A New Paradigm for Time Demands

Those of us who are older (over 40) have a hard time escaping the To-Do-on-paper mentality in favor of time-demand-in-the-cloud thinking.

In the old days, when you had something to do you added it to a list using a pen or pencil.  That piece of paper/list was the point of storage for what we now call “time demands” here at 2Time Labs.

Nowadays, that same item might be stored in any number of places instead of a paper list, such as:

  • a tweet
  • a comment on Pinterest
  • an email message
  • an instant message
  • a voicemail
  • a page on Facebook
  • a text message
  • a recommendation request on Linkedin
  • an attachment sent to your iPhone
…plus many others.

On the upside, the increasing number of electronic storage locations means that some stuff will be backed up and safe from being lost.  The downside is that we often get confused if we don’t make the jump to understand the nature of time demands, and why we need to think of them as residing in the cloud.

To start off, a time demand is an individual commitment to complete an action in the future.  It’s a mental creation, and it ceases to exist once the action is completed.  Also, like physical objects in space, time demands accumulate in the mind, and create problems when their number exceeds a certain threshold.

An email that arrives in your Inbox may contain several time demands, depending on its nature.  Once that email is read for the first time, it’s disposed of in a number of ways based on your methods.  It can be:

  • stored in your Inbox, while the time demands are committed to memory
  • deleted after the time demands can be placed on a list or schedule
  • placed in an email folder for later view
  • printed on paper and added to a To-Do manila folder

We make the mistake of focusing on the object, like an email message, instead of the time demands which it includes.  Email messages, text messages, meeting minutes, tweets, etc. are all variations of the same thing:  containers or transmitters for time demands, much in the way that a mango skin is the the container for its pulp.  (It’s mango season here in Jamaica as you can probably tell!)

When we try to “reduce the number of emails” we get each day we are barking up the wrong tree.  5000 email messages per day are not a problem if 4999 are spam.  One email can contain 150 time demands.

Once we focus on time demands, it’s not hard to think of them as being stored in the cloud, and all we need is access to the handful we need at any time in order to do our jobs and make decisions.  If the number is quite small, we can even manage them in their entirety, as a group.

Once the number grows, however, we get overwhelmed, and try to find ways to cut down the need to be looking at too many all at once.

The first attempt people make is to migrate from one single list to many lists.  This helps a bit, and the technique works as long as the number of time demands remains below a threshold.  What’s important to note is that a list or sub-list is just a particular view of all the time demands that exist.  It might be a view of the tasks to do in the office, those that are urgent, those that require big commitments of time, etc.

When a user upgrades to a schedule, it’s an attempt to shield oneself from the onslaught of all the time demands at once, as they are spaced out over time.  Once again, the schedule is just a particular way of looking at all the time demands that are in the cloud.  It’s a more robust tool than a simple list; the fact is, a schedule is just a list enhanced with dates and durations, and sorted by the former.

In other words, it’s also a view of all the time demands that you need to complete. It requires more time to set it up, and more time to maintain, but much less time to review than simple lists when the number of time demands is below a certain threshold.

No single approach is better than others but it’s important that professionals understand that they have a choice, and that there is likely to be stress if their approach is not a sufficiently robust one.

Comparing Listing and Scheduling

I have noticed a wide and growing number of new iPhone, Android and laptop apps that attempt to improve a user’s personal productivity. They all seem to focus on the same thing: how to make better lists.  In this post, I try to encourage developers to look at better ways of using a schedule instead of using a list.

It’s actually a bit disheartening, because our research here at 2Time Labs shows that lists work fine for a small number of time demands, but after a certain volume an upgrade is needed to managing a single schedule in order to remain just as effective. While many repeat the claim (without evidence) mantra that this upgrade “can’t be done” there are many who have successfully implemented this technique, and a whole lot more who are simply curious.

Some of the data comes from recent, high quality research conducted by Dr. Dezhi Wu. A great deal of the proof, however, remains to be established and while I’m hoping that another Dezhi comes along soon, let’s take our own closer look at the difference between the activities that take place when someone is using lists versus a schedule.

Linda with her Lists
Imagine Linda: a hard working professional who uses lists to manage her time demands. She’s in a meeting on Friday and her boss offers her an assignment – the Draft Report- that should take about 3 weeks to complete. Before she accepts, she needs to decide whether or not she can make a solid commitment.

Where does she look to make the decision?

Her schedule only tracks appointments and meetings with other people, so her determination comes from checking her memory. She must present the results of the assignment at a meeting on the due date, so she places that date in her calendar, but the 10 hours of activity that needs to be performed to get the task completed are all assigned to her memory.

She adds the item “start working on Draft Report” to the bottom of her list of around 150 items. (It’s actually categorized and broken down into a number of sub-lists.)

At the moment she adds the item to her list, she also mentally makes a commitment to complete the 10 hours of work that’s required. She thinks that Thursdays and Fridays are no good due to other meetings, so she must work on this report from Mondays to Wednesday. She’s fresher in the mornings, so she thinks to herself that she’ll rule out working on this report after lunch. She doesn’t think about the item again for the week.

The following week, on Monday morning, she starts the day by scanning her master list of 150 items. As she goes through, she makes a mental commitment to do things at different times.

After lunch, she re-scans the list to refresh her memory and to mentally rejigger her plan because at her pre-lunch meeting she had to commit to another 15 hours of unforeseen Beta Project activity in the same 3 week period. Also, 2 more meetings were added on Tuesday that might prevent her from following the plan she had mentally laid out.

She makes a mental note to pick up scientific calculator that she’ll need to complete the report that night, so that she can work on the Draft Deport on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, she discovers that her mental note didn’t work and that she can’t start the Draft Report without the calculator. She determines that she must try harder to remember, as she works through the items in the list, and once again commits the schedule of activity to memory.

She checks the list of 150 items a few times per day, and after every meeting, in order to refresh her memory of what is due when, and what sequence she must perform her time demands for the best results.

Suzy with her Schedule
Suzy is in the identical job as Linda and has the same commitments. She also has 150 action items (in fact she has more) but they are spread out in her schedule, along with the time that she thinks must be allocated to each time-slot.

Before she accepts the action item to complete the Draft Report, she checks her calendar (which happens to sit on her iPad.) She sees that she does indeed have enough free time, and immediately books time in her calendar for 15 hours of work, in order to get the report completed on time.

When she comes in on Monday morning, she scans the schedule for the day and takes a peek at Tuesday’s schedule. She makes a couple of adjustments and goes on her way.

She places are reminder in her calendar to bring the scientific calculator in to work and when the iPad beeps at 6pm that evening, she responds by placing the calendar in her bag.

During the day she actively juggles her schedule, even as she makes new commitments,and declines others, including the 3 week deadline for the Beta Project activity. She requests that it be extended to 4 weeks based on the commitments in her schedule.

Some people fully believe that what Suzy is doing isn’t possible, and it wouldn’t be if she were trying to manage her schedule on paper. It’s not a problem with her iPad/iPhone combination, however and she uses her schedule as her roadmap for all activities that she does each day.

Linda on the other hand must use significant amounts of personal memory, and she’s essentially storing her schedule in her hind. This would not be stressful with 10 actions items on her list at any time, but with 150 it has become burdensome. Lists require constant checking, and that activity also takes a toll as she must constantly make critical decision with a schedule that she has attempted to memorize.

Linda needs to upgrade her skills to use her schedule as the central point of storage for time demands. Coupled with the latest technology, she can skillfully manage what is almost, but not quite, a real-time schedule.

The bottom-line is that for each of us, there is a point where we need to make the jump from using a list(s) as the central point for managing time demands, to the point where we use a schedule.