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?

How Gadgets Force Habits

I have been playing with the idea that time management systems are more complex than I originally described in my early writings on this website.

I originally described each person’s system as the collection of the habits, principles, practices and rituals that they use on a regular basis.

I recently expanded the definition to include a user’s choice of mobile gadget, software, webware and email client.

As I continue my assessment of whether or not to purchase a personal smartphone for productivity purposes, one of the downsides of any upgrade I make is that I’ll have to develop some new habits depending on the smartphone I choose.  I base this observation on the fact that I’ll have to create at least one new habits…. which is to maintain not just a power cord for the device, but also a backup cord in case of emergencies.

I’ll obviously have to develop the habit of keeping the unit charged, and now I’m wondering how long the battery charge will last during periods of modest use.  It’s clearer to me that every mobile device bring new habits that must be learned, and having a smartphone means that I need to be more careful.  (My current cheap cellphone held a charge for several days, and lots of people had chargers.)

I’m also looking for ways to keep certain habits that I don’t want to change.  For many years, I have always carried a paper pad with me that acts as a manual capture point.  Why haven’t I upgraded to an electronic method of manual capture?

The advantages of paper are:
– it’s inexpensive
– it can get wet without failing too badly
– there’s no need for it to be charged
– it’s faster to write than type, or use handwriting recognition
– other pieces of paper can be used in a pinch
– it can be used to record diagrams as well as text

I’d prefer to keep this habit going, and I’m looking for a wallet that allows me to carry both a smartphone and a pad of paper at the same time.  If I have to carry a separate notepad, I’d be willing to do that, but it would be so much easier to have the two connected.

Blackberry Protocols

I was assisted greatly by email from Cees Dilwig, who shared with me the need to develop protocols for Blackberry usage.

The first thought I have is a list of practices to avoid, such as using the device to:
–  check or send messages while driving, or to answer the phone or make non-emergency calls
–  interrupt events such as meetings and conversations in order to check or send messages
–  switch to work during established blackout periods – vacations, holidays, weekends, odd hours, weddings, in the bathroom, etc.  This may require keeping a schedule of some kind of times when the device is closed off to external communication.  For example, I don’t have internet access at the location I’m typing this post.
– check email more frequently

In my video on How I’m Choosing a Smartphone, I talk about passing the knapsack test, which simply means that I want my smartphone to do more than a knapsack full of gadgets that it’s “replacing,” in order for it to allow for greater productivity.   Cees made a great point in his email to me — it’s easier to pick up email with a Blackberry than with a laptop, due to the difference in protocols being used.

I hadn’t fully realized this fact, and it’s quite true.  During this weekend, at a temporary location, I have no internet access, which means no email access as I’m working on a laptop.  With a Blackberry, however, I’d have access to my email, and to the internet in some form.  Also, when I travel, gaining access to email is always a hit or miss affair due to the availability of wireless access.

This means that using a smartphone for email access passes the knapsack test with flying colors, as it’s providing internet access where none exists — and that is important to my productivity.

My greatest concern is developing the Blackberry Itch — that feeling that I need to check email just in case there’s something important.  My wife recently saw a woman at the beauty salon who grabbed her device while her head was back in the sink getting her hair washed.  She simply couldn’t wait the few minutes it would take to wait for the hairdresser was finished.

I’m eager to not join the ranks of the addicted!


How I’m Choosing a Smartphone – Speech

In this half-hour speech given at a conference here in Kingston, I took the audience through the reasons why I’m being cautious about purchasing a smartphone.

P.S. I use a word in patois the describe the kind of phone I possess now – a “skettel” cell-phone. It simply means common, vulgar or uncouth — definitely a word that’s hard to translate!

P.P.S.  If you are interested in having me speak at your upcoming meeting or conference, click here for more information.


A Treasure-Trove of Data on Time Management Needs

In prior posts I have made the point that Outlook and Gmail have become much more than email programs.

While they both started out as email managers, they have become the primary portals that people use to manage time demands of all kinds. I have argued that they do a poor job for the majority of users because they are designed for email management, rather than time demand management.

Recently, Google opened up a site to ask for suggestions on how to improve Gmail. So far, they have gotten 2844 votes on all aspects of the program, but to my biased eyes, it seems as if there is a theme emerging.

Instead of just using lists of tasks, users want to integrate them into their calendars. (In the 2Time ranking of skills, it equates to an upgrade from Yellow to Orange Belt in the practice of “Scheduling.”)

I read through a few hundred suggestions and it struck me that anyone who is interested in creating a time management portal could use the information as market research — after all, this is a lot of data gathered from some very committed users of Gmail who are essentially asking anyone to come up with something better than the Gmail portal they are forced to use now.

I am not too optimistic, however, that Google will be able to make the leap that users want.

As I read through the suggestions, voted on quite a few and added some of my own, it struck me that the worst thing to do would be to figure out the most popular requests and simply add them to the list of features to be developed in the next release.

That’s a little like polling one’s family members to find out which surgery they think Great-Grandpa needs in order to get better.  In other words, it’ a bad way to make a decision of this complexity.

What Google really needs is not a bunch of suggestions, but some kind of time management philosophy around which to design an entirely new kind of portal that will be fully integrated into Gmail, and Google Calendar in a holistic way that mimics the habit patterns that users are likely to follow.

In this blog I offer a philosophy of sorts, and there are a number of books and websites that do the same. Adding more features willy-nilly will simply leave the door open to a competitor who gets it, and offers users a portal that puts the task of email management in its place alongside a number of other tools that people use to manage their time.

This isn’t to say that the research Google is doing is useless. Far from it. But it needs a context or framework to make all those suggestions come to life, and to prevent Gmail from simply becoming another Outlook in terms of its zillions of features, and heavy ponderous feel.

Check out the suggestions or add your own here on the Google website.

If you have a comment or question about what I have said in this post, let me know below.


A Television Appearance on Information Overload Day

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to come on TVJ here in Kingston, Jamaica to help promote the fact that Oct 20, 2010 was Information Overload Awareness Day.

The interviewers had a good laugh when one of their Blackberrys, which were in their laps, went off right in the middle of the 12 minute segment — it doesn’t get any better than that!

There were a lot of laughs all the way around, as you’ll see.

P.S.  Contact me if you’d like to interview me on your show for television, radio or podcast.


How Smart Should Smartphones Be?

I vividly remember the times in the past when I upgraded my personal time management system with the help of outside tools, but today, in 2010, I am stymied by the hype around smartphones.

The first upgrade occurred in 1980 when, as a teenager, I received an appointment diary from my parents.  The second occurred in 1991 when I purchased a DayRunner and the last happened in about 1996 when I purchased a Palm Pilot.

In each instance it was clear what I was doing — changing the way I dealt with all the stuff I needed to take care of, with the aid of a new tool.  In each case, I had to make some significant habit changes to get the new system to work, and I fully expect to do that when I complete the planned purchase of a smartphone in early 2011.

Or not.

I’m ambivalent, to be honest, about joining the millions of smartphone users around the world because I am suspicious that these devices don’t actually improve productivity.

Sure, they provide entertainment, and a pleasing distraction while waiting at the doctor’s office.  And they definitely are convenient.  I have carried around a knapsack of gadgets (cellphone, PDA, camera etc.) on overseas trips, and I imagine that I could replace it with a decent smartphone.

I’d also expect be the envy of my friends, as they see me watching television at the beach, or texting my friends from a bike ride in the mountains.  It’s likely to be the latest model, packed with all the miniature gadgets that their older models don’t have.

Entertainment, convenience and sex-appeal are certainly interesting and valuable things, but what do they have to do with productivity?

When I switched over to using my diary, DayRunner and Palm Pilot, I noticed that they helped me to process the demands on my time in a far more efficient way.  I saw fewer items fall through the cracks, and I made better decisions about what to do and what to ignore.  My skills at storing critical information were enhanced as I created routine backups.  Lists of stuff to do were better managed and I certainly made a dramatic improvement in the way I scheduled each day, using an electronic calendar.

These are bread and butter time management practices, and they are the ones that must change in order to experience a permanent boost in productivity.  They are not sexy in any way, but they are the kinds of activities that we use every minute of every day to process all the demands on our time.

Simply being able to send and receive email from a smaller device than ever before does not appear to me to be much of an improvement.  From mainframe to desktop to laptop to netbook to smartphone… the trend of squeezing more capability into smaller spaces has continued.  Smartphones are (the latest) clever miniatures, but just because they are the smallest of the email devices to be created up until now, does not mean that they have made a profound impact on our email productivity, for example.

In fact, the evidence is to the contrary, as the bad habits around smartphones (such as driving while texting) have more than nullified any productivity gains.

I believe that manufacturers have missed the plot.

Smartphones should leverage the fact that they bring diverse functionality together in a single unit for the very first time.

Here are some possible innovations that could improve our productivity:

#1:  Calendar Control

Given the problem we have with digital distractions, why can’t smartphones be programmed to turn off certain features depending on the activity that’s in the calendar?  For example, during a meeting the phone could turn the ringer off.

Idea #2:  Inbox Reporting

A smartphone could give us a status report on different aspects of our time management system e.g. that we have email messages that have been unread for 2 days.

Idea #3:  Multimedia Capturing

With the help of voice and handwriting recognition, time demands from all sources such as email, IM, Facebook and  handwritten notes, could be brought together into a single multimedia Inbox so that they could be processed together.

These ideas are the kinds of capabilities that are unique to smartphones, and actually could make users more productive.  There are sure to be many others, but manufacturers need to first understand that people want to be more productive in substantial ways that help them save real time.

Choosing My First Smartphone (for Productivity’s Sake)

If you are a frequent reader of this site you will know that I have questioned at length the unproductive practices and habits that have arisen around smartphones.

With that in mind, I have decided to start a quest to discover whether or not I can boost my productivity with a Blackberry, iPhone, Android or one of the newer devices.  I am going to share the process with readers, and I kicked this off with a new article over at the Stepcase Lifehack website, entitled:  How I’m Getting a Smartphone, While Avoiding Crazy Habits.

I may choose not to make a purchase, by the way… find out more by reading the article.

P.S. I just made a video to help describe what I’m doing by trying to make a “smartphone decision.”

Wish me luck!

Recent Reseach on Blackberry un-Productivity

istock_000009385044xsmall.jpgI stumbled across some research that backed up what I have been seeing in companies recently.

The paper I found came from researchers at MIT:  Ubiquitous Email: Individual Experiences and Organizational Consequences of Blackberry Use by Melissa Mazmanian, Joanne Yates and Wanda Orlikwski.

It was gratifying to read, as it backed up quite a few things I have been  observing, and wondering why I felt alone!

They studied a small private equity firm and observed that:

“This (the ability to check email via a mobile device) encourages a compulsive checking of email and an inability to disengage from work that is common to all users but framed as a matter of individual choice.  Emerging norms reveal implicit expectations of availability and responsiveness that are in direct contrast to espoused firm values. Thus, members of an entire firm carrying a device that facilitates unobtrusive’ access to email may unwittingly generate shared patterns of use that encourage a self-reinforcing cycle of constant communication.”

In other words, while the members of the firm were steadily moving towards a cycle of 24-7 communication via their Blackberry’s, they were doing so while denying that there was a new expectation being created.   That’s a nice way of saying they were in denial.

The study goes on to show that people had begun to act unconsciously, and so had the organization, to the point where they were betraying their values, seemingly without knowing it.

They also seemed to think they were in control of their blackberry use, when in fact they were checking their devices within an hour of leaving work, every weekend and in every room of their homes.

All users report that carrying a BlackBerry offers the opportunity to monitor information flow while providing the opportunity to control the form of information delivery and receipt. However, in acting upon these opportunities individuals also experience a compulsion to check incoming messages that leads to difficulty in disengaging.

‘Difficulty in disengaging,” huh?  90% of those surveyed described a “compulsion to check” their Blackberry for new email.  They seemed unable to say where this compulsion was coming from, however, as they continued to insist that using their Blackberry was always their choice.  When they mentioned the stress that the device brought to their lives from being “always on,” they again failed to ascribe it to the firm.

The researchers concluded that when the device is introduced in a social network, new norms of communication arise that encourage imitation in how the device is used (i.e. everyone copies the boss) and eventually these norms become coercive.

Even when the employees don’t fully realize that this is what’s happening.

They do feel the effects however:

… users report an unrelenting desire for information and a drive to monitor incoming messages, which they explain as a need to reduce their anxiety of being disconnected. Ironically, such stress is amplified (and possibly created) because constant connection is possible.

Only when the researchers probed were some employees able to see a connection between the negative effects they were feeling and the increasingly coercive expectation they had failed to notice.

What’s important to note is that this particular company had quite an overt commitment to work/life balance, freedom and individual autonomy.  In other words, they appeared to be more “enlightened” than the average company and more willing to consider the humanity of its workers, according to its stated values.

When asked, one of the partners described the issue of a growing expectation as one that had its cause in the the fact that the world was getting “faster.”  He didn’t ascribe any of the responsibility to the company whatsover, and to its decision to give everyone a Blackberry back in 1999.

Loyalty?  Group-think? Denial?

(It seems clear from the research a new employee who refused to use a Blackbery would have a very short stay at the company, but that’s just my opinion.)

The survey for the study was completed back in 2004, and in the end the authors predict that the problem at the firm was only likely to worsen as the volume of messages increased and as smartphones became ubiquitous.  To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a followup study at the same company, but here in 2010 there are lots of corporations that are increasing the amount of smartphone-driven stress in employees’ lives, without anyone being fully aware of where it’s coming from or what can be done about it.

Productivity Needs to be Redefined

I just submitted an article that I hope will be published at the Stepcase Lifehack website in the next week or so.

blackberry-ad.jpgIt talks about the sales pitch that companies have used to sell smartphones:  “Buy this device and you’ll be able to send a receive messages from all sorts of interesting places.”

This is echoed in the Blackberry ad featuring Nina Garcia at left.

The text is quite small, but it reads:

Ask Nina Garcia Why She Loves Her BlackBerry

“I’m a creative person, freedom is everything. I have to be inspired and that can happen anywhere. I’m always on the lookout for new designers and trends. I really use my BlackBerry for everything. At the fashion shows, photo shoots, ___________ (?) and shopping, it doesn’t leave my side. Forget the bag. I have to say, BlackBerry is my favourite accessory.”

So, according to the ad, she is able to use her Blackberry at fashion shows, photo shoots, when she goes shopping, etc.   This is not unusual.  I think most people who have Blackberry’s would say that they love them because it allows them to their messaging in non-traditional places.

The question I ask in the article I wrote is whether or not this is a good enough definition of productivity, by itself.  It’s obvious that millions of people think so, and that a great deal of money is being made by companies who are giving us these new abilities.

At the very same time, many people are demonstrating a slew of un-productive and bizarre practices, enabled by the fact that they have smartphones.  The habit of driving while texting is an obvious example.

The article looks at the fact that professionals and their companies need to be aware that when the definition of productivity is expanded, then smartphones destroy productivity, which is the reason why some companies are banning them from meetings altogether.

I argue that changing habits to suit a new smartphone is a little like allowing the tail to wag the dog.  Instead, the 2Time approach is to upgrade one’s time management system, and while doing so, find the right tools that make sense.

Hopefully the article will be accepted — if not, I’ll post it here.

An Update from Jamaica

It’s been a while since I’ve posted due to one significant interruption — civil unrest here in Jamaica.

I won’t rehash the reasons why it’s happening, as the news reports have been doing a fairly good job of that.  But for those who might be wondering, I am fine and so are my friends and family.

It’s been a difficult time, and in Kingston we are still under a state of emergency, with curfews being imposed  in different parts of town, at undeclared times.

(If you are coming to Jamaica on vacation, don’t worry too much, as the hotels are on the other side of the island and have not been affected.)

It all reminds me of why I am interested in time management in the first place — it’s the kind of everyday “up and down” that I had to get used to when I returned to Jamaica that made me realize that the way I was managing my time would have to be upgraded.  (You can read my bio linked to the About page to find some more details on what particular story.)

I also realize that my latest point of focus — “Time Management in the Smartphone Era” — is also heavily influenced by being in Jamaica, simply because our cell phone adoption rate is one of the highest in the world.  I cannot think of a single person here in Jamaica who doesn’t have a cell phone, including the guy who wipes windshields at the traffic light for small change!

The high adoption rate has meant that I am exposed to companies whose entire executive teams are heavy Blackberry users, and are rapidly picking up the unproductive habits that I have mentioned on this site, and will expand on in future posts.

Stay tuned.