How to Make Task Management Apps Way More Engaging

Recently, I write an article on Medium geared towards designers of task management “apps” ranging from those who support the use of memory, to paper, to task management apps, to calendars to auto-schedulers. In the article, I shared the following graphic that shows the progression that users make as they

progress from the use of one skill level to the next. As you may recall, the idea that different tools are needed for different task volumes is a key research finding here at 2Time Labs.

In this article, I use two different tools to analyze this progress, explaining that a transformation actually takes place (or is struggling to emerge.) It happens when the user is able to experience their task management as a game.

Unfortunately, their game-play is thwarted by several factors. One is that they are unaware of this journey and a second is that many task management software designers are also blind to the whole picture.

This means that people aren’t engaged. Their apps are dull, even though the contents are vital to their everyday lives.

Imagine storing your most precious worldly items in a dull, nondescript warehouse.

Check out the article here: What Task Management App Developers Can Do to Catch Up with Pokemon Go.

Why Habits Are So Hard for App Designers to Nail Down

temp paper coverI’m excited… more than a little… to share an academic paper I just read (and re-read.) It includes some required lessons for all app designers, but especially those who happen to be in the productivity space.

Published by the University College of London’s Interaction Centre, it’s entitled “Beyond Self-Tracking and Reminders – Designing Smartphone Apps That Support Habit Formation.” Included in the study is a survey of 115 habit formation apps that promise to help users make permanent behavior changes. Unfortunately, the results reveal a rude surprise… only a tiny handful (3%) have features which are supported by research-based findings.

As a developer of an app, program or device you may not be focused on helping people change habits directly. However, the long-term success of your project may rest entirely on your ability to make your product sticky: irresistible to users who include its use as one of their regular habits. In this context, a habit is defined as an activity undertaken with little motivation or conscious thought that takes place in response to a cue or trigger event. Furthermore, it’s one that responds to positive reinforcement… but only moderately, according to this study.

The authors go a bit further in the section at the end titled “Design Guidelines for Habit Formation Apps.” They add that triggers and cues are not equivalent to electronic reminders based on the clock. The former are based on events that take place in the real world, such as a meal-time. They don’t require the presence of technology.

Therefore, as a designer, if you want your users to use your app at the start of the day, you are better off in the long-term by tying it into an activity they already do (e.g. breakfast) rather than a timed reminder (e.g. an email at 8:00 AM.)

That’s not to say that the email reminder won’t work at all. It does… in the short-term. However, developers who rely on timed reminders are likely to see them interfere with the development of long-term habits. That’s bad news.

It’s far better to teach users to set “implementation intentions”: actions based on selected trigger events, such as “I will use app X right after breakfast.” It doesn’t hurt to add in a reminder email around the same time, but it should not prompt the user to “Use app X.” Instead, it should remind them of their implementation intention: “Remember to use app X right after breakfast.” In this context, the email reminder is only an aid, not a substitute.

Furthermore, habit building based on electronic reminders requires the presence of a device which is producing visual, audible or haptic notifications. If it happens to be located in the other room,the notification can be missed altogether.

Also, most people receive a tsunami of notifications which causes them to ignore them all. It’s a problem we are tackling at 2Time Labs here and here.

The researchers also note that many app developers are fond of encouraging users to track “streaks” designed along the lines of the “Seinfeld Strategy.” This tactic involves keeping track of how many days a single activity is continued without an interruption. The study shows that 77% of the habit formation apps included task tracking to encourage streaks, but point out that this technique isn’t effective for creating long-term habits.

These are subtle points, but if you are designer or developer, you can use them to direct your attention toward strategies that are proven to work. Bottom line – they can make the difference between an app that goes viral versus another one of the many which languish in the Apple or Android app stores.

If you find value from this kind of insight, take a moment to join my mailing list for Productivity Developers by visiting There’s more content available and under development that may be helpful to you as a time-based productivity app designer.

Podcast – an Interview with Val and Jayne – Time Management Experts from Pink Shoe Power

Val-Jayne-Red180x150In this interview with Val McDougall and Jayne Jennings of and Pink Shoe Power, we explored the degree to which the work we do overlaps. We all strongly believe that one size doesn’t fit all and that we need to provide a way for learners to improve their skills, even as they find their own way.


You can also download the podcast from this link.

I hope you enjoy the broadcast, which lasts a little under an hour.



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?

Never Trust Your Time Management System!

I read an interesting post over at the GTD Help blog, and come up with some different conclusions that are perhaps directly opposed to those in the post below.

Here is the link to the post from the GTD Help blog


Do you REALLY trust your system?As I continue to grow in my use of GTD®, I’m discovering just how important the trust factor with your system can be.  David Allen says that you need to really trust your system for it to work.  You can say you trust it all you want, but that’s irrelevant.  When it comes down to it, a trusted system works and a semi-trusted system doesn’t.

So what does it mean to really trust your system?  I have a few thoughts.

Trust it like a Christian should trust God
You may or may not believe in God, but the point still works.  Andy Stanley gave a great analogy for how a Christian should trust in God.  He held up the stool he was sitting on and said to trust in it.  To trust in the stool means to sit ON it.  Not on the edge.  Not with your feet on the ground a little bit.  On it with your full weight.  You might be nervous at first, but over time you’ll learn to trust the stool completely.

Trust it like you should trust your spouse
If you’ve been married, you can understand this.  Saying you trust your spouse is one thing.  Really trusting your spouse is another.  For a marriage to really work, you need to completely trust in your spouse.

GTD is the same way
If you don’t really trust the system, then you can never have a “mind like water”.  I’ve found that as I’ve learned the system works and I can trust it, anything I put into it is instantly out of my head.  Getting the junk out of your head is the key to focusing on the task at hand, and GTD is a great way to get it done.  Whether you use software, a website, your PDA or just pen and paper, make sure you use a system that you can trust completely.


Here are my thoughts…

1. Distrust Your System!!!

A time management system should never be trusted to produce the same results over time.  Many things change — technology advances from year to year, people undergo life changes such as promotions, having children, getting married etc.  The time management system you developed and used last year might not work this year given a change in jobs.

We need to be vigilant for the times when our systems need to be overhauled, and always be on the lookout for upgrade possibilities.  (If you have ever met someone who designed a time management system in the 1950’s and is still using it, you’ll understand what I mean.)

2.  Make Sure It’s a System You Can Upgrade

I’d say it’s better to make sure that your system has an upgrade path, otherwise be prepared to be stuck in something like Windows 95.  Thankfully, Microsoft tries (and sometimes succeeds) in putting out good upgrades, and it would be weird for them to announce that they have perfected Windows, and as a result no further upgrades will be required.

If your time management system cannot be upgraded, then you have a real problem.

3.  Understand that Your System is Fallible

While the idea of everyone following the same system in the same way is attractive to some, I imagine that most people aren’t interested in trusting any particular system to the point where they believe that it can’t be improved, or is somehow without shortcomings.

The fact is, time management systems are human creations that were invented to fulfill human needs that only exist in this world.  According to Einstein, time doesn’t even exist as an absolute phenomena, much less the systems that we put together made up of habits, practices and rituals in order to try to manage it.

(Turns out, we can’t really even do that…  See my post on the reasons why “time management” is a misnomer.)

A car is also a man-made system and its performance has little to do with how much we trust, or semi-trust it.

Time management systems are no different.

In a nutshell, it’s a vain person who thinks that his/her time management system is perfect.


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.

The Idea I’m Really Excited By – A Smorgasbord!

What the survey I conducted confirmed for me is a hunch I have had that people need a lot more help in implementing their time management improvements.

Only 5% said No to the question: “If you had the right support system, could you make any change you wanted to your time management system?”

Along with the other survey results I shared earlier, it’s clear to me that people are disheartened at their inability to implement the good ideas they find on their own, or learn in training courses.

What people are looking for is a way to take even the most innocuous tip that they find, and reliably put it into play in their lives.  While the tip/idea might have some merit, it’s only those who are able to test them with actual implementation that are likely to be satisfied.

An important part of a good support system would be one that tells them the truth about the size of the challenge they have undertaken. It would radically increase the odds that they could accomplish their goal.

Also, one of the other findings from the survey is that people are more interested in upgrades, than in entirely new systems.

54% said that their systems were in need of continuous improvement, and 20% said that they were interested in  small improvements.  Furthermore, only 16% said that they were not interested in upgrading their time management system at this point in time.

It made me think that people want a way to preserve the progress they have made with their current time management systems, without a need to throw away the practices and habits they are using.  In other words, they don’t want to hear that their current system is crap, and that they need to chuck it all away in order to make an improvement.

This implies that they need a way to understand their current system, to see where it’s working and where it’s not, so that they can make the upgrades that they want.

This is a big one for me.

You may have noticed a change in my thinking on this blog, as reflected in the language I use to describe what Time Management 2.0 is all about.  In my older posts, I wrote a lot about “creating a time management system.”

Built into my first posts was an assumption that has become more important — knowing your current skill level (i.e. your current belt level) is critical to creating a new system.

What I have made much more obvious is the fact that no-one is starting from scratch, or from zero, so it’s more accurate to use the word “upgrade” than “create.”

This small difference has gotten a lot of positive feedback, as I believe that most people are interested in improving their time management systems, and don’t want to be locked into any one system or another.  Instead they want the freedom to sample different approaches, and choose what they like from each.

A smorgasbord.

This is the very opposite of those who insist that following time management system “XYZ” means marching in a military-like lock-step to its prescribed practices.  They insist that it’s adherents must learn to execute each and every step exactly as it’s designed, following the prescription down to the last letter.

I’m sure that this approach works for some people…

I suspect that most people are interested in getting to the point where they make up their own minds, rather than simply following another person’s opinions.

This is how I read the data that I collected in the survey — am I reading too much into it?

Upgrade, Don’t Replace Your Time Management System

In the past week, I had a revelation that’s led me to abandon the idea that people could create and implement their own time management systems.

Now, it’s clear to me that the word “create” is a poor one to use, simply because no one creates a time management system from scratch (except teenagers).

Instead,  we all have time management systems that have worked for us to a point, and then failed because of some change in our environment.

For example, I just read a tongue-in-cheek article claiming that people who don’t have kids have no reason to lack time for anything.

Obviously, the author feels that having kids  is major life change that introduces a slew of new time demands, often resulting in feelings of being overwhelmed.

It may feel to overburdened parents as if there is absolutely no time management taking place, but that’s actually not the case. It’s more accurate to say that their system is being overtaken by the reality of having a newborn.

If that’s the case, then we make a terrible mistake by trying to learn a new time management system as if nothing already exists. We might be unaware of our system, but that doesn’t mean that nothing is in place.

Conducting an upgrade to a house is a very different activity from building a new house from the ground up.  A critical new activity comes into play — surveying what currently exists in order to gain an in-depth understanding of how we must work with it, work around it, and use it.

To make anything better, it’s critical to understand what currently exists. This is a basic principle of continuous improvement that seems to be obscured by almost all the time management approaches that I’ve ever seen.

This leads me to think that the vast majority can only upgrade their time management systems, and that only a few people have the discipline (and luck) to be able to replace an already existing system with another.

It just seems as if it’s too tall a change to ask most people to make — and a possible recipe for failure.


Brilliance in Systems Thinking

samcarpenter_186x305.jpgAs I mentioned in the prior post, I have just finished reading Sam Carpenter’s book — Work the System.

I am a bit in awe of what he’s written, and the fact that he’s written it as a business-owner, rather than a management theorist.

What has really got me excited, however, is that he perfectly echoes, in general terms, the essence of the 2Time approach.

It’s a bit uncanny, really, but if you are a reader of this blog, I invite you to draw your own conclusions about the general principles he has derived, and the ones I describe here on the blog.

He says, for example:

Here is the system-improvement concept in a nutshell:  For a given primary system, in order to ensure that the desired result occurs over and over again, the task is to adjust that primary system’s subsystems so the correct components are being used and they are sequenced properly.

In essence, this is the 2Time approach to Time Management stated a bit differently.  I discovered, to my astonishment, that I have basically followed the same steps he lays out in the book:

1. define the systems and subsystems (i.e. time management and it’s 11 inescapable fundamentals)

2. examine the subsystems, and analyze their components one by one, looking for opportunities for improvement(i.e. focus on building new habits one at a time)

3. make the system improvements, moving each system to peak efficiency.  Document the new procedures (i.e. in the system of Belts moving from white to green.)

Anyone who is familiar with Michael Gerber’s book, The eMyth, will recognize that his ground-breaking book says very similar things from a slightly different perspective, and without contradiction.

Carpenter spends a great deal of time in the book sharing his own experience of  trying to manage a company using the “Whack a Mole” approach to fighting fires on a daily basis. It was debilitating, addictive and ultimately un-sustainable until he had a moment of satori – enlightenment – and saw that his business was one large system that was being poorly managed.  The way to escape the rat race that was killing him was to work on the subsystems.

He argues against the kind of wishy-washy thinking that the focus away from solid, tangible mechanics, and urges company-owners to look for the tangible processes that are falling apart in front of their eyes, while they have been chasing after the fallout.

The problem with a lack of systems thinking is that when bad things happen, we chase after the results to try to correct them, without being able to see the causes correctly.

In a way, this is what people struggle with in their time management, also.

There is stress in their lives, broken promises and forgotten commitments, and they don’t know why.   They place the problem in the wrong mental category, thinking it has something to do with the kids, their own tendency to procrastinate, their ethnicity, the demands of their job, their need for a vacation, etc.

When the factor that they think is the cause changes either by luck or design, they are stunned to find out that peace of mind doesn’t come as they thought it should.

All that’s happened is that they don’t understand how time management systems work… how they ALL work, and that there’s certain inescapable, common design that they must follow in order to function.

Carpenter says virtually the same thing about companies, but he doesn’t go as far as Gerber or I do in suggesting what the subsystems are.

Not a problem, because the book is a compelling autobiography that makes it seem easy to make the journey he has made. He encourages business-owners to figure out their own sub-systems, launch their own improvement programs, come up with their own foundation documents and develop their own language to keep it all together.

At the most, this book is a brilliant business-book that every business owner should read, right before Gerber’s.

At the very least, it has helped me to see my own learning curve, from my degrees in operations research, through Peter Senge, via Michael Gerber and to this point where he echoes the underlying logic of 2Time.

What is clear is that he is elevating systems thinking and acting to a discipline in and of itself, and this is one of the book’s major contributions.  He has made a powerful addition to the work Peter Senge did in the 1990’s to bring “systems thinking”to the fore in his book The Fifth Discipline.

I recommend it wholeheartedly.  Download Work the System here.

Covey’s FTF vs. Allen’s GTD

istock_000003307226xsmall.jpgArticles like this one are interesting in their attempts to compare one time management system versus another.

But if you read carefully, you’ll probably find yourself liking a few things from each, and willing to discard some different things from each.

The only reasonable response, it seems to me, is to  create one’s own approach that uses the best that one can find from all sources.



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.

Another Custom-Built Time Management System

Here is a link to a post in which a user describes a time management system that she created for herself: My “GTD®” Hacks

While I don’t know enough about her system to say much about it, she makes the point very clearly that this works for her at the present moment, and gives her the degree of peace of mind and productivity that she wants.

While her needs are likely to change in the future, and her paper-based system may prove to be too bulky,)  the point is that it fits the purpose she’s trying to accomplish now.

One innovation that she uses is a 24 hour calendar, and apparently she’s doing some pre-planning for each upcoming day based on her mid-term goals.

She’s done some good thinking to come up with a great example of Time Management 2.0.


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.