Hard vs Soft Scheduled Items

Professionals who undertake the discipline of Scheduling at higher skill levels (Orange and Green belts) have their calendar as the central point of focus (rather than their memory, or lists of different varieties.)

They place most activities directly into an available time-slot, immediately assigning it a date, duration and start-time. In so doing, they are able to forget about the time demand until the appropriate “appointment” comes up.

These users do use their calendars flexibly, moving items depending on what happens each day. They make these changes on the fly, using electronic tools like Outlook in a way that goes well beyond the intent of its designers. As a result, they have developed some special needs.

One feature that would make things easier would be a way to schedule “hard” vs “soft” segments in the calendar.

Essentially, Outlook tries to treat each item in its calendar as an appointment: a timed meeting that involves another person such as a dinner date or a meeting with a customer. However, Orange and Green belts also schedule individual activities, dubbed by some as “appointments with yourself.” The vast majority of these items involve no other people.

However, these two commitments are not exactly alike.

Their lives would be made much easier if Outlook were to distinguish between different kinds of segments, recognizing them as either “hard” or “soft.”

A hard item is one that has external consequences if the start and/or end-times change. Many involve activities with other people who rely on our presence, and have some expectation regarding the other person’s attendance. These segments cannot be changed unilaterally.

A soft item is one that only involves the user, and can easily be moved around one’s calendar, with few immediate consequences. They might have great importance, but a late start would not endanger the end result.

Given these differences, programs like Outlook could help users to “protect” hard segments by making it more difficult for them to be double-booked or deleted, and also by giving them stronger reminders with different pop-ups and audible sounds. Colour coding would also help to separate them from other segments in a user’s calendar.

This would help users to manage the two kind of segments differently, in keeping with their distinct functions.

Giving up Scheduling on Graduation

I have been playing the video shown below in my NewHabits time management programs, primarily to illustrate Orange Belt scheduling skills.

It’s a great teaching video, as it shows clearly the advantage of using a schedule (even on paper) over a list, or personal memory. It’s an essential level of skill for college students who are taking lots of classes, have lots of assignments and want to do well.

In other words they are inundated with time demands, and many migrate to Yellow belt skills in order to deal with the volume they must handle.  As I watched the video I realized that I probably used these skills as a college student who had a full course-load, and a part-time job.

But something happened when I graduated.  All of a sudden the volume dropped, as I no longer had the same time challenges, and I recall the sense of relief I felt at no longer ever having to feel the pressure of an exam date.

Unfortunately, I also threw out the baby with the bathwater, and lost my Yellow belt Scheduling skills.

It wasn’t until later, when I started my own company, that I began to rediscover these skills.  Once again, it was in response to a huge increase in time demands, and a situation in which  I had to upgrade my skills in order to cope.

I imagine that I’m not alone here.

One of the basic tenets of Time Management 2.0 is that one’s skills are not fixed, and they change over time in response to the number of time demands we face in our lives. The problem comes when we practice our habits for so long that we lose the ability to change them, and even defend our old habits as somehow “fixed” and impossible to change.

The useful thing is to know that we can change them, and that they are indeed malleable, even though I’m sure it’s harder to teach older dogs like myself new tricks.

Exciting New Software

I just came across something I have dreamed about for some time – a game for email!

In prior posts, I talked about game mechanics, and how the entire 2Time approach could be seen as a game of sorts of improving one’s skill from White to Black Belt over time.  I have also studied some of the work of Amy JoKim, and reviewed her presentation “Putting the Fun into Functional” at least once per year, wondering how her cool ideas could be used to help us manage time better.

Then I came across Baydin Inc, and their cool new app, in the form of The Email Game.  At the moment, I have tested the Gmail version, which I think is the only one available… and it works wonders.

It prompts the user with an amusing count-down clock to drive towards a Zero Inbox, flashing up an encouraging graphic after each action.  Once you have finished dispensing with each email, it gives you some statistics and a score for dealing with your email.

It’s the very first game that I have found that gives immediate feedback on how well the user is keeping their Inbox empty.  This is a big leap forward folks, and thanks to the guys at Baydin (a small startup) for their insight and contribution.

Let’s hope they don’t stop!

Billing and Balancing

I am contemplating the creation of a new workshop for those professionals such as lawyers, accountants, financial advisors and doctors who live (or die) on billable hours.

My experience tells me that they are swamped by intense time demands, and that most are using new technology in a way that leaves their lives unbalanced.  They indulge in extreme smartphone abuse, and find themselves so stressed that their lives, health and relationships are barely being held together by the threads of their good intentions.

But it’s not as if they are succeeding at work either.  They find themselves falling behind in their invoices to clients, time tracking and paperwork, and finding the right document at the moment at which it’s needed is a hit or miss affair that might involve minutes and even hours of valuable professional time.

It’s not they are dumb people.  All the ones I have met happen to be very, very smart, and possess outstanding credentials.  It’s just that they have crafted habit patterns that cannot handle the number of time demands they now face in their lives.

As a result, they find themselves terminally stuck, with no way out except to leave the profession, which some do.  Most however, stick it out, and while they watch important things (like their exercise programs) fall through the cracks, they wish that things could be better.

I want the program to tackle that problem head-on.  It would be a Saturday program that’s limited to a small number of professionals (maybe 10) so that I can provide individual attention.  I’m aware that someone who bills for their time and is able to upgrade their skills from a White to a Yellow Belt, for example, would be able to increase their earnings by a significant multiple, unlike most employees who work on a fixed salary.

Blackberry-Specific Habits

This is a great article written by a friend of mine – Ian Price – for the Guardian newspaper in the UK.

One of the startling statistics he quotes is the fact that Blackberry users spend much more time checking email on weekends than those without.  It backs up an argument I have been making:  an employee with a smartphone is better for a manager than one without… at least in the short term.

It might be worse for the employee, their families, their friends and also for the company in the long-run, but managers who require their employees to check email on weekend needn’t worry.

Ian also makes the point that those who like to appear busy have found the perfect companion in their smartphones, but this frenetic attention comes at a price — lower productivity via less quiet, reflective time that’s needed to do deep thinking.  It echoes the words of the book “Flow” perfectly.

Here is the link to Four-Day Working Week? Three Cheers!

Productive Notifications on Your Blackberry

It’s fascinating to me how many productivity-related design decisions are made by makers of mobile gadgets (like Blackberrys,) software (like Outlook) and web services (like Gmail.)  In the first week of using a new BB Curve 8250, I have had to make a variety of changes to the default settings in order to have it fit my personal habits.

At the same time, the principles I am attempting to preserve are universal, and I started to think that my BB would be much better designed if the designers had some knowledge of the essentials of time management.  The fact is, they did start with an underlying philosophy:  ” the more interruptions the better.”  Unfortunately, their philosophy conflicts with the principles I use around one of the key fundamentals – Interrupting which has lead me to adjust many of the notifications on my BB.

Principle of Uninterrupted Work

My BB came with all sorts of notifications that are intended to interrupt me when I’m doing anything else.  There are flashing lights, vibrations and sounds for incoming:

  • – email messages
  • – voice mail
  • – SMS’
  • – BBM’s
  • – phone calls
  • – tweets

Apparently, the default settings are enabled because they assume:
1.  I need to switch from whatever I’m doing to tend to my BB alert when something (i.e. anything) happens to come in
2.  I receive only a handful of notifications per day

Both of these assumptions are suspect not only for me, but the average professional.  In fact, all the recent research points to the fact that one’s best work is done with a quality of focused attention that precludes chasing down every incoming alert in case it’s something important.

Some would say, simply ignore the interruption.  I counter by saying that every single alert that I notice subtracts a little bit of focus away from what I’m doing in the moment, and a little bit of energy as I make a decision to heed or ignore it.  This lowers the  quality of whatever it is I’m doing, if only by a small amount in each instance.

While I have turned them all off, except the phone’s ring, the point here is that the assumption made by RIM is that most people need or want them to be on.  Also, as far as a I can tell, there are millions who never quite get around to turning them off, and end up being perpetually digitally distracted.  By simply following the manufacturer’s defaults, they become less productive as the number of time demands in their lives increases.

I’d recommend that RIM and other smartphone manufacturers ship their products with the alerts turned OFF, and help the user to enable the ones they want in the set up procedures.  This would help the user to engage in the customization of their time management system in a way that most don’t know they can.

It would be even better if they would keep them off and take a new user through some kind of tutorial that helps them set it up for maximum productivity.  This would help users avoid the bad habit that so many develop of interrupting everything imaginable to chase down a smartphone alert of invisible content, and unknown importance.

At the same time, Interrupting is a fundamental that is important, for other reasons described in the following posts on Interrupting.  I have found that the power of my BB to Interrupt is better than anything else I have used, including ways to vary the number of vibrations, colors of flashing lights, tunes played, etc.

Should There Be an App for That?

I had a brainstorming session with a few friends the other day, and came up with the idea of expanding the assessment program I created for the skill of Capturing.

If you haven’t taken it, here’s what is does:  within the space of a few minutes and 13 questions, a user is able to assess which belt level they are operating at within this essential skill. Honestly, I haven’t paid it much attention, because I haven’t quite known where to take it next.

The idea that my friend came up with was to create a smartphone app which would allow a user to test him or herself in all 11 fundamentals.  Once the test is done, he/she would be able to save their score, and then come back to it and update it as they made proress in each skill.

Perhaps it could also have a Facebook link so that your progress could be shared with your friends, and maybe even get an email from the 2Time site that congratulates you when you have made significant progress, such as a jump from an overall White to Yellow belt.

It could serve as a portable teacher and tracker of sorts, and help users to focus on tracking their personal progress.  Now that I actually have a Blackberry, versus just writing about them, I can see where it could be useful to have personal information like this available.

Lastly, maybe the app could download coaching tips that depend on where the user is in their development, in order to help them think about the changes they are working on at the moment.

Has anyone seen an app like this for fields other than time management?  I imagine a “weight-loss” or “stop smoking” app might exist and look a lot like the kind of thing I’m talking about.

Let me know if you have seen anything close to the kind of app I am looking for.

No Time for 2 Hours of Time Management

I recently heard a complaint made by a trainer — no-one in their organization had enough time to take a 2 hour class in time management.

On one level it’s a bit of a joke… I remember hearing once that the very thing that we want to improve, keeps us from taking advantage of improvement opportunities.  For example, being “late to a class in procrastination” is an old chestnut that some resurrect now and again to knowing laughs.

On another level, it represents all that’s crazy about our hunger for instant results.  We refuse to believe in the slow, steady progress required for accomplishing results at a  world-class level in any discipline.  Instead, we spend time Googling for instant tips, magical shortcuts and cute tricks.  We want our improvements fast and easy, and we strenuously ignore messages to the contrary.

With respect to time management, we trick ourselves into thinking that it we buy the right gadget, or software package, then it will take care of everything for us.  If we get the right insight it will make all the difference in the world.  Unfortunately, we are wrong.  These tactics represent a basic misunderstanding about the ways that time management skills are improved, and the fact that they are made up of habits that take years to learn, and unlearn.

As Werner Erhard said, “understanding is the booby prize.”  So are the kinds of effortless insights that we love so much.  Instead, we should probably just pick one hard-to-learn common-sense habit and focus on it until we get to a half-decent standard, before moving on to learn another.  There’s more to gain from that kind of activity than any of the sexy or shiny stuff that seems so exciting at first blush.

Productive Business Owner Summit

The Summit is on!  This free gathering of subject matter experts is like nothing I have ever done, and I had a great time doing my pre-recorded session.

Registration is free, and my session will be held at 1:00pm Eastern on Thursday April 14th.  Click here for details on the Productive Business Owner Summit.

By the way, Katie Gutierrez Miller has done a wonderful job in putting these summits together — she’s a name to watch!