 6am
– 70% believe that some overall productivity has been lost, even as 80% “enjoy” their device
6.  He decide to come down hard, and bans non-business apps from being used, blocks social networking and gaming websites and purchases a new technology to block internet access from smartphones within company vehicles, and meeting rooms
7.  The annual company survey reveals a new complaint — work-life balance is suffering as employees complain about being “always on” and required to be available to be at work even when they are trying to get away from work.  A quick check with IT reveals that the volume of email has exploded, driven by new messaging on weekends and holidays.  Also, they report that employees are taking inordinately long periods of time in picking up their gadgets for the first time, or retrieving them from the repair shop.
8.  The CEO establishes a joint team between IT/HR and Operations to look at the issue
9.  A followup study shows that 88% believe that overall productivity has fallen, and a mere 33% are “enjoying” their device
10.  The joint team recommends training for each employee, plus a raft of new policies about the company’s expectations of employees when they are not at work

If you can imagine this sequence of events, you can probably see that the initial error was to skip the customary needs analysis study that is required of large-system purchasing decisions.  The executive team, like many managers, made several assumptions about  their employees’ behaviors and needs.  What’s remarkable is that in this case, everyone is trying their best to save time and boost productivity, even as obvious mistakes are being made.

In most companies, however, a decision to provide employees with “time-saving technology” is made without a good understanding of the complexity of individual behavior in the area of time management.  They don’t take into account the fact that each employee has a unique, home-made productivity system that they put together for themselves as young adults or teenagers.

Employees lack the skill needed to evaluate their time management systems, in order to decide how best to affect an improvement.  That’s why so many unproductive, and unexpected habits cropped up in the “worst-case” described above.  The time-saving technology ended up affecting employee safety, productivity, etiquette and hygiene in negative ways.

Fortunately, there is a great deal that can be learned from the methods used to purchase large systems:
Lesson 1 — understand the current system to be improved.  In this case it means, bring every employee to the point where they understand their current time management system
Lesson 2 — help employees determine the gaps in their current systems, by giving them access to best practices
Lesson 3 — look for process changes that need to be made.  In the case of individuals, this translates into new habits, practices and rituals of time management
Lesson 4 — source new technology
Lesson 5 — train employees to use the new technology within company guidelines and policies
Lesson 6 — monitor the implementation and adjust as necessary

The case described above is not an example of one large mistake, but instead it involves a small mistake repeated many times.  The end-results are no different, but the lack of accountability for and measurement of individual productivity in most companies allows the problem to gain the momentum that it shouldn’t.

If there’s a place to start at a high level it might be to clearly assign responsibility for individual employee productivity to one executive, and give them the authority to decide on how best to use technology to make improvements.

P.S.  This is a new area of research for me, so I’d appreciate any related sources of information that you might know of.

Evidence-Based Scheduling

This article is a bit geeky, and reminds me of the kind of thinking I first learned to do in graduate school.  It’s all about building accurate schedules for software development projects, and the need to drive down to small tasks in order to properly estimate the length of large projects.

Click here to find the article on “Evidence-Based Scheduling.”

There are some interesting points that it makes that I recognize from using Orange Belt scheduling techniques, or in other words, replacing task lists with a single schedule.

1.  It’s easy to over-estimate your ability to get stuff done.  When you start using a schedule, you quickly start to wonder if you’re not a bit crazy, because everything seems to take much longer than it ever used to.  It doesn’t.  You’ re just paying attention for the very first time.

2.  You can’t put more blocks of wood in a box than it can hold.  In other words, you can’t schedule a 5 hour task into a 2 hour time-slot.  You’ll be shocked at how badly this works when you start working with a schedule of your tasks!

3.  When you use a schedule, you learn the power of distributions, and unbiased estimates.  That’s a fancy way of saying that when you tell the kids that it will take you all 3 hours to drive to Orlando from Miami, that what you really mean is:

– the real average drive time is four hours

– the distribution varies from 2.75 hours to 5.5 hours

They’ll thank your for your precision and honesty…

Honestly, it’s a great article.  Click here to find the article on “Evidence-Based Scheduling.”

Warning – My Own Crack Score

One of the problems that I created for myself when I created the belt system of skills here at 2Time is in the discipline of “Warning.”

The idea was simple enough when I first envisioned it.  (Here are my original 2 posts on the topic.)

Any good system needs a way to warn its owner or operator when things are about to fall apart.  A warning light on your dashboard is a perfect example.  It tells you when a system is about to exceed its operating limits, and indicates that it’s necessary to intervene in some way.

Unfortunately, up until recently, I have been stuck in this area of time management. My original vision was for a dashboard of some kind running on top of Outlook, that would operate as a warning system of sorts.  Unfortunately, writing about such a dashboard and actually having one to use are two different things!  I sometimes wish that there were a team of software designers sitting someplace, ready to turn all my ideas into useful commercial programs.

Alas… that hasn’t happened.  I stopped at that point and waited… but nothing happened.

That meant that I couldn’t possibly progress to a Green Belt, because my Orange Belt in Warning couldn’t be upgraded until some software miracle took place.  Now that I write about it… that was a pretty weak position to start from.

After reading portions of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography I realized that I was taking the low road.  After all, he spent what seems to be hundreds of hours analyzing his writing skills in order to improve them.  He engaged in a variety of exercises designed to compare himself against the best writers he could find, enhancing his skills over time.

I got inspired and started to ask myself what I could do, without technology, to give myself more Warning indicators, and perhaps earn an upgrade to a much coveted Green Belt.

As an aside, there are those who would argue that I should just change the rules, and make it easier to get a Green Belt.  After all, I made up all these belts, and their corresponding standards, and no-one would ever notice that I cheated just a little bit…  Frankly, in an age of Madoffs, Stanfords and Marion Jones’, I’d hardly be doing anything wrong by taking an itty, bitty shortcut.

It’s not exactly the path the high achievement, according to “Talent is Overrated” and I’d really only by fooling myself.  Right?

OK — back to “the coveted Green Belt.”

What could I track or measure that would give me an indication that my time management system is about to fall apart? Here’s what I use today, after a week or two of upgrading:

Warning #1 — triggered when my Inbox isn’t empty.  There are moments when I decide to keep something I have read in my Inbox for a few hours, violating the Zero Inbox principle.  When that number gets above 2-5 time demands (they might be in a single email) then that’s a sign that I’m about to get into trouble.

Here’s my “warning rule…”
Small warning:  3 time demands in Inbox
Big warning:  4+ time demands in Inbox

Warning #2 — when I Capture, I am sometimes unable to Empty within 24 hours, which results in my manual Capture Point becoming overfull.  I use a small paper pad, which has 16 lines.

Small warning:  2 pages of Captured items
Big warning: 3+ pages of Captured items

Warning #3 — when I experience too many items falling through the cracks, it’s a sure sign that my time management system is broken.  I have started to keep a daily report in my Habit Tracker to write down the number of time demands that slip through the cracks in my system

Small warning: 3 items falling through the cracks in 7 days
Big Warning: 4+ items falling through the cracks in 7 days

This is what I call my daily “crack score”

Warning #4 — incoming paperwork that is unprocessed sitting in a pile

Small warning:  2 unprocessed pieces of paperwork
Big warning: 3 or more pieces of unprocessed paperwork

Warning #5 — a few weeks go, I missed an appointment entirely and completely.  When I scanned my diary for the day, I happened to not scroll all the way down the page, and a 4pm appointment was completely skipped as I drove my way from one errand to another.

Small warning: not setting up my calendar for the next three days so that it’s overlap free, and has enough space between activities
Big warning: missing or being late for a meeting or appointment

Warning #6 — missing the start of an activity by being deeply engrossed in another activity

Small warning: skipping past a reminder in Outlook now and then
Big warning: consistently skipping past an Outlook reminder, or having no interruption whatsoever

Warning #7 — Switching from a hard task to a recovery activity (i.e. Facebook) and getting lost in cyberspace

Small warning:  ?  The truth is, I don’t know how to measure this — any ideas?
Big warning:

Warning #8 — allowing the list of Warnings to get stale

Small warning: the list includes one or two stale items
Big warning: the list of warnings is completely forgotten

(Note to self… schedule time to review Warning List.)

There are some automatic warnings that I’m sent when something goes awry in the some of the 11 fundamentals, such as:
= A “Storing” Warning from, my backup service, when it hasn’t been able to do a full backup within the last 7 days

I can think of a number of other kinds of Warnings to set up, but the truth is that they don’t reflect problem areas for me.  For other people, however, they might very well be a problem.  For example, I don’t need a warning to tell me that I haven’t Reviewed my time management system in the past month because of the kind of work I do for a living… I Review my system every time I write a post, coach a client or deliver a workshop!

This reinforces the notion that each person must build their own system for Warning, and their own checklist.  My list won’t mean anything to most people, or even to most “Orange-Belts-who-are-on-the-verge-of-a-Green-Belt.”

Well, this is further than I have ever gone in this area.  Coming up with all these bright ideas aren’t worth “a bucket of warm spit” if I am not able to develop the practices to support them, and turn them into habits.  Once again, the temptation is to find a way to give myself a Green Belt for trying really, really hard… after all, isn’t this post evidence of superior effort?

Thanks to you and other readers of this post for following this website, and helping to keep me straight.  Without your participation, I’d probably just find a way to sneak around my best intentions!

Someone Else Agrees!

I found a website that echoes the very same thoughts I have shared on this site about the power of upgrading one’s Scheduling skills, and relying less on Listing.

I don’t think they have found this site, as they appear to have arrived at the same conclusions that I have independently, but they are the very first site I have found that (openly) agrees with what I have written.   When the number of time demands increases above a certain number, it’s time to upgrade one’s skills to prevent stuff from falling through the cracks.

The software that MyTimeFinder sells is interesting, but it appears to lack Outlook integration at the moment.  However, they are absolutely on the right track… but what do you think?

Email Etiquette

There’s a whole school of thought that says that better email would mean less email.

I agree that there’s a lot of wasted email but I think it’s important to distinguish the raw volume of email from the number of time demands embedded in them.

That’s way more important, IMHO, and here are some email pointers that actually might help your time demands for others stand out like a sore thumb where they can see ’em.

Click here: Email Etiquette for the Super Busy

Leaving Practice with Raw Hands

As I mentioned in my prior post: “The Pedagogy of Time Management,” there is a need for anyone who wants to improve their skills in this field to craft specific opportunities for structured practice.

Mark Needham’s summary of Talent is Overrated describes three kinds of practice from the book:

With regards to improving skills, three models are suggested for non-work related practice:

  • Music Model – Break down activity into smaller pieces; analyse each for ares of improvement; repeatedly practice each area. This is a useful approach for practicing presentations and speeches where we know beforehand what we want to do.
  • Chess Model – Study real games; practice the situations from the games; compare what you did vs what happened in the real game. This approach has been applied in business for many years, disguised as the case method.
  • Sports Model – re-learn the basics of the field; simulate situations that may come up in real life.

He goes on to apply these models to the improvement of software development skills in an interesting way:

I think some parts of each of these models can be applied to software development. From the sports model we can take the idea of re-learning the underlying principles of computer science and how our code is actually working behind the abstractions languages create for us; from the chess model we can take the idea of considering different options when we have a choice to allow us to select the one which will best solve our problem; and from the music model we can take the idea of identifying specific areas of improvement in our work and relentlessly working on these.

That’s cool thinking… and it makes me wonder how I can do the same with time management skills.

Ever since I created the NewHabits training programs I have wanted to include practice sessions – the equivalent of hitting shots from the driving range – but I have been unable to think of a realistic way to do this.

I’d love some help on this.  Is there a way to practice the 7 fundamentals – (Capturing, Emptying, Tossing, Acting Now, Storing, Scheduling and Listing) in a classroom environment?

Also, is there a surefire way for someone who wants to improve their skill in a particular area to focus on practicing that skill in keeping with the guidelines for deliberate practice from Talent is Overrated?:

  • Designed to improve performance
  • Can be repeated a lot
  • Feedback continuously available
  • Highly demanding mentally
  • Not much fun

I don’t think I’m the only one with this challenge, and from prior posts you might find that I have been struggling with this question for a while, and that progress has been slow.  Why?

Let’s look at some of the critical skills in Capturing:

– carrying something to capture with at all times

– capturing manually, instead of using memory

– maintaining a backup strategy

At one point, I have imagined an elaborate real-life case study in the middle of my live programs, in which a manufactured crisis results in participants having to use these three skills.  One fantasy involved a fake fire-alarm, mysterious phone calls involving elaborate instructions and a rapid response requiring information that had to be successfully captured in order to be used.

What I was thinking…???

I also am not a great believer in “analogy” learning exercises… for example, showing the importance of Capturing by going out to a ropes and logs course to do physical activities that teach similar lessons.  There is a certain physical motion required to Capture, and it’s this action that must be practiced… (Michael Jordan didn’t practice passing a basketball by playing soccer.)

The difficulty seems to be that it’s devilishly hard to re-create the original events that trigger manual capturing in the average day.  (This is distinct from automatic capturing, which happens when someone sends you an email, for example.  It requires no action on our part.)

What are these triggering events?  Here are a few “cases:”

  • as you are sitting at your desk you remember to pick up the milk on the way home from work
  • during a meeting, your boss asks you to meet with a customer, and you agree
  • you decide to open a new Gmail account for personal email
  • you put in place a backup strategy for those moments (like a day at the beach) when you don’t have anything to write with and you want to remember to remove the chicken from the freezer when you get home, and to send email to the guy in accounts receivable the following day

Each of these events naturally leads to the use of one of the critical skills in Capturing.  Something must happen at that critical moment for the user to realize that this is an opportunity to practice a new time management skill.

As an aside — let me explain how that works in my training.  Each person evaluates their current Capturing abilities using a scale ranging from White to Green Belt skills.  Some decide to make an upgrade, and pick up new habits.  In other words, they decide to engage in a brand new practice in response to the usual events they face each day.  (Take my online Capturing Quiz to see what I mean.)

The question is, how do they know (in the heat of the moment) that this is an opportunity to Capture using a new habit (by writing down the new time demand on a pad of paper) rather than using their old habit of, for example, committing it to memory?

And, how do they remember to practice that new skill until it becomes a new habit?

At this time, all I can think of is that they can engage in a form of visualization, in which they picture the event happening and their new, preferred response.  It might require a short definition such as “when I commit to a time demand in a meeting I immediately write it in my paper pad.”

Also, they could get a colleague or their boss to help them recognize and point out those moments when they say things like:

  • “I forgot / didn’t remember”
  • “I was too busy”
  • “I didn’t have enough time”
  • “I had too much to do”

These might be indicators that an error in Capturing took place.

They could also look for themselves to see the times when they don’t capture well, and time demands fell through the cracks.  I imagine something like a Crack Score to be kept by an individual who tracks the number of time demands that fall through the cracks each day, and some record of the source of the error.  In some cases, it might be traced back to a fault in Capturing.

While you may read this and think to yourself, “I would never bother with all that!” you may want to take note of the message of Talent is Overrated as related by the Fundamental Soccer blog:

2) Deliberate practice can be repeated a lot. High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts. Tiger Woods may face that buried lie in the sand only two or three times in a season, and if those were his only opportunities to work on that shot, he’d blow it just as you and I do.

Repeating a specific activity over and over is what people usually mean by practice, yet it isn’t especially effective. Two points distinguish deliberate practice from what most of us actually do. One is the choice of a properly demanding activity just beyond our current abilities. The other is the amount of repetition.
Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent. Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest hitter, would practice hitting until his hands bled. Pete Maravich, whose college basketball records still stand after more than 30 years, would go to the gym when it opened in the morning and shoot baskets until it closed at night.

Talent is Overrated is unambiguous on the point — if you want to get better, then deliberate practice is THE “secret sauce” that high achievers have been applying behind the scenes in order to accomplish the amazing goals that we so admire in ALL fields.

Time Management is no exception, and the widespread mediocrity that passes for acceptable performance around the globe, in virtually every workplace, will only be reversed with a commitment to deliberate practice.

Speaking at the IIE Conference

I have just been accepted to speak at the Institute of Industrial Engineers Conference in Reno, Nevada. I’ll be presenting on May 25th.

The topic will be related to time management 2.0, of course and I’ll be echoing many of the themes that can be found on this website.

I’m excited to be able to share my ideas with others in the field, and am hoping that I can help to carve out time management as an important topic for learning and teaching.

Hopefully one or two blog subscribers can make it to the speech?

The Pedagogy of Time Management



pedagogy pronunciation /ˈpɛdəˌgoʊdʒi, -ˌgɒdʒi/[ped-uh-goh-jee, -goj-ee]

–noun, plural -gies.
1. the function or work of a teacher; teaching.

2. the art or science of teaching; education; instructional methods.

It’s not a commonly used word, but it is a useful one to consider when we think about the ways in which time management teaching has failed.

While time management is a practice used by every single working adult in the world, it’s strange that there is no standard training in this skill, or even a common or accepted body of knowledge.  There is no text-book in the subject, and there are very few academic papers written on the topic, according to a recent literature review by Claessens et al.   The discipline falls neatly between the cracks of well defined academic disciplines such as engineering, business, psychology and human resources.

Most people, as a result, end up being self-taught.

It’s not until their adult years (and usually well after they join the workforce) that a handful of professional look for some kind of formal training, which is usually delivered in a particular format that can be summarized as follows:

Here is what I do… copy my example.

In other words, the contemporary teaching method is to follow the example of a respected guru in the field who has put together a book or class that describes in some detail the particular habit pattern that works for them.

The gurus are well-intended, but their efforts fall short as evidenced by the number of people who take their programs or read their books and struggle along for a few days before reverting to what they have always done for years.

Fortunately for us, there are some recent books that highlight a new way of teaching  time management that might be useful for professionals the world over.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin make the point that we are dead wrong when we think about high achievement.  To put it simply, it’s impossible to reach world-class levels of performance without putting in thousands of hours of structured practice focused on areas of weakness.  According to a review of the book at the Steve Cheeseborough blog, this practice is more than just fooling around at the driving range (in the case of golf) or playing a few tunes on the guitar that we remember:

  • It must be designed specifically to improve performance
  • It can be repeated a lot
  • Feedback on results is continuously available
  • It is highly demanding
  • It isn’t much fun, or at least is “not inherently enjoyable.”

This is the kind of practice that is desperately missing in the corporate world. According to military-veteran, now corporate employee/blogger, Brett (the author of Brett’s blog,) this is different from the military.  Here is an excerpt from his review of the book:

Early on in Chapter 7 (of Talent is Overrated), Colvin highlights an issue that I’ve wrestled with in my mind for many years:

We saw earlier how hostile to the principles of well-structured deliberate practice most companies seem.  That’s all the more puzzling when you consider how many high-profile organizations apart from businesses embrace these principles.  We’re awed by the performance of champion sports team or great orchestras and theater companies, but when we get to the office, it occurs to practically no one that we might  have something to learn by studying how some people became so accomplished.  The U.S. military has made itself far more effective by studying and adopting these principles….  But at most companies – as well as most educational institutions and many nonprofit organizations – the fundamentals of great performance are mainly unrecognized or ignored.

The reference to the military really struck home with me, since over half of my professional life (so far) was spent as an officer in the Army.  To simply say that the Army engages in “deliberate practice” – at both the individual and organizational levels – would be a gross understatement.  In fact, in a peacetime Army the primary activity of soldiers and units is deliberate practice, with the explicit goal of continually improved performance.  (More on a wartime military in a bit.)

When I left the military and joined the corporate world, what struck me most was how little practicing – and how little learning and improving – anyone did.  For anything.  The general impression was that if you needed to “practice”, then you obviously were the wrong person for the job.  (This is the “hostility” to the principles of deliberate practice that Colvin refers to in the quote above.)  Needless to say, in the areas where I had influence I did my best to change that perception.

The same problem has infected time management pedagogy.  Over the years, the  emphasis has been placed on the easy part… sharing the ideas and habit patterns that gurus are eager for us to adopt.  What they ignore, to the detriment of all, is the fact that tough practice is needed in order to turn any new habit pattern learned in class into a set of reliable practices.

A modern pedagogy of time management would correct these errors and would:

  • recognize that each person comes into the learning situation with a set of habits that they have taught themselves over the years that are hard to change
  • give up on one-size-fits-all solutions and instruct learners how to adopt new principles into their current systems
  • break down the changes that learners need to make into small chunks that they can master over time
  • teach learners how to use deliberate practice in order to incorporate small behavior changes
  • emphasize that making habit changes is the hard part, and that learning which habits to change is, bar far, the easy part
  • show that time management skills come from practice, and not talent, as evidenced by how much they have learned over the years, and how they learned it
  • help learners see that they must continue to improve their approach to time management due to rapid changes in technology, information overload and the increase in time demands that are placed on them each day

With a new pedagogy, we might be able to introduce improved methods of teaching and learning that could be introduced much earlier in a professional’s career, and help them implement better systems at every point in their career, as soon as the need arises.