Getting Over Productivity App and Tech Overload

2Time Labs MyTimeeDesign App Tech Overload

Another holiday season has come and gone, and the latest electronic gadgets have found their way into our hands, briefcases and pocketbooks. Most offer a blend of useful functions and obvious distractions; still, most of us don’t know the net impact they’ll have on our personal productivity in 2013.

Sure, they do allow us to do some new things in exotic places and situations. We now watch TV while mowing the lawn. The bathroom has become an extension of the office as we multitask. Now, when you try to hold a conversation with me, I pretend to listen as I check out the latest score in the fourth quarter of the Giants’ game.

These are worthy gains for some who marvel at mankind’s capacity to generate amazing technology. The rest of us? We might join in saying – “I’m more productive because I can talk to the accounting department in the middle of flight AA993.” But when everyone clutters the cabin with conversation, we wistfully wish for the good old gadget-free days.

I suggest a new standard: don’t consider a productivity gain to be genuine if everyone else can replicate it with the simple purchase of a gadget. Real productivity gains come from lasting changes in habits, practices and rituals.

Is that a true standard? Consider the following observations. Do we, as professionals, make these mistakes? Can we choose not to?

Mistake 1. We buy a new gadget and then proceed to fashion our habits around it.
The cart travels long before the horse; instead of using products to fix known flaws in our habits, we get things backward. It’s as if we can’t help ourselves. Witness the worst offense – texting while driving. No one at RIM, Apple or Nokia ever imagined that dangerous habits and new laws would arise from the use of their devices. They were simply engineers trying to put out good products to meet people’s needs. We are the ones who blindly applied their smartphones in addictive, dangerous ways and justified our new habits as “time-savers.”

Mistake 2. We buy gadgets for convenience, not productivity.
As our lives move faster and we’re blinded by flashy new ads , we forget the difference: convenience is doing the same old thing in a new and different place; productivity is doing it better. We fool ourselves into thinking that we are engaging in some sort of modern-day kaizen, just because the location of an activity is new. The “improvement” requires no real work on our part, only a few dollars spent. Here’s a tip: when we rush to get the latest purchase in order to stay ahead of the Joneses, we aren’t really concerned about productivity.

Mistake 3. We have stopped analyzing our true needs.
Most companies are smart enough to know that a needs-analysis always comes before the purchase of major software or hardware. They establish committees to prevent solo executives from running off to spend millions of dollars based on a single, slick PowerPoint presentation. Unfortunately, we don’t apply that rigorous common sense in our lives. We see smartphones the way we see cars: it’s nice to have the latest model, but we really need to conduct a personal needs-analysis to determine whether or not an upgrade is truly required (or even a downgrade). Only afterwards should we go looking for a solution.

Mistake 4. We aren’t aware that new devices added to our personal productivity systems can mean dramatic gains AND losses at the same time.
For example, the smartphone revolution means that our email access travels with us. That’s a gain. But what about tweeting in the middle of every church service we attend for the rest of our lives? Without a needs analysis, we are unaware of these trade-offs.

Mistake 5. We overestimate our willpower.
Think back to when you bought your first smartphone. You remember others interrupting your meetings to answer every buzz, beep, ring, vibration and flashing light. You swore you wouldn’t ever do the same. Now, look at you. Some executives have been forced to swap their smartphones for plain cell-phones in order to break bad habits. A few companies have banned mobile devices from board meetings because their high-powered advisers lack self-control. Imagine multi-million dollar decisions being interrupted by a friend’s Facebook update.

These choices ARE important, and maybe adopting the new standard I suggest would help us focus on real productivity gains rather than the latest advertising.

Recently, I translated the contents of the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi into a scaled set of individual skills in order to deepen my practice of this important concept. You can do the same by finding the best personal productivity practices and evaluating your skills against them. Then, do a personal needs-analysis to discover what combination of habit changes and technology improvements can help to fill the gaps. Be aware, however, that repeating this exercise every six months or so may make you do some strange things (like downgrade your smartphone, disable half the functions on your iPad, or delete programs from your laptop.)

The point is to take charge of the continued evolution of your personal productivity system, treating it as the nerve center for every dollar you make, every conversation you have, and every decision that you execute. Maybe it’s that important.

P.S. An article in the Wall Street Journal by Sue Schellenbarger – How Productivity Tools Can Waste Your Time –  prompted me to post this article. It’s been in hibernation since the end of 2012, a bit longer than I intended.


How to Decide – Will a Tablet Help or Hurt My Productivity?

8137908684_df848e3622_cRecently I submitted an article I hope will be published by the Harvard Business Review blog having to do with performing an analysis of your productivity system before buying and trying to implement a new gadget.

I know… it sounds so blindingly obvious when I put it this way… analysis before purhase… except that most professionals have no idea how to do such an analysis even if they wanted to. For the vast majority, the thought doesn’t even cross their mind.

Manufacturers aren’t interested in doing more than putting out fancy advertisements with beautiful graphics, and getting people to line up outside their doors for the latest version with the coolest features. They only offer technical assistance on how to manipulate the device and access its doo-dahs.

They certainly don’t give a fig whether or not the damned thing actually helps you in the end or not. Not as long as you join the line for the latest upgrade at the appropriate time.

One of the blessings of my moving to live here in Jamaica might have been the need to adopt a “simpler” lifestyle. (Some would see that as a euphemism for what we call “broke-pocket.”) When I lived in the US, the latest gadget was literally five minutes away sitting on a shelf at Best Buy, waiting for me to arrive. Now, I don’t have that kind of access.

Here in the “developing world” one pays a 50% premium (due to import duties, extra shipping, higher security needs and high sales taxes) or waits for someone to bring a device down from the US at a reasonable price; which involves handling a number of tricky logistics.

Each option involves a waiting time… a cooling-off period. During this time, the effect of the envy, advertising or whatever else is driving the purchase wears off. In its place rises some well-placed doubts about the value of the purchase and its actual contribution to my productivity system.

For example, I went through a number of gyrations before buying my first smartphone. I took months to make a decision that takes others seconds, and I enjoyed asking the question – “Of what benefit is this… really?” I’m glad I did that, because when I do something stupid like answering the phone while driving on our infamous Junction Road, I am hyper-aware of the danger that I am putting myself and others in. (The truth is, I have scared/informed myself into picking up calls while driving in only the rarest of circumstances. I tell myself “I don’t care if Jesus Himself is calling…”)

Now, I’m feeling the itch to buy a shiny new tablet.

Oh sure, there is some gadget envy. My Mom just bought an iPad. The only reason I haven’t commandeered it (for experimental purposes of course) is that she’s away for a few months in Africa. Too hard to borrow it for a few hours.

Beyond these feelings is another one related to my productivity that I felt acutely, and its arisen because of a gap.

I use my calendar as my command center for all time demands, and I have two options at the moment to get into it: use my laptop – Outlook or Gcal – or use my smartphone. When I sat down at the desk this morning I felt the need to shuffle around my calendar for the day. Fifteen minutes later, I was finally able to start doing so.

Why? My laptop had to be rebooted. Both of my screens were useless while it updated whatever stuff it seems to like updating every single time it slows to a crawl. Thank you Microsoft. My smartphone screen is too small to see or do anything. (It’s a Blackberry 9700.) I doubt that a Samsung Galaxy screen would be big enough.

As I sat waiting, I started to feel the need for another screen, one that is instantly on that provides the kind of real estate that I need to get in and out of my calendar in a few minutes. In other words, I started to imagine, I need a tablet.

Well, that’s where my mind jumped and I have a few good reasons for doing so. Here’s a video of someone manipulating their iPad’s calendar in exactly the way I imagine.

Research shows that more screen space equates to greater productivity, a fact which I know from having two screens running at all times, not including my smartphone’s mini-screen.

There might be other solutions than a tablet, and I’m wiling to explore them, but once again I am back to where I was with my smartphone decision. I don’t have a single guideline to work with, other than “buy it and try it.” (Or, in my case, “wait until Mom returns from Africa and then borrow it and try it.”) Best Buy’s generous return policies meant that I could return it if I didn’t like it. It might come as news to some that here in the developing or Third world, that’s not an option.

But even if I bought/borrowed it, what the heck would I be using to evaluate its value to my productivity system? I suspect that I’d end up wanting to keep it for other reasons, like it’s effect on my friends, my ego, or the movies that I can watch while sitting on the beach… This productivity stuff would just be forgotten in a flood of cool graphics.

The fact is, I have nothing – not even a set of the most rudimentary tests to perform.

The gist of my proposed article to HBR is that we know how to make smart decisions around big corporate purchases like whether or not to use Oracle or Itanium servers. There is an established discipline for making such decisions.

However, when you hear that a company’s board has banned smartphones from its meetings you have to wonder. What sequence of stressful events led to that decision, and did it involve hilarious Pavlovian behavior?
“Put down that smartphone, Smith, we are trying to make a multi-million dollar decision here.”
“Give me a second, please, my next-door neighbor’s daughter just poked me, and I need to poke her back.”

How many of these incidents did it take for someone to “move a formal motion to prohibit smartphone use during board deliberations.” It’s remarkable that a supposedly time-saving device was inserted into the lives of the most powerful people in the company, whose productivity then became corrupted and disabled to the point where they could no longer make independent decisions.

I want to come up with something that helps me make this particular decision, before I buy one for lesser reasons or receive one as a gift: breaking the spell of not having one, and thinking about its value with some rigor. Once the spell is broken, I know from my smartphone acquisition that the device will fade into my system, and become invisible to me, even as it helps / hinders my productivity.

I notice that my mind jumps to what brand tablet I should consider, but that’s just too far down the chain of decisions to start. I need to be closer in time to the moment when I need to have instant, easy access to my calendar, and imagine myself reaching for… <fill in the blank> …in order to…<fill in the blank.>

Before the Palm was invented, Jeff Hawkins walked around with a block of wood in his pocket, pretending that his vision had been realized, and getting an idea of what he’d use it for, and when. That makes me think… not about blocks of wood, but starting to visualize what the perfect solution might be. For example, should it be a single-purpose device like my bottom of the scale Kindle, which is for reading books or listening to audio-books, and nothing else?

So, I need to go do some research on how to make productivity equipment decisions. After all, someone in this world must buy stuff like monster tractors. How do they decide what to buy? I imagine that the cost of making a mistake is enormous, so they might have figured out some decent critera, and a useful process.

I’d bet, however, that the same guy who buys those tractors is the one ahead of you in the line at the Apple Store, thirsting to get the latest i-whatever. After this article, you might be the only one to find it ironic.

P.S. If you know anything about buying monster tractors, let me know.






An Amazing Time Demand Tracker

An Amazing Time Demand Tracker… It doesn’t exist… so don’t go looking for it… but if it did, it would be a gadget used to track individual commitments.

Backing up a bit… A time demand is defined by 2Time Labs as an individual commitment to complete an action in the future. It’s a discrete, mental creation that disappears once the action is complete and is usually made up of a provisional action, duration and likely start time.

The problem is that time demands are hard to track. People who capture with high skill immediately record them in a safe place, such as a paper pad, smartphone or program like Evernote. From there, the time demand is acted upon in one of several ways once it’s emptied from the point of collection. It’s tossed away, acted on immediately, stored, scheduled or added to a list.

The challenge is that no-one (to my knowledge) has ever tried to track time demands. No tool exists to answer even basic questions such as:

– how many are created per day on average

– how long they sit in a capture point before being emptied

– how many end up being disposed in each of the different ways I listed above

The right kind of device would need a human interface due to the fact that time demands enter our lives in different ways, some of which are mental in nature e.g. during a dream.

There ARE studies, for example, of email flow, but this is too imprecise – some emails are filled with time demands while others require only one – “delete it immediately without even reading.” Too many time demands are simply made up in response to an arbitrary, unrecorded stimulus.

If this device existed, it would open up the doors to all kinds of research, and experimentation that could change the way we think of time management. Perhaps there is someone willing to invest?


Why You Need a Batphone…NOW!

If you have so many sources of interruptions, including phone calls, email messages, tweets and SMS’ that you don’t know what to manage and when, then you need a Batphone.

There’s a cool article on the TimeBack Management website on the reasons why we need a way to be contacted in a time of true crisis.  Most of us have trained ourselves to not answer every call, or process every email message upon arrival — to do otherwise is to turn oneself into a slave to incoming calls/messages — but we still need a way to be reached that cuts through whatever we are doing in the moment so that we can pick up the “Batphone.”

The article makes a larger point, which is that companies desperately need policies around communication an responsiveness that fit in with the smartphone age.

Here’s the article:  “What’s your BatPhone?”

Dezhi Wu on the Calendar Tools We Really Need #4

A major focus of Wu’s research as outlined in Temporal Structures in Individual Time Management: practices to enhance calendar tool design, is on the paucity of tools that exist to manage our schedules.

She decries the fact that electronic calendars do little more than mimic paper calendars, and offer little functionality in important areas.  She states: “the porting of the paper-based calendar to its electronic cousin, in our view, suffers from a lack of vision.  The electronic version is a replica of the paper version with… fast search capabilities.”

“Builders of electronic calendars could have examined how users think about and construct their schedules.  … they would have run into thinking about how to build tools that allow users to capture the more esoteric and complex temporal structures affecting their time coordination.”

She writes that the current tools offer no support for automatically changing scheduled activities.  For example, in planning software like Microsoft Project, a change in the final due date can automatically cause all the dependent tasks to shift their due dates in concert.  In Microsoft Outlook, no such capability exists.

Also, there is no way to download a project’s individual commitments into one’s calendar.  Instead of manually entering the tasks required to complete one’s taxes, an entire sequence of events could be downloaded that reliably produce the end-result, if followed.  It would allow us to see more clearly what happens when we commit to play a role on a new project, for example, and more realistically deal with the time it will consume.

She gives the example of airlines that allow passengers to download entire flights directly into their calendars.  A smart calendar would incorporate the time it take to get to the airport from the office, and block that time out also!

She also talks about the need for working groups to make their norms that require calendar space more explicit, such as the fact that that the group has a mandatory lunch discussion each Friday and a meeting with the Vice President every last Wednesday of the month.  New members could immediately download these structured commitment upon joining, and observe the impact on their overall schedules.

One of the major complaints from the most effective time managers is the fact that they have to do so much manual work to set up effective schedules that cover the temporal structures mentioned above.  An intelligent auto-scheduler would know to never set time aside for a trip to the grocery store at a time when it’s closed, for example, on a holiday.

Lastly, it should be easier to coordinate schedules.  A project manager should be able to “see” a view of a person’s calendar to determine whether key action items need to be changed in keeping with events happening in other calendars.

Wu mentions a particular intensity around these complaints, and I take that to mean that the opportunity for a significant product innovation exists.  Companies that make electronic scheduling tools could be producing much, much better products, a point that I make here at 2Time Labs.

She obviously has some insight into what an effective user-design might look like, and if game-changing software were to emerge, it would probably sweep into the lives of working professionals at an awesome pace.

Finding Software that Links Goals to Habits

I found an interesting program that connects goals with not only tasks, but the habits that need to change to make them happen.

On a consulting call with a client earlier today, she bemoaned the fact that managers were allowing strategic plans to fall through the cracks.  I described that fact that old habits executed daily aren’t enough to implement some new plans — they require new habits.  Unfortunately, they are often hard to learn.

Maybe this software could help:  Goals on Track.

N.B. Sorry about the incorrect link posted earlier.

An “Up” from Jawbone

An interesting post from the Fast Company website might be the beginning of some of the problems we have in measuring time management upgrades.

The product is a sensor that looks like a wristband, and can be used to track all sorts of movements that a user might conduct in the normal course of a day.  There might be no need to track your time usage manually each day, if it works as described, and you might be able to do the kind of real experiments that are needed to see whether or not a change in a single habit really helps, or just feels good.

The product is called “Up” and the company that makes it has a very cool name:  Jawbone.



A Manipulate-able Calendar

In earlier posts, I stepped into the future and imagined what it would be like to have a calendar that sat inside your watch, and projected a calendar in front of you in the form of a virtual touch-screen that you could manipulate at will.

It would require a skill that I define as an Orange Belt skill in scheduling:  changing or re-scheduling the segments in your calendar over and over again.

Well, here’s a calendar tool for the iPad that makes it a much easier task than I have ever seen.  It’s not a projector that sits in a wrist-watch, but moving around the segments in a schedule in this manner seems to be just as easy as I had imagined.

Here is the link to Muji Apps Calendar.  (Thanks to the alert reader who noticed that this was missing…!)

A Circular Schedule

This is something new.

Most of us think of schedules in linear terms, the way we think of calendars and diaries.  Along comes the Muji Chronotebook to change all that, with the first circular daily schedule I have ever seen.

It’s based on the face of a clock, and the 12 hours that it represents.  Each activity looks like a slice of a pie, and it seems deceptively easy to plan a full day using a layout that looks like the analog clocks that most of us older folk grew up with.

It’s whimsical, traditional and nostalgic, and the fact that there is no software or app that uses this concept, means that it’s all about pen/pencil and paper.

Read all about one person’s experience here: The Daily Rind, a Better Way to Plan the Day.

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!