Turning Off Email Downloads

This is an article written three whole years ago (such a LONG time) that advocates turning off email downloads to your smartphone:  Ten reasons to turn off email notifications to your phone.

It makes a great case for processing email in batches, rather than continuously, which is a better way to achieve the Zero Inbox.

I’m a lucky one, I think, in this respect. By writing about the process I was following to select a smartphone, I became determined to follow the habits he describes before I got my Blackberry.  I have been able to maintain a certain discipline about checking email, and rarely find myself doing so when I don’t have time to process all my messages.

My plan is simple:  if I find myself checking email at inappropriate times, I plan to do exactly what the author of the article auggest in order to prevent a bad habit from ever taking root.

One thing I have noticed is how many messages I delete right off the bat, which makes me realize that I need to unsubscribe from a bunch of newsletters and notifications that I don’t really read.

It’s a useful article — hard to believe it’s three years old given it’s relevance today.

More on Paper Use

An avid reader of this site sent me the following comment:

There is one thing that stands out to me, however, and that is that you seem to link using paper with using memory. I write everything down so that I don’t have to use my memory. Listing can be done electronically too and if one just sticks to listing, it leads to using memory regardless of the tool you use. You also say, “there is a limit to the number of time demands that can be handled using only paper.” I don’t understand. A 24 hour day is the same whether you use paper or a BlackBerry. Do you mean it is difficult for schedules that are constantly changing (dynamic)? Although, I’ve never had a problem there either. Simply scratch, rewrite, and keep going.

Thanks for your patience with my comments and questions. All-in-all, I really like your approach to time management

At first, I couldn’t see how I linked the use of paper with the use of memory as she is absolutely doing the right thing by Capturing (by writing) in order to avoid using memory.  When she elaborates by quoting me in saying that “there is a limit to the number of time demands that can be handled using only paper” I began to understand.

Paper is a limiting factor in the following fundamentals:  Storing, Scheduling and Listing simply because paper is difficult to back up in case of a disaster, and doesn’t allow for efficient searching when an item needs to be found.  Above a certain number, keeping time demands on paper only invites problems.

The truth is, paper also doesn’t scale well,  It might work well for simple, low volumes, but it fails when storage needs become complex, schedules become dynamic or heavy, or lists become too long.  Anyone who still tries to store passwords on paper, for example, probably has a challenge that also extends to one of security.  By the same token, anyone who needs to schedule activities in 2012 probably has the problem of lugging around multiple paper calendars.

I once had a personal, paper diary that I left on an airplane.  It had some important notes in it and I regretted the loss of this unique information.  My wife seems to have particularly bad luck with her computers.  Three of them have crashed four times in the past couple of years.

It’s been a hassle, but restoring the content from backups (we use Mozy.com) has been an easy affair once the computer was back up and running.

I hope this helps — if anyone would like to add to the discussion, please do so in the comments below.

Hard vs Soft Scheduled Items

Professionals who undertake the discipline of Scheduling at higher skill levels (Orange and Green belts) have their calendar as the central point of focus (rather than their memory, or lists of different varieties.)

They place most activities directly into an available time-slot, immediately assigning it a date, duration and start-time. In so doing, they are able to forget about the time demand until the appropriate “appointment” comes up.

These users do use their calendars flexibly, moving items depending on what happens each day. They make these changes on the fly, using electronic tools like Outlook in a way that goes well beyond the intent of its designers. As a result, they have developed some special needs.

One feature that would make things easier would be a way to schedule “hard” vs “soft” segments in the calendar.

Essentially, Outlook tries to treat each item in its calendar as an appointment: a timed meeting that involves another person such as a dinner date or a meeting with a customer. However, Orange and Green belts also schedule individual activities, dubbed by some as “appointments with yourself.” The vast majority of these items involve no other people.

However, these two commitments are not exactly alike.

Their lives would be made much easier if Outlook were to distinguish between different kinds of segments, recognizing them as either “hard” or “soft.”

A hard item is one that has external consequences if the start and/or end-times change. Many involve activities with other people who rely on our presence, and have some expectation regarding the other person’s attendance. These segments cannot be changed unilaterally.

A soft item is one that only involves the user, and can easily be moved around one’s calendar, with few immediate consequences. They might have great importance, but a late start would not endanger the end result.

Given these differences, programs like Outlook could help users to “protect” hard segments by making it more difficult for them to be double-booked or deleted, and also by giving them stronger reminders with different pop-ups and audible sounds. Colour coding would also help to separate them from other segments in a user’s calendar.

This would help users to manage the two kind of segments differently, in keeping with their distinct functions.

Exciting New Software

I just came across something I have dreamed about for some time – a game for email!

In prior posts, I talked about game mechanics, and how the entire 2Time approach could be seen as a game of sorts of improving one’s skill from White to Black Belt over time.  I have also studied some of the work of Amy JoKim, and reviewed her presentation “Putting the Fun into Functional” at least once per year, wondering how her cool ideas could be used to help us manage time better.

Then I came across Baydin Inc, and their cool new app, in the form of The Email Game.  At the moment, I have tested the Gmail version, which I think is the only one available… and it works wonders.

It prompts the user with an amusing count-down clock to drive towards a Zero Inbox, flashing up an encouraging graphic after each action.  Once you have finished dispensing with each email, it gives you some statistics and a score for dealing with your email.

It’s the very first game that I have found that gives immediate feedback on how well the user is keeping their Inbox empty.  This is a big leap forward folks, and thanks to the guys at Baydin (a small startup) for their insight and contribution.

Let’s hope they don’t stop!

Blackberry-Specific Habits

This is a great article written by a friend of mine – Ian Price – for the Guardian newspaper in the UK.

One of the startling statistics he quotes is the fact that Blackberry users spend much more time checking email on weekends than those without.  It backs up an argument I have been making:  an employee with a smartphone is better for a manager than one without… at least in the short term.

It might be worse for the employee, their families, their friends and also for the company in the long-run, but managers who require their employees to check email on weekend needn’t worry.

Ian also makes the point that those who like to appear busy have found the perfect companion in their smartphones, but this frenetic attention comes at a price — lower productivity via less quiet, reflective time that’s needed to do deep thinking.  It echoes the words of the book “Flow” perfectly.

Here is the link to Four-Day Working Week? Three Cheers!

Productive Notifications on Your Blackberry

It’s fascinating to me how many productivity-related design decisions are made by makers of mobile gadgets (like Blackberrys,) software (like Outlook) and web services (like Gmail.)  In the first week of using a new BB Curve 8250, I have had to make a variety of changes to the default settings in order to have it fit my personal habits.

At the same time, the principles I am attempting to preserve are universal, and I started to think that my BB would be much better designed if the designers had some knowledge of the essentials of time management.  The fact is, they did start with an underlying philosophy:  ” the more interruptions the better.”  Unfortunately, their philosophy conflicts with the principles I use around one of the key fundamentals – Interrupting which has lead me to adjust many of the notifications on my BB.

Principle of Uninterrupted Work

My BB came with all sorts of notifications that are intended to interrupt me when I’m doing anything else.  There are flashing lights, vibrations and sounds for incoming:

  • – email messages
  • – voice mail
  • – SMS’
  • – BBM’s
  • – phone calls
  • – tweets

Apparently, the default settings are enabled because they assume:
1.  I need to switch from whatever I’m doing to tend to my BB alert when something (i.e. anything) happens to come in
2.  I receive only a handful of notifications per day

Both of these assumptions are suspect not only for me, but the average professional.  In fact, all the recent research points to the fact that one’s best work is done with a quality of focused attention that precludes chasing down every incoming alert in case it’s something important.

Some would say, simply ignore the interruption.  I counter by saying that every single alert that I notice subtracts a little bit of focus away from what I’m doing in the moment, and a little bit of energy as I make a decision to heed or ignore it.  This lowers the  quality of whatever it is I’m doing, if only by a small amount in each instance.

While I have turned them all off, except the phone’s ring, the point here is that the assumption made by RIM is that most people need or want them to be on.  Also, as far as a I can tell, there are millions who never quite get around to turning them off, and end up being perpetually digitally distracted.  By simply following the manufacturer’s defaults, they become less productive as the number of time demands in their lives increases.

I’d recommend that RIM and other smartphone manufacturers ship their products with the alerts turned OFF, and help the user to enable the ones they want in the set up procedures.  This would help the user to engage in the customization of their time management system in a way that most don’t know they can.

It would be even better if they would keep them off and take a new user through some kind of tutorial that helps them set it up for maximum productivity.  This would help users avoid the bad habit that so many develop of interrupting everything imaginable to chase down a smartphone alert of invisible content, and unknown importance.

At the same time, Interrupting is a fundamental that is important, for other reasons described in the following posts on Interrupting.  I have found that the power of my BB to Interrupt is better than anything else I have used, including ways to vary the number of vibrations, colors of flashing lights, tunes played, etc.

Should There Be an App for That?

I had a brainstorming session with a few friends the other day, and came up with the idea of expanding the assessment program I created for the skill of Capturing.

If you haven’t taken it, here’s what is does:  within the space of a few minutes and 13 questions, a user is able to assess which belt level they are operating at within this essential skill. Honestly, I haven’t paid it much attention, because I haven’t quite known where to take it next.

The idea that my friend came up with was to create a smartphone app which would allow a user to test him or herself in all 11 fundamentals.  Once the test is done, he/she would be able to save their score, and then come back to it and update it as they made proress in each skill.

Perhaps it could also have a Facebook link so that your progress could be shared with your friends, and maybe even get an email from the 2Time site that congratulates you when you have made significant progress, such as a jump from an overall White to Yellow belt.

It could serve as a portable teacher and tracker of sorts, and help users to focus on tracking their personal progress.  Now that I actually have a Blackberry, versus just writing about them, I can see where it could be useful to have personal information like this available.

Lastly, maybe the app could download coaching tips that depend on where the user is in their development, in order to help them think about the changes they are working on at the moment.

Has anyone seen an app like this for fields other than time management?  I imagine a “weight-loss” or “stop smoking” app might exist and look a lot like the kind of thing I’m talking about.

Let me know if you have seen anything close to the kind of app I am looking for.

Using My First BlackBerry

I spent a few minutes today setting up my first Blackberry… this after writing several articles about the way that the device is being abused by working professionals around the world.

It’s barely been a day, but I am coming to understand its addictive nature, and why people seem so engrossed by them, especially to those who are non-users.

#1: the screen and keyboards are very, very small compared to the usual freedom I have using a laptop with one or two screens and keyboards.  It feels as if I’m threading a needle every time I pick it up, and my bifocals are finally getting the workout they deserve as I quint, furrow my brow and tune everything out in order to hit small key, teensy radio buttons with a slippery feeling trackball.

#2:  as a practitioner of the Zero Inbox, push email drives me crazy.  To the new user, this is crazy.  My device, a not-so-new Curve 8320, does not allow me to turn off email.  I must either disable every communication app off (the browser, email and even the phone) or keep them all on.  This is awfully distracting, as it’s very hard to work with a single email while others are pouring in at the same time.  Isn’t there an app for that?

All in all, I appreciate the convenience of mobile email, but so far it’s not a game-changer in productivity terms.  Maybe I need to find the games that have fast become the most popular items used… but where are they?

The Herbie in Time Management

I’m writing an article that I’m submitting to the Harvard Business Review, and in the process I asked my subscribers for feedback on the latest draft.

In the process, I received a great response that was more than just a comment on what I had written.  Instead, it was a thesis of sorts, about the ways in which technology should be helping us to become more efficient.  The author argued that we need to figure out our true needs before looking for new technology. This is in contrast to buying technology and then figuring out how it can help… in a haphazard kind of way.

When it comes to smartphones, I agree.  For example, I’d argue that many people who bought smartphones are actually using them as “time-saving” devices, when I’m not sure that’s what they were intended to be.

For example, a small device that allows you to get email wherever you go could be either a laptop, iPad or smartphone.  However, the particular advantages of smartphone design have lead to professionals using them in unlikely and unproductive ways, all in order to save time.

Obviously, the inventors at Apple, Palm and RIM did not intend to invent devices that would lead to habits such as:
– dangerous distracted driving
– rude interruptions in mid-conversation
– holidays spent working instead of relaxing
– 3:00am games of email ping-pong
– people checking messages hundreds of time per day just in case something interesting has come in that they missed

– employees who believe that their management is forcing them into overtime work that intrudes on personal space

These new widespread practices are smartphone-specific.  The technology itself calls forth new and different habit patterns.  It’s clear that the technology needs to be evaluated in a unique way, especially as it’s not too hard to predict a time when all employees are either expected or mandated to carry these devices at all times.

The author of the comment, however, went further than that and made the point that a proper evaluation of one’s time management system needs to be made before technology is contemplated.  This made me think of the book “The Goal” by Eli Goldratt.

In this business fable which is about optimizing the ways in which factories operate, the main takeaway is that it’s best to find the single, greatest point of weakness and work to improve it.  Goldratt calls this his “Theory of Constraints.”

I believe that the same idea applies to individual time management systems.  As Goldratt illustrates in his book, in complex system it’s easy to improve the wrong thing, leading to no overall improvement.

In an early paper I wrote after starting this blog, I made this point.  In ”The New Time Management – Toss Away the Tips, and Focus on the Fundamentals” I argued that people were barking up the wrong tree by chasing down the latest list of “Top 10 Time Management Tips!!”  Instead, they should be focusing on practicing the fundamentals of time management with a view to making incremental improvements.

The comment on my article went further, and made me think that the 2Time system of 11 components can be used as a method to find “Herbie’s” – Goldratt’s name for bottlenecks, or weak points.  For example, if you learn that you have a Yellow Belt in 9 disciplines and a White Belt in 2, it probably makes sense to focus on improving the 2… rather than buying an iPad because ”they are just so cool!”

As cool as new devices are, they might do nothing for your fundamentals.

In fact, they might do some damage.

If the average person who upgrades to a smartphone ends up engaging in new, unproductive habits 6 months later then we are right to ask – “what’s the point?”

The fact is, smartphones are not all bad.  In a prior post, I described the process I’m undertaking to decide whether or not to upgrade from my bottom-of-the-line, monochrome cell phone.

At the moment, I’m leaning towards the upgrade, but I have developed 2 principles –
Principle #1 – Do No harm
I want to make sure that I don’t pick up any nasty habits that are obviously unproductive.  For example, I have made myself a promise to never use the device while driving (or in the bathroom, movie theater, while cycling, etc.)
I am simply barring myself from these habits.  (Wish me luck!)

Principle #2 – Real Upgrades
So far, I haven’t been successful in finding real ways that the device will add to my productivity in terms of the fundamentals.

There are other some gains to be made by having a convenient way to access mobile email, instant messages and web browsing but these still don’t impact any of the fundamentals in a profound way.

However, I am confident that new innovations, apps and add-ons are coming that will make impact the fundamentals, and I do want to take advantage of them as they arise… and perhaps make a suggestion or two.  This means that I have to get into the game at some point… but it’s hardly an urgent need on my part.

I might have to make some adjustments, however.  For example, my primary manual capture point is currently a paper pad.  Migrating to capturing on a Blackberry would be a major change, and I still haven’t found a Blackberry wallet that allows a paper pad to be carried within it.  I am quite wary of entrusting my capturing to a tool that requires a battery and a charger, but I am thinking that if I can find a paper solution, that I could always take a picture of what I have captured.

More to come on this…!

Livescribe – the Future of Capturing

In a recent NewHabits-NewGoals class, I met a participant who shared with us a rather early version of a pen called LiveScribe.

She admitted that it didn’t work very well, but when she explained the idea I was struck that it could be transformed into the perfect manual capture point – and not because of its ink.

The idea is simple:  the pen is a very special one with some built-in storage capability.  It allows you to write on some special paper, and it records the words you have written into the pen itself, in addition to the paper you are writing on.

Once you get back to your computer, you can download all the notes to a page, and if it can understand your handwriting, it will transcribe the words into English.

Prices range from US$99 to US$149.

It’s a bit fat in size, partly because it also has a built-in sound-recorder and a speaker.
I believe that it’s pitched to students who want to have access to their notes, but I think they are missing a great opportunity…

Here’s what I would do differently.

1.  I’d sell a version of the pen that leaves out the voice recorder and speaker.  Most people who take written notes don’t have a habit of taking notes via sound.  The extra capability could be taken out, which would reduce the size of the pen, and also the price.

2.  Sell more options of the special paper, in different sizes

3.  Develop a way to make notes without the special paper (which happens to be pretty expensive)

4.  Find a way to differentiate items that contain time demands from those that don’t

I’d market this new pen as a capture point that makes the paper that’s being written on obsolete.  The paper would actually become a form of backup, if you can imagine that.  Your pen-written notes that include time demands would be downloaded to your email Inbox and processed alongside the other items.


Here’s the link to the website that describes the product.