The Time Management System You Need

One of the ideas that we promote here at 2Time Labs is that each person needs a time management system that effectively allows them to handle the number of time demands that show up in their life on a daily basis. The corollary to this statement is the idea that each person doesn’t necessarily need a system that can handle more time demands than they’ll ever get.

The underlying notion is that one size doesn’t fit all, and we have decided to distinguish the different “sizes” in terms of their capacity to deal with time demand volume. While the technology doesn’t exist to measure these differences, we have described them in relative terms, with the belt system of skills.

At the top end there are Green Belts who have the most advanced skills and can handle the most time demands, and at the low end there are White Belts who have the most basic skills and can handle the least time demands.

Now, there is some evidence showing up in new articles that there is a different way to think about these differences. It backs up our direct observations gained from programs and coaching sessions.

The idea in a nutshell is that the most time-pressed individuals have so many time demands that consume so much of the day/week, that they only have a few extra hours to play with each week.

In other words, when they add up all the things that they are committed to doing, or must do “or else,” the number of hours left over each week add up to les than 20. Or 10. Or even 0.

Think President Obama. Or a CEO or business-owner. These are the hyper-committed professionals who have what we call “A Green Belt Life” (even if they only have White Belt Skills.)

Unfortunately, living with skills that can’t handle the number of time demands that come into one’s life is often stressful. The result of a severe mismatch between volume and skills is that stuff falls through the cracks, appointments are missed or started late, clutter accumulates, sleep is lost, etc. By definition, there is a cost that must be paid.

Here is an article from Lifehacker in which the author describes a Green Belt life at a time when he was a Project Manager. He describes just the kind of life that we have in mind. How to Focus and Stay Productive When You’re Expected to Always be Available.

Here’s an excerpt:

When I was a project manager, I had meetings every single day. Even worse, I was responsible for scheduling most of them. I learned pretty quickly that the only time I could truly tell people I was “unavailable” were the times that were blocked off on my calendar (and even then, they’d ignore it, but that’s another problem entirely.) So I started scheduling my work—or times when I was head-down and wanted everyone to know I was busy. Then I started specifically scheduling my breaks so people would know when I wasn’t around and when I’d be back.

Here’s he’s using the advanced Scheduling skills that we associate with an Orange Belt – his schedule has become the main focal point of all activity. Also, here’s a video from Microsoft Outlook that gives a pretty graphic picture of a soccer Mom that also has a Green Belt life. The juggling that she must do with her schedule is quite typical of someone who only has a few spare hours here and there in her life, and is always moving stuff around in response to what shows up. (BTW, we don’t advocate the habit of interrupting your Yoga session to check email!)

How to Use Dezhi Wu’s Time Management Research to

As I shared in the prior series of four posts on this topic, Dezhi Wu’s book “Temporal Structures in Individual Time Management: Practices to Enhance Calendar Tool Design” is a breakthrough piece of research.

It’s the dawn of a new age, I hope — time management researchers are actually tackling the problems that ordinary people people face when they try to improve the way they manage their time.  New tools, gadgets and software are coming out every day, but they all miss the point… and Dezhi’s research is essential to putting them back on track.

Listen in as I summarize one of her key findings – it’s my final summary of her book for the time being (until I schedule time to read it again!)

or click:

Update on Dezhi Wu’s Research #2

I’m still working through the first chapter of Dezhi Wu’s book “Temporal Structures in Individual Time Management,” but it’s already leading to some interesting places.

She used four criteria to characterize individual time management quality:

  • planning
  • meeting deadlines
  • sensing a lack of time control
  • engaging in procrastinating

She found great differences between good and bad time managers in terms of these characteristics, and the way they used “temporal structures.” These are essentially blocks of designated time set up by either society (public holidays,) groups (Happy Hour) or individuals (designated gym time.)

“Effective time managers demonstrate more skill in capturing and using their temporal structures than ineffective time managers.  Current information technologies do not provide much support…”

To that end, she has a chapter focused on the shortcomings of calendars and schedules:

“This chapter also discloses users’ difficulties with current electronic time management tools. In essence, users’ complaints can be transferred to a whole set of desired tool features, which are (1) better integration with other existing tools that they often need for their jobs, such as project management tools and organizational calendaring tools, (2) flexibility for scheduling more complicated activities, as there is no flexible template in the existing tools for setting up and modifying a series of events easily, (3) better synchronization with different devices, especially for travelers who often have to install different operating systems and calendar software for their mobile and their desktop calendar tools, (4) more user-friendly calendar interfaces (e.g. the stylus used in small devices is difficult for seniors and visually-impaired people), (5) truly built-in time management features (e.g., the ability to assess a person’s time management quality, and to advise how to enhance personal time management practices). In other words, the current electronic calendar tools do not behave intelligently enough to meet users’ time management needs, and (6) more convenient collaborative calendaring features for more effective team scheduling. ”

Wow.  This summary of Chapter 11 makes me want to jump straight to that chapter because these are some of the very issues we are tackling here at the 2Time Labs.  I hope that some software company out there is reading this book and planning for the next generation of scheduling tools.


A Black Belt? Why I Have No Idea What It Is

In most classes I have lead based on the 2Time principles I have been asked the question:  Why isn’t there a definition for Black Belts, or any belt above Green?

The reason is a personal one.

I didn’t want to make things so easy for me that I’d have no space to grow. You see, I don’t operate at a Green Belt, and even if I did, I want to leave room for new belts above the Green Belt. My hope is that I, or someone else, will be able to define higher belts, and what they look like, and offer fresh new opportunities to grow.

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.”

Nothing New in Time Management

I sense that there is a certain fatigue around the topic of time management.

I remember a time in the early 1990’s when productivity tools were all the rage, and you wouldn’t be caught dead without a DayTimer, FiloFax or Dayrunner folder equipped with custom tabs from Staples or Office Depot.

These weren’t entertainment devices, communication gadgets or portable search engines.  They were designed for productivity… and that was it.

Nowadays, the buzz around smartphones has little to do with productivity and time management, and more to do with stuff like connecting with your friends using Facebook Places and upping your score in Cityville.

Sexy?  Absolutely.  Productive? Not really.

Most of the articles related to the topic of time management consist of “Quick and Easy Tips,” “Top 10 ShortCuts…” and “Simple ways to gain two extra hours each day.”  We want our time management like our fast food.  Quick. Cheap. Filling. Instant.

Unfortunately, for those who are really interested in improving their skills there is little of substance, and little that’s new.  The market for instant time management tips has been saturated with books and websites touting hundreds of instant, effortless tips.

The get-rich-quick mentality has infected time management with its promise of fast results with little or no investment, risk or effort.

It’s the reason why so many companies are giving out Blackberry’s as the solution to issues of productivity.   If your employees are complaining because you have each of them doing the work of three people, then “Let em eat cake!”  Buy them a Blackberry, and that will be enough to do the job.

Those who are serious about improving their time management skills are tired of the tips and tricks, and aren’t looking for another gadget to buy.  They are already weary of these “solutions,” even if the general public seems quite to be quite happy.

They are focused on the 11 fundamentals of time management, and improving their overall skill by practicing each one at progressively higher levels.  They are like professional athletes who isolate parts of their game, and spend hours eking out small improvements via structured practice, often with the help of a coach, but often by working just by themselves.

It’s what most people call “anal.”

But it’s just not like that if you are serious about improving.  Instead, ut’s the price that must be paid for sustained achievement in any field.

Tiger probably spends very little time scouring the internet for easy, instant tips, and a lot of time in practice sand-traps perfecting his methods for digging out half-buried balls.  In the sun, wind and rain.

The same applies to Grand Masters in chess, Grand Slam winners in tennis and top NASCAR drivers.

Time management is no different, and I see that part of my job in 2Time and MyTimeDesign is to provide a viable pathway for improvement for any professional who is serious, and willing to discover what habits they need to work on in order to take their game to the next level.

This is a trickier assignment for those who are already operating at high levels of accomplishment (i.e. Green Belts and above) but Zen speaks of a beginner’s mind that comes with superior achievement.  I believe that the same applies to professionals who are ultra-productive and can manage a huge number of time demands — they don’t believe they have reached as they can see more clearly than others how far they still have to go.

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?

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.


Assessing Your Time Management Skills

basketball-skill_levels.jpgA key part of the 2Time system is a notion I created of different skill levels.

Many  people think that you either have time management skills or you don’t, and that it’s an all-or-nothing phenomenon.

Few, including the time management gurus, talk about having a range of skills and working continuously to improve them over time.

Of course, in the sporting world the idea is an old one.

One of the first things that a coach does is assess his new coachee’s skills in the sport, either through testing or observation. After the assessment is done, they sit down and look over the big picture to see what the coachee’s goals are and how they can be accomplished over time.

An athlete who wants to have some fun on weekends is not given the same plan as one who wants to be world-class.

I did some searching on the Internet and picked up some assessment tools that illustrate how they can be used to assess performance in the following sports:




It’s interesting to read these, because I stumbled into creating a similar assessment for time management without knowing that I was doing so.

If you click on the link for articles above, you’ll be taken to my first attempt to create an assessment tool for each of the 11 fundamentals that I’ve discovered. Each fundamental is described in a separate post, along with the habits that can be observed at each belt level (White, Yellow, Orange, Green).

While the tool I use two years later has changed a great deal from what’s presented here, the basic idea remains. But, to be honest, I never set out to create an assessment tool. My initial idea was to break up each of the skills in a way that could indicate to users what they should focus on at each stage of their development.

I don’t intend this to be a rigid test in any way. In fact, there are probably better ways to describe both the fundamentals and the idea of moving from one skill level to another.

So far, though, I haven’t found anyone who has used the basic idea. As far as I know, I’m alone in thinking this way and writing about it.

But I do hope that that ends soon!

P.S. For anyone interested, the diagram above comes from the Noah Basketball website. They’ve done some major research in the fundamentals of basketball, and this shows the kind of thinking that I wish someone would do on time management. Against the stuff on this page, sites on “basketball tips” look a little silly.

As Weak as Your Weakest Link

chain.jpgOne of the joking complaints I receive in my NewHabits workshops has to do with my decision to grant belts only when users have shown themselves to be proficient across the board at that level.

In other words, no Yellow Belt is awarded to an individual until each of the fundamental disciplines is at a Yellow Belt level.

Some might say that this is unfair, but I think the principle is a sound one.

A time management system is well constructed when all of the interrelated parts work well together. One faulty part can cause the entire system to fail. The parts happen to be interdependent with one another, much in the way that one foot depends on the other when someone attempts to run.

Time demands that enter our lives are dealt with by one fundamental, and then another, until those demands are completed.

Some might say that the fundamentals are like different swimming strokes — freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke, and butterfly. They are each independent strokes that have little to do with one another.

A time management system, however, is more like an individual medley event in which a swimmer is handicapped if one stroke is ineffective. The entire race suffers because one stroke is weak.

One of the problems that most commercial time management systems like Getting Things Done, Do It Tomorrow and others have is that they’re strong in some fundamentals and weak in others. Users aren’t taught how to upgrade their time management systems beyond the example provided — or taught that it’s even an option.

Users need to be savvy and understand that their time management system is something that fits only them. No one else’s system will provide a perfect fit, and they shouldn’t try to force themselves into someone else’s habit or pattern.

We need to retain ownership of our time management systems as we read this blog, read David Allen’s book, or take Covey’s class. They should all be seen as useful inputs to OUR systems and as possible sources of assistance as we perfect our lives.