The Productive Moron

I just published a provocative article over at the Stepcase Lifehack blog entitled “Are You Becoming a Productive Moron?”

In the article I make a tongue-in-cheek prediction based on some of the behaviors I see today… the most simple-minded employees will come to be seen as the most productive, simply because they reply to their email quicker than anyone else.

It’s a bit of fun, with a serious side.

You can see the article here: A You Becoming a Productive Moron?


Escaping Your Unproductive Boss’ Bad Habits

istock_000000796578xsmall.jpgWhen I joined the corporate world back in 1988, there seemed to be only a few managers that were crazy-making.

Nowadays, their numbers seem to have increased, aided with new technology that helps them get their way in the short term, while ruining the  productivity of their companies.

These bad bosses isn’t necessarily malicious.  In fact, they are quite  well-intentioned, but they are unable to see the impact of their  actions on a large scale.  Unfortunately for them, technology has  served as a tremendous amplifier of unproductive habits, turning  bad individual habits into organization-wide headaches.

For example, the boss who got into a letter writing feud with another manager and started off a volley of paper letters in the 1980’s created little damage.  Letters, after all, took a long time to write and disseminate, and copies only found their way to their recipients slowly.

With the advent of email, however, a similar feud in the 1990’s could easily escalate into a public war of messages involving every single member of staff, who could watch from the ringside as  several messages were sent within the hour, tying up thousands of  dollars of valuable employee time.

It was one of the early examples of a way in which a boss’ bad habits could become everyone’s nightmare, and time-waster.

Fast-forward to 2010, and the games continue, with a twist.

Now, managers give employees the gift of Blackberrys with the full knowledge that they are gaining something powerful — 24/7 access the employee’s time (or something quite close to it.)

Smartphones give users access to a phone, email, instant  messaging and voice mail.  Managers quickly learn that there is  a difference between those employees who are equipped, versus those  who are not.

More specifically, those with smartphones are far more likely to: – respond to urgent 4:00am emails – reply to a text message while driving on I95 – interrupt their vacation to edit that pesky client document – join a conference call on Sunday morning – answer instant messages in the middle of meetings

Any boss, good or bad, would rush to give the gift of a Blackberry or iPhone  to most employees, given the obvious benefits listed above.

However, the increasing number of employees who are in the know understand that the above list of “beneficial behaviors” are a  recipe for corporate disaster.

When all managers develop the smartphone driven practice of  interrupting their employees at will, it guarantees that very few will get any work done.  I remember in the early 1990’s, when  my colleagues and I would stay home, come in early, leave late or  visit the office on weekends in order to “get some work done.”

In other words, we did our real work outside work hours, because the work day was so filled with unplanned and unproductive interruptions.

Now, with the advent of smartphones, there is no escape.  None of  these strategies work — the only reprieve from the smartphone  leash occurs when one is either swimming or bathing… for now.

What are employees to do?

I doubt that much can change by griping — instead, someone must  take a stand.  These corporate habits are quite difficult to  break because they are unconsciously practiced by those who are  the most powerful in the company.  In most companies, there are no policies governing their use (with the recent exception of  driving restrictions.)

An employee who takes a stand can do so for practical reasons,  vs. moral reasons.  They can look for hard evidence that a company that has its employees chained to email is driving itself into an  unproductive state (unless they are some kind of customer care  unit whose job it is to email.)

They can start to check email only at certain hours, and let those around them know that they are un-tethering themselves from the 24/7 electronic leash.  At the same time, they must play the tricky game of convincing executives and line managers that the change in tactics  will annoy some of them in the short term, but ultimately benefit  everyone in the long term.

After all, who wants a company filed with employees who are  enjoy their chains jerked from one moment to the next, as they get pulled from one crisis to another?  I have seen highly-paid  executives who operate like this, and the truth is that they hate it.

Some burn out and leave.  Other knuckle under and become the worst perpetrators, with their own employees becoming the fresh victims.

As I mentioned before, what makes this problem a tough one to solve is the fact that the habits are unconscious, and widespread among  those who are the most powerful in most companies.  Turning the ship around is ultimately a group activity, but it must start  with at east one person who is willing to convince others that  the change is a necessary one to make.

Whistle-blower laws have worked well to empower employees who are  committed to end criminal wrongdoing.  For many, it’s a matter of  professional ethics and standards.

The boss’ bad habits may not be crimes, but they do have a negative effect. It’s the rare employees who are willing to adhere to a  higher personal standard of productivity that companies will come to rely on to lead them out of the “monkey on a leash”  behavior that we are now calling “productivity.”

Employee Use Policies on Blackberrys, Cell Phones & PDAs

I just received the following invitation to join this US$199 conference call.

I was wondering how long it would take for companies to start to limit the “always on” culture that smartphones have created.

Perhaps fear of litigation will “help” employees to better manage their time.

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Dear Francis Wade,


For those concerned with how to effectively create and enforce employee cell phone use policies, you are invited to join us for a leading 60-minute audio conference:


“Cellphones, Blackberries & PDAs: Employee Use Policies You Need Now”

Thursday, October 29, 2009 1:00-2:00 p.m. ET


Your employees rely on Blackberries, PDAs, smart phones, cell phones and remote access to keep them connected to their work. Employers face new liability risks on wage and hour issues, confidentiality breaches, inappropriate use of equipment, and safety concerns. Is a connected employee ever off the clock? When are employers liable for accidents caused by workers distracted when using work cell phones? Join us for this 60-minute audio conference where you will discover:


**  Keys to drafting effective cell phone policy

**  Keys to handling employees who are ALWAYS on personal calls

**  Tricky FLSA issues & employees’ use of mobile devices

**  Monitoring Employee Use of Technology: What’s Legal: What’s Not


Your Expert Presenter:

Daniel McCoy, Esq. is a partner at Fenwick & West LLP. Mr. McCoy’s practice emphasizes employment litigation and counseling for employers throughout the country.

Stickking to New Habits

stickk-logo.jpgWhile I’m happy with the ideas on this blog, and I truly believe in the power of Time Management 2.0, I still have the feeling of being stuck in Habit Changing 101.

In other words, I’m still not satisfied with the speed and ease with which I’m able to change habits.

This is THE critical point when it comes to making a change in a time management system. All the theory that I’ve addressed on this site is useless if it’s impossible for users to change their habits to implement them.

What I do know is the following:

1) Habit changing is an individual phenomenon. Each person must work with himself or herself to find the right cocktail of methods that succeed. In my case, it seems that I even need to change my approach over time, as what used to work in the past no longer works today.

2) Finding the right “cocktail” takes extraordinary self-awareness and no small measure of patience.  What we often call “laziness” and a “lack of discipline” are often not these things at all; they have more to do with a lack of awareness than a personality defect. Most people try to double their determination, and they vow to “get more serious” with themselves. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that habits have a “muscular memory” that often defies grim demands I make of myself, so that rarely works.

Last week, a partner of mine referred me to a new site — — and it truly struck a chord with me as a tool that could be added to my blend of reinforcement techniques.

The idea is simple. You create a goal, and then set up human and monetary supports to help accomplish it.

The human supports consist of people who are on, and off, Stickk to hold you to account in accomplishing it.

If that doesn’t do it for you, then here’s more — you can actually put some “cold, hard cash” at stake, so you forfeit it if you don’t accomplish your goal.

As a triathlete (and someone who’s known to be thrifty/cheap), I know that there’s a difference between the races I think about doing and those that I actually pay to do.

For example, I have a race to complete on October 31 in Montego Bay, here in Jamaica. I paid for it in July, and it’s made a tremendous difference to my training to know that it’s coming. As a result, I spent 90 minutes in the pool this morning swimming almost 3,000 meters, in my least-favored sport of the three.

I know that when I put enough money down for a race, as I did for an Ironman in 2005, I increase the odds that I’ll accomplish the goal.

In an earlier post, I shared that I used a Habit Tracker as my daily tool to perform the daily practices I’m likely to forget. One of them is particularly difficult to do each day: “Do One Thing for My Wife that’s Unseen.” I’ve been failing at this new practice in spectacular fashion, and I’m thinking that I should try the Stickk approach to see if I can “help” myself make it happen.

Maybe I live without having to be more serious, determined, or disciplined.

P.S. If you’d like to be one of my “referees” or “supporters” in working on this goal, simultaneously with testing out Stickk, shoot me a message from my Contact Page. Tell me a little about yourself and why you’d like to participate in this particular experiment.

iPhone Withdrawal

A journalist/blogger, Topher, is undergoing sever Tech withdrawal by not using his smartphone for (gasp) an entire week.

Follow jos journey back to the land of the techno-dinosaurs by reading his first account: Tech-Torture with Topher: Bye-Bye Smartphone, and follow his adventures on Twitter.

(I’ll break the suspense by revealing that he’ll still be checking email the old-fashioned way — outside of meetings, away from conversations, far from his car and between the hours of 6am and 12am.)

Check the comments…

Embedded video from <a href=””>CNN Video</a>

Outlook’s Shortcomings – Part 4

outlook_icon.gifSo far in this series, I have addressed the idea that Outlook could be improved by re-building it around the fundamental practices of time management.  The fundamental, Emptying, is the most important one for many users, and it also could be improved in Outlook if it were redesigned.

In this particular fundamental, a user goes through each of their capture points and moves each item to a different place in their time management system.  The word “Emptying” is used because that is it’s goal — to leave behind an empty space in each Capture Point that allows it to accept new items.

There are several ways that Outlook could facilitate this practice as it pertains to email.

One is to prevent the user from reading an email and leaving it in the Inbox.  Outlook could force an opened email to be placed elsewhere, and offer the user a software-assisted means way to Empty with ease.

Also, while Emptying is occurring, the user could be given the option of turning off the receipt of new email, in order to focus the activity.

Another would be to prompt the user to check other Capture Points once the Inbox has been emptied.  These could include the voicemail inbox, a paper pad and incoming paper mail that all represent new time demands.

As Emptying is being done, Outlook could make it easy to decide what to do with a piece of email by presenting a standard set of options that correspond to the choices that they have when they Empty, according  to the 2Time approach.  When an email is read, the program could ask the user how to dispose of it, giving a list of options such as the following:

1.  Delete It?

2.  Store It?

3.  Take 5 Minutes to Act On It Now?

4.  Schedule It in Calendar?

5.  Add It to a List?

These are all actions that are possible to accomplish in Outlook, but they are all hidden way in the program’s functions rather than given a prominence that underlies the fact that these are the ONLY options a user can exercise at that moment of decision.

Microsoft designers might argue that they don’t want to constrain users.  Perhaps, what they fail to realize  is that the current design actually already prompts the user to do what most do, most of the time — which is to leave their email in the Inbox.  While this may seem like an innocuous option when it comes to managing email, from a time management perspective it’s the start of real trouble.

When Emptying is not done effectively (i.e. frequently and completely) the eventual result is an overflowing Inbox — the greatest complaint that email users have world-wide.  The fact is, Outlook’s design makes it easy for this outcome to occur — call it an unintended by-product of its design.  It contributes to a user’s feeling of overwhelm that hits them when they open their Inbox and have the thought that “something isn’t right” when they see the number of items they have sitting in various states.

In the future, it would be powerful if Outlook could become the single location for all Capture Points, but the technology isn’t advanced enough for that to occur.  It would mean routing voicemails, faxes, incoming mail, email plus all the items written in a paper pad to one grand Capture Point in the program.  At the moment, that’s not easy to do.

Until then, one of the major changes that Outlook could make is to facilitate the user’s process, or workflow.At the moment, Outlook offers no interface that acknowledges that most users follow a set pattern of activity each day.  It also fails to help users to create patterns for themselves that optimizes their flow of activities.

At the moment, the way that Outlook is designed is that it “prompts” users to use it as an email-retriever.  When users open Outlook, they are directed towards their Inboxes.  Regardless of the number of items they contains, read or unread, the system leads them to download more email.

As users sit, their system pulls down every piece of new email, regardless of whether they have 1 minute, or 100 available at that moment to deal with them all.  It’s no surprise that many feel a growing sense of overwhelm.  Outlook’s design as an email management program inadvertently produces problems in the area of time management, and this is especially true when the goal of a time management system is to maximize peace of mind.

If Outlook’s interface were re-designed as a process, or wizard, it might take a user through a series of screens, with each on representing a phase.

If I had the freedom to design a series of screens to represent my regular start-up activity, it might look like the following:

Screen 1 — Clean up from yesterdayTake out items from yesterday that have not been processed.  Some might be in my inbox, or sitting in my calendar.  I’d be discouraged from moving to the next screen until I’m done with the first.

Screen 2 — Download emailBefore downloading, the system would tell me how many unread emails I have.  I’d tell it how many to download, in order to balance the time I have available with the number of emails I choose to work through.

Screen 3 — Process Email to EmptyOn this screen, I’d be prompted to dispose of each item in the way I described above.  At the end of my processing, the Inbox would be empty once again, apart from those I have not yet read or clicked on.

  • Screen for Tossing — this might just be a prompt to make sure I want to delete the item
  • Screen for Storing — this would offer me a set of folders in which to place the item
  • Screen for Acting Now — this would just be a timer that pings at the appropriate time interval
  • Screen for Scheduling — the calendar would be immediately offered
  • Screen for Listing — a screen showing the user’s lists would be offered as a starting point

These choices would be ideal, and would allow me to balance incoming email with the time I have available to process.The result might be a greater peace of mind, and all it would take is a reshaping of the Outlook interface.  Of course, this new design could be applied to any time management software, and I strongly believe that the first software company to build proper time management software could produce an iPod-like winner.


Outlook’s Shortcomings – Part 3

outlook-ms-office-2003-outlook-256x256.pngIn my prior post I brought up the notion that Outlook was designed to solve user’s problems with email, rather than the bigger problem they have with time demands.

I also mentioned that the company that understands this shift would be able to produce radically different software.  Not just different, but better.  It would help users do the job they are really trying to perform.

I would call this a change in “philosophy,” and not just clever marketing or repackaging.

Having a  philosophy about how people manage time, and how they learn time management skills is also important, because this also influences the way software is designed.

For example, in the 2Time approach, there is a clear path that users take as they advance from one skill level to another (as measured by belt levels.)  One skill that changes over time is the way that the practices of Listing and Scheduling are used, with the higher belts doing much more scheduling than the lower belts.

A decision to develop software that reflects this progression in skills would have to contend with this particular philosophy, and not just for intellectual reason, but for practical reasons.

The current philosophy that underlies Outlook seems to be “more features are better than less.”

I’m not a software expert, but I suspect that the reason my Outlook 2007 runs so slowly is because this philosophy has run the show for too long.

An unfortunate by-product of this particular design decision is that a White Belt is given the same interface as  a Green Belt, even though they use the software differently.  It also has meant that the interface is cluttered with bells and whistles that a user must navigate, and always be selecting from.

Many of them have nothing to do with time management, making the interface (to repeat the mantra) a clumsy one.

Perhaps a better  philosophy might be “give the user only what they need to manage their time, and produce peace of mind.”

My point here is not that this particular philosophy is better, but it IS that Outlook seems to have stumbled into becoming a time management tool with the addition of lots and lots of features.  For all I know, it may have stumbled into other things as well (a dashboard, contact manager, etc.) but I am convinced that a different philosophy would yield different (and better) design.

This much I know — starting with a particular, and well-defined time management philosophy would help Outlook to become a better tool for time management.

I think Gmail’s success has not come because Google employs smarter people, but instead it comes from teams working with a different philosophy about email. (Plus, they were able to start from a blank sheet of paper.)

I suspect that  a company that does the same for time management will also produce a breakthrough of sorts.


Outlook’s Shortcomings – Part 2

outlook-ms-office-2007-beta-2-outlook.pngA program that is built for time management purposes would assist a user in executing the fundamentals, but also allow him/her the freedom to use its features to support their particular time management system.

Ideally, a user should be presented with as clean an interface as possible, with unnecessary features hidden away from view, so that they provide no distractions.

The purpose of such a system could be stated as “assisting users to manage their time so that they experience peace of mind.”

What needs to be understood at the outset is that “time management” is code language.  While it’s actually impossible to manage time, all that can really be managed are habits that are related to one’s daily activities.  They all, of course, consume time.  Having said that, the system needs to help a user to make it easy to follow the actions that comprise their time management system.

Here in 2Time, we say that every time management  is made up of 11 inescapable fundamentals.

The word inescapable is used quite deliberately to indicate that professionals around the world, regardless of industry, job or position, must undertake the same set of fundamentals to get their work done.

For example, the fundamental practice of capturing is one that everyone must undertake in order to allow new time demands to enter their system.

Outlook and most other programs like it are built around a single capture point — the Inbox that contains email downloaded from a remote location.

I used the word “clumsy” in a prior post to describe Outlook’s design, and its disregard for what users are trying to do with the program nowadays.

The design of the Inbox is an example of the inelegant design for those users who are trying to manage their time.

Why so?

By definition, Capture Points are the locations where time demands enter a professional’s time management system.  Example include the following:

  • email inboxes of all kinds
  • memory
  • post-box or equivalent
  • voice-mail box on our phone
  • pager or cell-phone for text messages
  • paper in a pad in our pocket
  • stack of Post-It notes
  • Twitter updates
  • Facebook message Inbox

The items that enter our Inboxes all have one thing in common — they have the potential for taking time out of our day.  They are meant to act as staging points for the rest of a user’s time management system.  As such, they are meant to be kept clear, and when they aren’t, a time management system can collapse entirely.

The perfectly designed Capture Point would have the following characteristics:

  1. it would be reliable, and hardly ever fail.  There would be some kind of backup available
  2. a user would have control over its use, and have the ability to turn it off and on as needed
  3. it would be designed with a way to prevent it from being overfilled
  4. it would make it easy for the user to move time demands to other points in a user’s system
  5. it would encourage the user to keep it empty, or very close to empty

The Outlook email Inbox is a Capture Point that is not designed as such.  Instead, it’s designed as a place to receive email.

If it were designed as a Capture Point, it might have the following:

  • auto-backup to a secure location outside the program
  • the ability to limit its size, and to issue warnings depending on how close the size is to its limit
  • built-in warnings regarding items that have spent too much time in the Inbox
  • a default setting that forces the user to accept email only on-demand, or at least on a daily schedule
  • appointments would be easier to make from incoming emails
  • there would be statistics that measure how well the Inbox is being managed
  • allow Twitter updates
  • the program would offer incentives (via games or visual cues) to encourage users to empty their Inboxes
  • a different location for the Inbox, pulling it out of the list of folders where it is visually lost, and given a huge icon that is more in line with its status as a major entry-point into the time management system

These are just preliminary ideas, and I am sure that there others.  One that I am fond of is a dashboard that shows the current state of a user’s time management system.  One very prominent indicator of good health is the state of a user’s Inbox — it’s a little like peering into someone’s eyes with a microscope to get a glimpse of their overall health.  On the dashboard would be a large graphic of the Inbox.

I imagine that there are many other ways in which the Inbox could be understood as a Capture Point — the only folder in Outlook that plays that very special role.  The key change in thinking is the new understanding that we now have — it’s more important for us to track time demands than it is for us to track emails.

This is especially true now, in 2009, when we know that not all email is useful, and for most professionals most of it is useless.  Instead, we have learned that time demands are much more important, and it so happens that quite a few incoming emails contain future time demands that must be carefully managed.

To be clear, the critical unit is not an email message, but a time demand.

The first Outlook-like program that is designed around time demands rather than emails will have a chance of bringing some much needed elegance to these programs.

Software Managed Interruptions

As I mentioned in prior posts, it’s quite important for a user of the 2Time approach to appreciate the goal of getting into the Flow state as often as possible.

This requires a minimum of interruptions, and luckily for us, there are some companies that are thinking about ways to manage email so that only the most urgent messages are presented as interruptions to whatever task we are doing.  For example, I am writing this article and don’t want to be interrupted, unless an email comes in that tells me something that requires urgent attention.

(Although, honestly, it would have to be life-shattering to stop me from completing this task.)

This line of thinking is shared in the article I found at BusinessWeek entitled May We Have Your Attention Please?

Soon, however, the same kinds of social networking software and communications technologies that make it deliciously easy to lose concentration may start steering us back to the tasks at hand. Scientists at U.S. research labs are developing tools to help people prioritize the flood of information they face and fend off irrelevant info-bytes. New modes of e-mail and phone messaging can wait patiently for an opportune time to interrupt. One program allows senders to “whisper” something urgent via a pop-up on a screen.

Hmmm…. that sounds promising.

It sounds like a big challenge, and I think these scientists are headed in the right direction.  After all, they are implicitly acknowledging how important it is to preserve the state of flow, and are trying to find ways to preserve it as much as possible.

However, I don’t know it if it’s more valuable than teaching a user to be more disciplined, and all the reasons why.  After all, users need to understand why Flow is important, and that it’s more efficient to check email a few times each day rather than every few minutes.  An effort spent to teach discipline would probably do more than new software would, especially as a user can ruin all the benefit of this new software with bad personal habits.

In other words, software might fix a problem that users have in the future, but it’s better to focus one the fact that they don’t understand the problem they have now.