Escalating, Fool-Proof Habits

I have been tricked.  And I may need your help.

Perhaps the word “trick” is a bit too strong, but I’d love to hear what you think.

An unknown (but noticeable) number of people who take my courses appear to be following the statistic I recently read about trainees reverting to their old behaviors.  Apparently, the average is 87%.

I have been thinking about an experience shared by a friend of mine who used to be a personal trainer – not in time management, but in physical fitness.  She said that she eventually got bored with the profession because she felt that most of her job after the first two coaching sessions consisted of waking people and getting them to the gym.  In a way, she was forced to become a glorified nag.

Nothing wrong with that, and I can see that it could actually be effective in helping people lose weight.  At the same time, I can see my friend’s point.  A Masters degree  is generally not required in order to find a way to motivate a slow-moving client to get to the gym.

From the angle of changing habits, this kind of support is exactly what’s required.  In fact, I imagine that those trainers that are effective are able to craft a chain of “escalating interventions.”

Wat exactly do I mean by that term?

Many years ago I had a coach who agreed to work with me.  Due to an error, I missed the first appointment and when her contract came to me for signature, it had a proviso.  If I missed another session, her rate would go up by US$50 an hour.  If I were late once again, it would increase by another US$50 an hour.  (I’m not sure about the exact dollar amounts, but they were dramatic.)

In more than ten years of coaching sessions with her, I was never late.

Her “escalating interventions” set a very high bar for me, and it only worked because I was deadly serious about the game I was playing.  In my training programs, I want to do something similar, and use whatever means I cam to make a difference.

After a one day program, for example, I might offer 3 kinds of interventions, to help people in their habit changing.

Let’s imagine that the activities involve the following actions to be taken over a ten week period.
a) writing a weekly report and sharing it with the instructor, and someone else from the program
b) updating an on-line  daily checklist that involves mastering some new habits, while getting rid of some old ones
c) consuming a single piece of content from my blog 3 times per week and writing a summary of no less than 3 lines

I could imagine offering participants 3 mutually exclusive games to play with respect to this assignment:
No-Game: I don’t want to play a game and want to be left to myself. (I imagine that most participants will choose this option.)

Bronze Game: If I miss a weekly report, or 2 consecutive weekday checklists, or a single summary I pay US$50 to a company or organization that I despise

If I miss 2 weekly reports, or 4 weekday checklists or 3 summaries, I pay US$100 to the instructor’s favorite charity

Gold Game: If I miss a weekly report, or 2 consecutive weekday checklists or a single summary, I pay US$500 to a company or organization that I despise

If I miss 2 weekly reports, or 4 weekday checklists or 3 summaries, I pay US$1,000 to the instructor’s favorite charity

(The latter two games use principles built into the site, which uses a service to  encourage people to change their habit.   I would also borrow the principle of using an impartial referee.)

At the end of the program, I could offer these games to participants, and give them the opportunity to take advantage of the feelings of high motivation that felt at the end.  I could also offer them a way to cancel the agreement within 3 days with no penalty, just to make sure they are serious.

What do you think?  I am really curious to see what effect this might have, and until I have some experience, I’d love to hear what you think!

Should We All Use Lists?

I read a recent article in the GTD News in which David Allen noted that he often gets told by others that he has too many lists.  Click here to read “Why Lists are a Dirty Word.”

The critics go a step further and imply that there’s no way that many lists could work for them.  He notes that “my educated guess is that 99 percent of people’s responses (to lists) are some version of “Yuck! Back Away!”

His hypothesis is that people have this reaction because 1) Lists are hard work, 2) Lists are scary and 3) Lists are disappointing.  The article goes on to show that these reactions are ill-informed, and with more understanding these feelings would be alleviated.

I think there’s more to this than meets the eye.

My observation of users at very different levels of skill is that multiple or long Lists are useful for some people, but not everyone. Allen doesn’t address this fact in his article, and might be attempting to prove that taking this approach should fit everyone.

In one instance, a person might be unwilling to use multiple lists because this technique doesn’t work once the number of time demands becomes too large.  I have shown in prior posts that different techniques must be used due to the lengthy reviews that are required by lots of items in lists.

In the 2Time system, Yellow Belts use lots of lists.  Both White Belts and Orange Belts (who are lower and higher in skill) might respond with a “Yuck!”, but for very different reasons.   White Belts would be unhappy about the use of a brand new tool, while Oranges would be unwilling to downgrade their current system, simply to use more Lists.  (Quite a few years ago, I unwittingly made this change myself, and saw my capacity to manage time-demands plummet before hastily switching back.)

With a more complete picture, both sets of users can make better decisions, and get past the “Yuck!” in order to make informed changes to their time management systems.  This is the kind of choice that all professionals must make when they discover a tip from a guru, read a book, find a new gadget or discover a new piece of productivity software.

It’s a delicate dance, and users must be ready to switch back to what they were doing if they discover that the changes they are attempting to make have an adverse impact.  This reality is one that’s not acknowledged in the article, but it would help users to see that Lists aren’t meant to be either accepting or rejected in total, but used an an upgrade when they produce individual results.


Mission Control Productivity, FranklinCovey, GTD and Getting Things Done are registered trademarks of the David Allen Company (  2Time is not affiliated with or endorsed by the David Allen Company, Mission Control Productivity or FranklinCovey.

Someone Struggling with Zero Inbox

This is an interesting post from the third day of someone’s attempt to maintain a Zero Inbox.

It’s quite a diligent effort, and I admire his use of tracking statistics to get some insights into what’s going on with all the email messages received in a day.  It’s interesting that so few replies are generated, and so many are simply deleted.

I keep wishing that someone will create software to track these kinds of statistics, perhaps via add-ons in Outlook or Gmail.  They’d surely give us more information on our habit patterns than we have now.

The article is entitled: “Day 3 Inbox Zero”

Helping Clients Solve Time Management Problems

Recently, I have been thinking about making the 2Time methods available to consultants, coaches and trainers, or anyone who wants to use them to diagnose a client’s time management skills.

In the NewHabits program (and MyTimeDesign 1.0.Plus) I have devised several charts that participants have been using to discover their current time management profile and belt level.  The charts include an analysis of each of the 11 fundamentals.

Only after developing them did I realize… they could also be used with someone in a one-on-one coaching session.

I actually tested this approach with 2 clients — a lawyer and an accountant — and found that it saved a great deal of time, and provided them with instant insight to the habits that they needed to start working on.  Now that I have been submitting proposals to speak at conferences of Professional Organizers, I can immediately see where  they also could use these tools to do the same thing… save themselves and their clients a great deal of time by zeroing in on the habits they need to change in a systematic way.

The process would be simple, and more or less mirror the path I take in my training programs.

Step 1: Define a few key terms
Step 2: Teach one fundamental at a time, and help the client to score him/herself, and make a note of the habits to be changed.  Repeat this step for all 7 fundamentals
Step 3: List all the habits to be changed
Step 4: Schedule the habit-changes on a calendar
Step 5: Craft a fool-proof habit-support system

I might be overly ambitious, but I think that a skilled coach can take a smart client through the 7-fundamental version of this learning in a matter of 4-5 sessions of one hour each, as long as the client is willing to do some work on  their own.

A full one day class covering the same material takes at least 7 hours, and that includes the time to do the “homework,” so I think that my estimate might be an accurate one.

I know that most professional organizers focus their efforts on physical de-cluttering, and that a few also venture into the area of time management.  Maybe with the right tools, I could empower many more to expand the work they do, and provide some unique insight to their clients, with the help of an easy-to-use turn-key system.

On a side note, I have noticed that  when a consultant lacks a systematic process in time management, they are forced to use a fairly random bunch of anecdotes, personal practices and rules of thumb, without having a structured method to ensure that all the important bases are covered.  This kind of approach is hard to sustain with a smart client who asks lots of questions, and can’t understand why they should follow anyone else’s habit pattern, even if it’s written up in a best-seller.

With a thorough analysis of the 7 fundamentals that makes room for all levels of skill, they should be able to coach everyone from the novice employee to the most seasoned executive.

If you are interested in following the next steps I take towards getting this train-the-trainer program going, Let me know via email using the Contact form in the main menu at top.

Until then, let me know what you think about the idea in general.  Would it work?  Does it need additional content to make it easy to use?  Drop me a comment with your thoughts.

More on Paper Use

An avid reader of this site sent me the following comment:

There is one thing that stands out to me, however, and that is that you seem to link using paper with using memory. I write everything down so that I don’t have to use my memory. Listing can be done electronically too and if one just sticks to listing, it leads to using memory regardless of the tool you use. You also say, “there is a limit to the number of time demands that can be handled using only paper.” I don’t understand. A 24 hour day is the same whether you use paper or a BlackBerry. Do you mean it is difficult for schedules that are constantly changing (dynamic)? Although, I’ve never had a problem there either. Simply scratch, rewrite, and keep going.

Thanks for your patience with my comments and questions. All-in-all, I really like your approach to time management

At first, I couldn’t see how I linked the use of paper with the use of memory as she is absolutely doing the right thing by Capturing (by writing) in order to avoid using memory.  When she elaborates by quoting me in saying that “there is a limit to the number of time demands that can be handled using only paper” I began to understand.

Paper is a limiting factor in the following fundamentals:  Storing, Scheduling and Listing simply because paper is difficult to back up in case of a disaster, and doesn’t allow for efficient searching when an item needs to be found.  Above a certain number, keeping time demands on paper only invites problems.

The truth is, paper also doesn’t scale well,  It might work well for simple, low volumes, but it fails when storage needs become complex, schedules become dynamic or heavy, or lists become too long.  Anyone who still tries to store passwords on paper, for example, probably has a challenge that also extends to one of security.  By the same token, anyone who needs to schedule activities in 2012 probably has the problem of lugging around multiple paper calendars.

I once had a personal, paper diary that I left on an airplane.  It had some important notes in it and I regretted the loss of this unique information.  My wife seems to have particularly bad luck with her computers.  Three of them have crashed four times in the past couple of years.

It’s been a hassle, but restoring the content from backups (we use has been an easy affair once the computer was back up and running.

I hope this helps — if anyone would like to add to the discussion, please do so in the comments below.

Time Management Training: A Waste of Time

I found this article interesting, but it had way more bark than actual bite.

It argues that time management training doesn’t work because most people get inundated by email when they get back to their desks.

At the end of the article, the author backs off the startling claim he makes in the title, because that’s not really the point he’s trying to make.  Instead, he’s right about the need for companies to change the expectations around email, and the importance of creating alternate methods for communicating urgent messages.

Time Management Training; A Waste of Time.

New Terminology for Scheduling

Now and then I find that here on 2Time I am forced to craft a new word for a concept that doesn’t quite have the right definition.  For example, “time demand” is a phrase I had to coin in the absence of any other, to describe the basic unit of stuff that we deal with every day.

I need another term to describe a “booked” period of time in one’s schedule.

If you are new to this site, you may not know that a time demand is Captured and Emptied into one of several places.  A schedule is one possible destination for a newly Emptied time demand.

Once it gets placed in a schedule, it can either be “hard” or “soft” depending on what other time demands depends on its completion, and what consequences occur if the action fails to occur.  It gets transformed from it’s original status as a free-floating commitment, and now has the following characteristics:
– a clear description of the action to be taken (and hopefully a clear understanding of the outcome)
– a start-time
– and expected end-time (and therefore a duration)

These are the basics, but there are other important attributes that usually aren’t captured in one’s schedule, such as:
– dependencies in both directions
– other people who may be participating
– location
– importance
– dollar costs
– consequences if it’s not completed
– the degree to which the time estimate is unbiased
– the distribution of the estimate

The problem I have is I don’t have a name or word for a scheduled time demand.  Here are a few I have tried:

Appointment — this is OK for White Belts who only record meetings with others in their calendars, but it becomes a problem for Yellow and Orange Belts.  When they need to schedule a solo activity they are forced to talk about “appointments with themselves”… which simply sounds weird, if not a bit tacky.

Occasion — let’s see, where is my black tie?  This isn’t a bad one, but it sounds a little official, and doesn’t conjure up everyday time demands like doing the laundry, which definitely isn’t anything special.

Time-slot — a bit dry, I have used this term more frequently, even though it sounds as if some decision has been pre-determined to some degree.

Designated time / time period / time-gap — these all sound clunky and have a bit of the pre-determination that time-slot carries.

Space — sounds too much like something physical rather then temporal.

Segment — promising…  I am thinking of the term in radio or television terms, in which a certain period of time is used for a particular program.  The only part I don’t like is that the word “segment” seems to imply that the time-period it describes is being used for something particular, when in fact it might not be used at all.

The winner is… “segment.”  Unless someone can come up with a better term!  Let me know if you have a suggestion.

Best Practices in Time Management

Is there such a thing as a best practice in time management?

It might seem that this is a no-brainer… of course there are things one should be doing, and things one should not be doing!

I would argue the opposite, based on my experience of teaching time management programs.  Here’s why.

I assume that people who take my programs have taught themselves the skills that they use on a daily basis.  Some are more capable than others, to be sure, and can handle a larger number of time demands.

However, before improving a single habit, practice or ritual, I encourage each person to make an assessment about whether  or not the change they are contemplating will enhance their peace of mind.  In some cases that surprise me, the answer is a clear “no.”

From my point of view as an outsider to their lives, there seem to be clear-cut cases of changes that people “should” make.  As a coach/expert in the area, I sometime think that all my experience adds up to something, including a right to tell someone what’s best for them… as if I can know what’s best about their lives.

I’m better when I remember an important principle: maximum peace of mind comes when there is a match between the volume of time demands in one’s life, and the capacity of one’s system.  While it’s fine to have more capacity than volume, we hate it when the opposite is true and we find ourselves falling behind, stuff falling through the cracks, overwhelmed by email and stressed.

At that point, an upgrade is sorely needed.

For some, however, there is no need to change anything, and their “best practices” happen to be the ones that they are currently using – regardless of how they stack up against Black Belts in time management or any standard I might dream up.  They don’t anticipate an upsurge in time demands, and can keep their peace of mind by operating at the same level indefinitely.

It would be a mistake for them to try to change things for silly reasons, such as a need to keep up with the Joneses by using the latest smartphone technology.  Yet, that is exactly what people do all the time.

They adopt a new technology without having an understanding of their time management systems, and end up learning bad habits that must be un-learned in order to retain their past levels of productivity.  (If you’d like to hear some statistics on how that happens, I recommend the new book “The Activity Illusion” by Ian Price.)

So, the long and short of it is that there are no universal best practices.  There are only personal practices that we each need to follow, in order to maintain our productivity and peace of mind.

This doesn’t say that there aren’t consequences for ALL the habits, practices and rituals we include in our time management systems.  There most certainly are.  it’s up to the user to decide when to change them, however, and not someone who comes up with some list of “best practices.”

Time to Have a Girlfriend

A few years ago when I was struggling in a first marriage that ultimately failed, I came across some advice that I have never forgotten.  It was simple and brutal – if you want your relationship to last, spend 15 hours per week in face to face contact with your spouse.  (See for details.)

Not time spent sleeping, watching television or taking care of the kids.  Face to face time.  The kind that allows for conversation and interaction.

He made a good point — when you are dating, you make sure to spend this kind of time to get to know the other person, and you actually engage in certain practices that allow you to fall deeply in love.  He argues that these practices, and their duration, is what allows a relationship to develop.  When they cease, the relationship suffers and eventually dies.

In most marriages, other commitments come into play that reduce the number significantly — kids, work, hobbies, charities, church, chores, sports, television, games, Internet activity.  Over time, the total number of hours shrinks as both partners unknowingly drift to other interests.  Before you know it, each partner has developed a raft of other commitments that serve to keep them apart.

It was a compelling argument, but I had the reaction that most people have when they hear the 15 hour required minimum.  “Where the heck will I ever find that kind of time?”  It seemed to be an impossible task to squeeze that much time in, and I had the stupid notion that time with one’s spouse shouldn’t be forced… which only meant attempting to squeeze the time in between other, presumably more important, commitments.

The author argued that this was a cop-out.  He asked his readers to imagine what would happen if they were to fall in love with someone outside the marriage, and were to conduct a torrid and passionate affair.

If you are a fan of the television series Mad Men you would see a good example of how the busiest people in the world are able to find time to have affairs, and I imagine that you and I are not too different.  15 hours a week on our secret love affair would feel like no time at all, and we’d magically find ways to be together that seem so hard once our lover becomes our spouse, and a few years have passed.

In my second marriage I have worked hard from the beginning to make sure that the 15 hour minimum is preserved, and I schedule time with my wife when I find that the minimum is being threatened.  Some married folk in my time management classes argue that setting time aside to date your spouse isn’t romantic, but they ignore the fact that if they were to conduct an illicit affair, that high level scheduling skills would be an absolute requirement!

They also forget that when they were dating, coordinating schedules was an absolute requirement, and that we all make the mistake in thinking that once we are married, such dedicated time will come easily and effortlessly, without planning and foresight.  Sex should happen spontaneously, right after doing the dishes and changing the baby’s diaper.

Once convinced, however, of the need for 15 hours, finding the time is often a huge challenge.  Those with White belt skills in Scheduling, for example, are likely to find the going tough in spite of their best intentions.  Their best tactic is to upgrade their skills in this area to Yellow or Orange belt levels, so that they can handle this new 15 hour per week time demand that seems to be such an imposing burden.

It seems a bit strange that time management skills might have something to do with saving a marriage.  However, if we look at the things that don’t happen in life because we don’t have the time (such as more exercise, less clutter and better balance) it’s not hard to see that doing well in all of them requires good a time-management skills.

Your Brain at Work

A new study was just released that backs up the work done by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly in his book “Flow”, that uses a great deal of neuroscience to back up his notion that we are at our most productive when we are focused on a single tack.

The article is entitled “Your Brain at Work: What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do.”

I thought that the point about multi-tasking was well-put:

If you have to multitask, combine active thinking with automatic, embedded routine or transactional routines. That’s why I can iron a shirt or empty the dishwasher during a conference call and still perform relatively well; or, another manager can sign contracts while she’s thinking about her next sales meeting. Become aware of your mental energy needs and schedule accordingly.