My Blackberry Update #1

Background: As you may know, I spent months describing all the ways in which I observed a relatively new phenomena – smartphone abuse.  I then embarked on a process to choose one for myself in a way that I hoped would enhance my productivity, rather than turn me into an habitual drive-and-text offender.  I have used one for the past few months, and am ready to give some updates on what’s happened to my “precious” productivity!

As I noted in a prior post: “Productive Notifications on Your Blackberry,” it’s amazing to me that Blackberry (BB’s)s are shipped with so many notifications turned on.  I noticed a rumor somewhere that RIM is now shipping them with the notifications turned “off.”  This is progress!

The biggest change I have noticed in my own productivity is the way that I manage the flow of emailed time demands.

Before:  I used to manage all incoming email from my Outlook Inbox.

After:  I now manage all messages from the BB Inbox, which is continuously synched with with my Outlook Inbox.  I use the BB to do a form of triage in which I delete stuff I don’t want immediately (i.e. Tossing) and allow some items to flow into my Outlook Inbox for immediate processing when I return to my desktop environment.

By the time the message gets to Outlook, I have already decided what to do with it — dealing with it there is a matter of convenience as the small screen of the BB makes it hard to do things like read downloads, process pics, etc.

I was able to find a powerful BB app called “AddThis” that allows you to immediately convert an email message into an item in a calendar.  Using Google Calendar to synch my calendars in Outlook and BB has meant that I can change my calendar on the road and have it also change on my desktop.

Sweet!  (Even though it’d not quite working perfectly yet.)

These changes represent major shifts in my time management process, and I have tried to be careful in making them because the benefits are now more obvious.

Being able to check email without having to fire up my laptop, and assure an Internet connection has been a tremendous benefit.  Lately, my DSL line has been spotty (ever since a painter came in to do some decorating work.)  Having consistent access to email has been useful, and being able to fill the odd spot here and there when I’m on the road or far from an Internet connection has allowed me greater choices.

Have I been tempted to do indulge in the dangerous, rude, unhygienic and unproductive behaviors that I have written so much about?  Absolutely.

However, the benefit of knowing about them in advance has certainly helped in stopping myself from doing them.  I find that I have to be very awake and aware at those moments when I feel the “Blackberry Itch” and take a short breath to ask myself whether or not this is a good moment to check for new messages.

For example, in the last paragraph, I wondered if an interesting prospect who contacted me yesterday has replied to my pithy response.  I felt the Itch coming on… I could have stopped myself from writing in mid-sentence to check… breaking my flow state.

But, I noticed it and let it pass, as I have at other times when someone is talking to me, I’m in a meeting, I’m driving someplace or I’m in the shower!  (BTW, there’s a special water-proof bag they are selling for those who can’t wait…)

All in all I can make the following judgment: as a “time demand management device” my BB upgrade has been a successful one, and I’m yet to play my first game. This might be due to the fact that I have used up all the memory on other essential apps, so there might not be any games on my BB until I effect an upgrade.  There is something to be said for keeping it lean and mean!

Understanding Emptying – The Story

typewriter.jpgFor some time, I have played around with two ideas.

One is I to teach the 2Time principles in the form of a story (or stories) rather than a set of abstract theories and principles, such as the ones I have used in this blog.  The first business book I ever read written in this format was “The Goal” by Eli Goldratt in 1989 or so, and its impact on me as a young professional was profound.

The other idea that I have had is that I should write a book as a way of reading a wider audience.

Putting the two ideas together yields the obvious — a book on Time Management 2.0 principles that describes one person’s journey as they learn the 11 fundamentals, the latest habit changing technologies and some of the basics of the approach I lay out in the MyTimeDesign and NewHabits-NewGoals programs.

I decided to spend some time drafting a single chapter, to see what the results would be like.  As a result, the first draft here online, with the hope that I’ll learn that if I’m making a huge mistake that I might find out earlier than later!

The truth is, I learned a lot from writing this chapter on Emptying.

In it, I tried to chronicle the process I went through as I learned this fundamental practice that is probably the most difficult one to master out of the 11 practices described in the 2Time approach.

At the end, I discovered that it revealed a few aspects of Emptying that I doubt that I would have discovered if I hadn’t tried to use this approach.

The chapter is still in need of a good editor, but I’d like to hear what readers are able to learn from reading it, even in its current form.Click here to access the chapter:

Emptying Chapter(v4)


Solving the Paper Problem

20070227overload.jpgThere are a number of ways that time demands can enter a user’s time management system, but those that enter on hard copy, or paper, are probably the most annoying for professionals.

Some people’s offices are visual testimonies to the fact that they have a problem.

Piles of magazines, letters, bills and memos lay in piles on any available horizontal surface, creating a clutter that is overwhelming to the occasional visitor.  In 2Time language, the problem might be one of Storing or Tossing, and the solution might involve the use of scanners, secretaries and dumpsters.

In most cases, however,  the piles are a symptom of an underlying problem of Emptying.

Emptying involves more than just the “cleaning out” of different capture points.   Instead, it also includes, perhaps, the most difficult practice to master in a user’s time management system — the point at which they must make a definitive decision about how best to handle a time demand.

To Empty well, a user must make time and space in their day to route each and every time demand to its proper destination in their system, and in many cases the decision is not a simple one.  Sometimes, a decision cannot be made in the moment because it involves other people.  In other cases, it requires research or deeper thinking.

When the time demand presents itself on paper, a different problem arises.  Paper is difficult to work with because of its sheer physicality.

It takes up space, and unless it is sorted and filed away, the information that is on paper in all the different forms mentioned before is likely to be hidden between the pages.  As a result, the information is difficult to find, plus time-consuming to recover.

Each piece of paper in a pile on a desk, on the ground, in a book, on a bill, etc. represents a small decision by the user to “attend to this later.”  By making this decision, a user creates a time demand that essentially consumes a small piece of their future schedule.

At first, walking into an office with lots of paper in piles feel overwhelming, but many users train themselves to be immune to that feeling — they become numb.

Their productivity suffers  as their peace of mind dwindles.

Some believe that the solution lies in refusing to accept paper into their lives, but I think that this is a bit of a red herring.

So are other strategies like buying a filing cabinet, scanner or hiring a personal assistant.

Instead, the solution lies is becoming better at Emptying, perhaps by improving a Belt Level, and elevating the act of Emptying to a place of importance in a daily schedule.

Users that grant themselves time and space to make high quality decisions about paper that enters their lives simply don’t have the problem that paper causes most of us.

Downloading Email — Caution!

email-icon.jpgA critical strategy in achieving the goal of a Zero-Inbox is to gain control over the flow of email into one’s Inbox.  This is accomplished by turning off the auto download feature, and scheduling times in the day to review email.

That makes sense.

But when should a user decide to download his/her email?  Should it happen when the Inbox is empty?  Or should it happen before?

From my experience, what I have noticed is that making the request to download email is a significant act to take.  That insignificant-looking click leads to a number of things happening very quickly, that leads me to think that it should only be taken when the time management system is stable, if at all possible.

When the Send/Receive button is clicked, here is what happens.

Time demands from all over one’s life come tumbling into one’s consciousness.  Right alongside the junk mail is a message from the friend who is undergoing chemo, the request for early payment on the invoice, a bill from your credit card company, an interesting newsletter, a request for information you think you already sent and your itinerary for your next business trip that contains two errors that need to be fixed before you fly out tomorrow.

Downloading email is like going to a meeting and passing around a blank sheet of paper, asking people to write down stuff for you to do once the meeting is over. It is an action that is essentially a request for new time demands.

One thing we learned from grade school is that it’s  a good idea to finish what you are doing before starting anything new.  In other words, while it may be impossible to complete all time demands residing on your lists and on your calendar before downloading email, it is possible to delay the download until your time management system is in a “steady state.”

What does a “steady state” mean?

This is that very temporary state in which all your time demands have been processed and placed exactly where you want them.  Some are on lists.  Others are in schedules. A few have been tossed.  Several have been stored.

The point here is that none of them is sitting around in place it shouldn’t be — namely, in one of your capture points, waiting to be emptied.

It’s a mistake to put more items in your capture points while it still has items to be processed. While new email is convenient to download, and only a click away, it has the potential to disrupt a user’s peace of mind with each click when their time management system simply isn’t ready to receive the email.

The next thing that happens depends on us.  Before requesting the download, do we set enough time aside to process each of the time demands?  (This isn’t the same as completing them.)

Peace of mind comes when time is set aside after the act of downloading to process each item, in the practice of what is called “Emptying” in 2Time.

When a user decides to download email, for example, just before leaving the office, they possibly deal their peace of mind a  blow.  The act of pulling down new time demands throws their time management system off-kilter by placing new items in their Inbox,  and their decision to leave it with items sitting and waiting to be emptied could get them in trouble.

The result is that their mind is likely to be thinking about the email they received later that evening, when they either cannot or should not be doing anything about it.

It’s important in the goal of maintaining a Zero-Inbox to see the act of downloading as inseparable from the next step of processing each and every item, and returning the Inbox to zero. The user starts with it empty, and after the sequence is complete, they return it to the null state.

If this sounds like “batch-processing” then it should, because that is exactly what it is.

Our minds, we learn from the experts, are quite weak at switching from one task to another if both require deep thought.  The flow state that is needed takes some 15-20 minutes to enter after a disruption or switch.

The habit of jumping from one task to another in order to check email, answer the cell phone and reply to an instant message destroys peace of mind and wreaks havoc with our productivity.  In other words, it’s far better for us to set aside time that is dedicated to not just reading email, but processing each time demand until the Inbox is empty.

The fact is, the process of emptying an Inbox is one that requires devoted, concentration effort.  The act of “Emptying” is a practice that many users execute poorly, leading to Inboxes that are overflowing and increasingly burdensome.

A user must appreciate that their peace of mind and productivity is deeply affected by the state of their time management system, and that their habits are the key to making sure it’s being run well.


How I Do My Emptying

emptying-checklist.jpgI have been looking at the way in which I have been doing the practice of Emptying more closely, and I am still convinced that it’s one of the most difficult practices. (For details on the practice of Emptying, see the list of Categories at the left, and click on — “Emptying.”)

It’s a big hump I encountered once I started capturing with a frenzy.

Over the years, I have changed my approach in order to try to empty more frequently and more smoothly.

I started out Emptying whenever I felt like it. The result was predictable: pages and pages of items that were filling up my capture pad, email inboxes that would extend for several screens…. I saw Emptying as a painful practice that I would put off as long as I could.

And no, these thoughts haven’t changed a whole lot as I still have these feelings from time to time.

What I have been able to do, however, is to become much better at emptying frequently. I think that what’s happened is that I have learned that the pain of not emptying is FAR greater than any feelings of drudgery.

I have found that when I don’t empty well, I end up in fear that someplace in my captured time demands, there is something important that is buried someplace between the other non-important stuff. Of course, there are consequences for not dealing with it that I suffer, at which point I kick myself for not emptying sooner.

This all sounds like common-sense but I assure you this habit has been one that has changed VERY slowly for me.

Beyond the drudgery, however, there is a greater fear. Emptying involves confronting a certain reality with decision that we must make in the moment.

David Allen of GTD® fame talks about making a choice to Do/ Delegate / Defer. These are just some of the choices that one must make at that critical moment in time when we, and we alone, must make a call about what to do next when: — we get an email from a friend telling us that they want to “talk over their problems”
— a voicemail advises us that our cousin wants to borrow some (more) money
— that question we asked our S.O. still has not been answered by them
— the instructions from the guy in tech support are impossible to figure out

These are just example of what makes Emptying difficult — it involves making hard decisions about what to do next, and often that includes confronting our fears, doubts, upsets and anxiety. This is really what makes Emptying difficult… not the drudgery, but all the feelings that we have about our friend, our cousin, our S.O and the guy in tech support that we must deal with in order to figure out what action to take next.

Having determined the “truth” about Emptying, and what makes it tough, it has actually become easier to do.

As I mentioned, I used to empty whenever I felt like it, which resulted in major backlogs in my capture points.

Then I changed my timing and decided that to do it as the first thing in the morning. This was an improvement, as I was now regularly
emptying on a schedule, as opposed to doing it whenever I felt like it.

In the past couple of years or so, I have changed that practice, mostly in response to my growing commitment to leave my mornings closed to
everything but exercise and my most creative work. I happen to be a morning person, and a triathlete, so this fits in well with my already existing habits. As a result, I decided to schedule my emptying in the afternoon, as a part of scheduling the next three days.

I started off by emptying in the late afternoon as the last act I would take before ending work in the office. I soon learned that
it wouldn’t work — I happen to love my work, and I often work until I literally am falling asleep at the keyboard… the keyboard and
computer are my paintbrush and canvas…

So, I changed the timing of the practice to take place at 4:00pm each day, and at that point I empty out all my different capture points.

This has been working much better for me so far.

Based on the belt system that I have developed, I have determined that I am at a Green Belt level, but only at a grade of 2 out of 3. I think that there is a higher level of green belt for me to attain, in other words. At that level, a I would be much more reliable at emptying than I currently am, and rarely ever miss a 4:00 pm session of emptying and next-day planning, except in the case of emergencies.

I am still looking to try to understand how a Black Belt would operate, given that their specific expertise is working with people who don’t use the fundamentals. How would a Black Belt work with someone who never empties? I had a colleague once who kept notebook upon notebook of copious notes. He appeared to be always in the process of writing his memoirs (while in his 30’s.)

The problem was that the he never, ever emptied, and items would be placed in the notebook but rarely ever leave the page. I could not work with that, and found it irritating, definitely not demonstrating the Zen-like state of peaceful calm that I imagine a black Belt to have! A Black Belt would know how to work with someone like that, it’s just that I cannot recall ever meeting anyone with that level of skill in this discipline.

Please, let me know if you have any suggestions — I am open to hearing them.

Replying to Every Email

I can’t quite recall where I read this suggestion, but I have been trying it out and it seems to work.

It’s very simple – for every important piece of email, send a reply, even a short one, to say one of the following messages:

  1. Thanks
  2. It’s received and will be acted on and here’s the promised due date
  3. To ask a question

I think that this is a great suggestion, and the idea is to delete the email once a reply has been sent. I’m experimenting with this approach to see what comes of it, once again with the goal of achieving a Zero Inbox.

Email: A Different Animal

inbox-email.jpgEmail is a problem for everyone who is concerned with being productive. It is a new medium and there is virtually no-one with 20 years of email experience.

Only recently have best practices begun to be developed for this difficult source of information. In the absence of these best practices, users end up with in-boxes of thousands of emails, not knowing what to do about this problem that only increases with each passing month.

Here are the current best practices:

  • Keep an empty in-box by processing every item
  • Allow email to come into the in-box only at specific, planned times of day
  • When faced with hundreds or thousands of backlogged email, copy them from the in-box to another folder and start with a fresh in-box
  • Touch email only once

These are fine principles, and I happen to follow them as much as I can each day. It is better, however, to also understand why the in-box is such a problem.

The problem can be understood at the level of the fundamentals, rather than just as a matter of practices. A decision to accept incoming items into an in-box is an open invitation to receive everything from spam, to pictures, music, requests, replies, FYI’s — and confusing mixes of all the above and more. Unfortunately, they don’t come tagged as such. Instead, they are unclear and sometimes intentionally misleading in terms of their time demand on the recipient.

The first few moments after receiving an email and reading it are spent deciding what the next action should be. In other words, a massive Emptying action has begun (to use the 2Time terms). This is the point at which I find myself getting stuck.

Some are easy – they are immediately deleted. Others contain important information which must be stripped from the email and stored in a safe place for future retrieval.
These are the easy emails to deal with. In terms of the 2Time fundamentals, the first are Tossed while the second are Stored and Tossed.

The vast majority of email, however, is more complex. Some represent actions that need to be immediately Listed or Scheduled. The most troublesome present dilemmas – the next action is not immediately apparent and requires some thought.

And here is the decision that kills most people: emails that are important but need further thought are left in the in-box, “so they don’t get forgotten”. This is not a problem when there are 1-2 such emails per day. However, increase that number to 10 emails per day requiring a few days of thought each, and in no time chaos ensues.

That initial, innocent practice ends up drowning the user who has no idea how to change course. The result is one we can all recognize in other people. There are some professionals who are simply incapable of responding to all their email. More often than not, important things fall through the cracks. They are not ill-intentioned… it’s just that their habits are ill-suited for the volume of time demands coming at them via email.

The solution is an upgrade of several practices, and then implementation of Warning and Reviewing practices to prevent breakdowns and to help evolve the system continuously.
Also, the following practices must be upgraded:

  • Listing – a folder or category must be created to be able to store all items that are under consideration (a Thinking About List) and items that are awaiting further action or information by others (a Waiting For List).
  • Scheduling – for these lists to work, however, they are best accompanied by scheduled times at which these lists are processed. Furthermore, these scheduled need to have alarms to ensure that they are indeed processed.

Also, items that require dedicated thinking or meeting time should be scheduled in the calendar immediately. For example:

Tuesday, October 23rd from 2:00 – 2:30 p.m. – Decide on how to respond to email from Mark.

In this way, it is much easier to accomplish the empty in-box. Several habits may have to be upgraded at the same time in order to get to that point, but these upgrades must happen all together for the objective of an empty in-box to be achieved. Once achieved, the higher belt users never allow their in-boxes to hold more than a screenful of items at a time, and they learn to empty it as soon as they can each day.

The essential habit to be broken is one that was learned in childhood – to remember to do stuff, I need to put it where I can see it. In other words, we learn to use the physical presence as a reminder.

Again, this isn’t a problem when the number of items is small. As the number grows, it becomes an impossible practice to maintain, leading to cluttered room, desk and in-box.
Using the practices of Listing and Scheduling are ways to reliably deal with large numbers of time demands – in fact, they are the only ways.

Zero Email Inbox

This is a great presentation by the author of 43 folders on maintaining an “Inbox of Zero”:


Component/Fundamental #2 – Emptying v2

Emptying is the activity that logically follows Capturing.


Emptying involves removing items one at a time from the points of capture and placing them within one of the other components of the time management system. This action frees up the point of capture to receive new items.

Whereas Capturing involves a split-second activity and is truly a habit that can be practiced until it becomes automatic, Emptying is an action that takes careful consideration as it acts as the primary gateway into the rest of the time management system. Emptying is a transfer step, the connection between the items in the points of capture (e.g. an in-box of paper items, a voice-mail system, a paper notepad, etc.) and subsequent components in a time management system (e.g. Tossing, Scheduling, Acting Now, etc.). Continue reading “Component/Fundamental #2 – Emptying v2”