Unscalable Habits

As working professionals, there are points in our careers when things take a turn for the worse in terms of our personal productivity.

The symptoms are sometimes clear to see.  All of a sudden, commitments start falling through the cracks.  We stop remembering all the things we think we should.  Our Inbox fills up with unprocessed time demands that sit around like ticking time-bombs, causing us to lose sleep.

People start complaining to us that we aren’t keeping our promises.  We often find ourselves late, stressed and cluttered.  Sometimes, we put on weight and our relationships start to falter due to lack of attention.

These are all events that indicate that something is awry and often come about because something in our lives has changed.  Some examples include:

  1. Significant life-changes take place, varying from getting married, having a new baby at home or needing to take care of an ailing parent.
  2. New, game-changing technology is introduced in our lives  and we are either unwilling or unable to learn how to use it well.  Facebook are smartphones are two examples of powerful time-savers when used wisely, but there are many who don’t use one or the other because they only see how addictive they can be.
  3. We accept greater responsibility at work, and as a result, the number of time demands we must process each day grows past a certain threshold that our current habits can’t handle.

Whatever the cause, the result is the same.  We feel as if we aren’t coping.

Our tendency is to blame life, and try to return things to the way they were when we were on top of things, even when it’s clear that there IS no turning back.  We want to go back to a time when our habits worked, but what we don’t realize is the fact that life changes, and even the best crafted habits need to evolve in pace with the fact that life never stands still.

We are actually victims of our success, as the habits that we used to succeed stopped working.

Take for example the simple habit of “putting things where you won’t forget them.”  It’s a great practice that we are taught when we’re very young. Visual cues are very powerful, and they can often be used to trigger necessary actions, such as remembering to pick up the house keys before leaving on a long trip.

The reason that so many professionals have overflowing Inboxes and lost time demands is that they use this practice in ways that are simply unsuitable.  When email comes in, they keep it in the Inbox — in order to remember to work on it later.  It’s the reason why Whittaker and Sidner’s research showed that 53% of the average user’s email is sitting in their Inbox, rather than a folder.

They might do the same with important paper.  They keep it on their desktops in order to remember to do something with it later.

The fact is, these tactics work when the number of email and paper-based time demands is low.  Once they increase past a certain threshold however, the result is chaos, as the very opposite happens.  Instead of helping someone to remember time demands, their very volume causes them to forget most of them, masking the commitments that they represent.

Another habit that works when volumes are low is “answering the phone each and every time it rings,” as we were taught as youngsters.  In 2011, answering the phone whenever it rings is a recipe for disaster, now that we have 24-7 access to smartphones.  Instead, we must turn phones off, ignore them and use voicemail in order to keep the peace of mind that comes from being productive.

The idea that no single pattern of habits, practices and rituals is good enough to last forever is at the heart of the 2Time system, which is what I call a “dynamic time management system,” as opposed to the “static” systems that others have invented.

If you are interested in learning how to upgrade your system on an ongoing basis for the rest of your working career, then there’s an opportunity coming up.

I’ll be offering MyTimeDesign 1.0.Free to the public again, and once again it’s free.  To sign up to be on the early notification list, simply visit http://mytimedesign.com and I’ll let you know when my 6-week, e-learning program will be open for registration.

How a Green Belt Delegates

Delegating is a critical practice for all working professionals, and I’m sometimes asked how a Green Belt should undertake this critical task.

It’s a tricky topic, because Green Belts delegate differently depending on the person to whom the task is being delegated, and the nature of the task.

To illustrate, imagine for a moment that you have two employees, and two tasks.  Task A is a critical item while Task B is not.  Wally White and Greta Green are your two employees, and as their names imply, they are White and Green Belts respectively.

Delegating Task B to Greta Green might not require any action other than the initial conversation, due to the nature of the task and Gret’s reliability.

However, delegating Task A to Wally is a risky business. Like most White Belts, he may decide to commit the item to memory in the hope that he’ll remember to undertake the action at a later time.   The chances are high that he’ll simply forget and the item will fall through the cracks of Wally’s system.

A Green Belt manager who is delegating the item won’t sweat it.  He’ll simply place a segment in his schedule to follow-up with Wally.  It might be the day after the item it delegated, or perhaps a week.  Also, the manager who notices that Wally has not written the item down may also send him an email summarizing the action to be taken.  He’s simply upping the odds that Wally will get the task completed.

The manager understands who he’s dealing with in these two cases, and spends no time lamenting the fact that Wally isn’t more like Greta.  Instead, he works with each person at their current level of skill, and changes his actions accordingly.

This tactic clearly involves a judgment call, as life almost never delivers clear-cut examples like the ones I described above.

Using Your Basal Ganglia to Change Habits

If you have ever wondered why it’s so hard to upgrade the habits, practices and rituals that make up your time management system, then you need look no further.  Apparently, it has a lot to do with brain physiology:

Similarly, if you want to create permanent new patterns of behavior in people (including yourself), you must embed them in the basal ganglia. Taking on new patterns (also known as learning) often feels unfamiliar and painful, because it means consciously overriding deeply comfortable neuronal circuitry. It also draws on parts of the brain that require more effort and energy, such as the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with deliberate executive functions such as planning and thinking ahead.

This intriguing article talks about the need to establish new habits through repetition, and the neural pathways that are created when enough attention is placed on taking actions like re-labelling certain responses.

As I mentioned in a prior post, the hardest part of teaching new time management techniques is not getting the mostly common-sense concepts across to the class.  Instead, it’s helping them to implement the new habits, practices and rituals required to make an effective upgrade.

There is no simple and easy answer to this challenge – I get the feeling from reading this article and others that the research is in its early days, especially when it comes to making changes that don’t involve life-threats (like smoking or taking drugs.)  Nevertheless, the article makes some important points, even though it doesn’t describe the need to create an environment that makes habit change easy.

That’s the Way We (Used to) Do Business Around Here from the Strategy and Business Journal.

Crazy Ways to “Save Time”

I have written a great deal about Blackberry abuse here on the 2Time website.  What I also try to emphasize is the fact that people who multi-task in dangerous, unhygienic, rude and unproductive ways develop these habits in order to try to save themselves time.

A new article at Insurance Networking News points out some of these insane behaviors, all of which relate to bad driving habits: 9 Most Common Distracted Driving Behaviors Revealed.

What will it take for us to see that it doesn’t make sense to engage in “time-saving” tactics that ultimately make things worse for us all?

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.

Escalating, Fool-Proof Habits

I have been tricked.  And I may need your help.

Perhaps the word “trick” is a bit too strong, but I’d love to hear what you think.

An unknown (but noticeable) number of people who take my courses appear to be following the statistic I recently read about trainees reverting to their old behaviors.  Apparently, the average is 87%.

I have been thinking about an experience shared by a friend of mine who used to be a personal trainer – not in time management, but in physical fitness.  She said that she eventually got bored with the profession because she felt that most of her job after the first two coaching sessions consisted of waking people and getting them to the gym.  In a way, she was forced to become a glorified nag.

Nothing wrong with that, and I can see that it could actually be effective in helping people lose weight.  At the same time, I can see my friend’s point.  A Masters degree  is generally not required in order to find a way to motivate a slow-moving client to get to the gym.

From the angle of changing habits, this kind of support is exactly what’s required.  In fact, I imagine that those trainers that are effective are able to craft a chain of “escalating interventions.”

Wat exactly do I mean by that term?

Many years ago I had a coach who agreed to work with me.  Due to an error, I missed the first appointment and when her contract came to me for signature, it had a proviso.  If I missed another session, her rate would go up by US$50 an hour.  If I were late once again, it would increase by another US$50 an hour.  (I’m not sure about the exact dollar amounts, but they were dramatic.)

In more than ten years of coaching sessions with her, I was never late.

Her “escalating interventions” set a very high bar for me, and it only worked because I was deadly serious about the game I was playing.  In my training programs, I want to do something similar, and use whatever means I cam to make a difference.

After a one day program, for example, I might offer 3 kinds of interventions, to help people in their habit changing.

Let’s imagine that the activities involve the following actions to be taken over a ten week period.
a) writing a weekly report and sharing it with the instructor, and someone else from the program
b) updating an on-line  daily checklist that involves mastering some new habits, while getting rid of some old ones
c) consuming a single piece of content from my blog 3 times per week and writing a summary of no less than 3 lines

I could imagine offering participants 3 mutually exclusive games to play with respect to this assignment:
No-Game: I don’t want to play a game and want to be left to myself. (I imagine that most participants will choose this option.)

Bronze Game: If I miss a weekly report, or 2 consecutive weekday checklists, or a single summary I pay US$50 to a company or organization that I despise

If I miss 2 weekly reports, or 4 weekday checklists or 3 summaries, I pay US$100 to the instructor’s favorite charity

Gold Game: If I miss a weekly report, or 2 consecutive weekday checklists or a single summary, I pay US$500 to a company or organization that I despise

If I miss 2 weekly reports, or 4 weekday checklists or 3 summaries, I pay US$1,000 to the instructor’s favorite charity

(The latter two games use principles built into the site Stickkit.com, which uses a service to  encourage people to change their habit.   I would also borrow the principle of using an impartial referee.)

At the end of the program, I could offer these games to participants, and give them the opportunity to take advantage of the feelings of high motivation that felt at the end.  I could also offer them a way to cancel the agreement within 3 days with no penalty, just to make sure they are serious.

What do you think?  I am really curious to see what effect this might have, and until I have some experience, I’d love to hear what you think!

Blackberry Addiction in South Africa

It seems that the Crackberry addiction is now afflicting South Africa, much as it has caught on here in Jamaica, where they have become a hot item for thieves.

What caught my eye is the symptoms of smartphone abuse, that I can truly relate to now that I own a Blackberry (it’s been less than a month.)

  • Feeling anxious if one cannot access one’s e-mail or retrieve text and instant messages, or are outside cellphone signal range to receive or make calls;
  • There is an uncontrollable need to check one’s BlackBerry every few minutes to see if there are new messages;
  • Mistaking random sounds as a ringtone or message alert for BlackBerry’s messaging service, BBM; and
  • Panic attacks when unable to locate one’s BlackBerry or if one has left a smartphone at home

The funniest part of the interview is that part where RIM’s representative says that “BlackBerry smartphones have freed people from their desks so that they have the flexibility and time to do the things that matter to them in their social and family lives.”

This is so wrong on many levels that I had a laugh at it… but it worries me that RIM only sees this teensy-weensy slice of the overall picture.

His comment deserves a post of its own, but until them, here’s the link to the article:  South Africans want to break smartphone addiction.

Hierarchy of the Un-Productive

I have noticed that when I work with people I am becoming quite a quick (and maybe unfair)judge of their ability to manage their time.

It might be because I have spent too much time thinking about and writing this blog, with its belt levels, time demands, practices, habits and the like.  I am always observing managers and executives to see what methods they are using to manage their time.

After all, almost everything I have learned about managing my own time has come from seeing what others are using — all I have done is to put some bits and pieces together to create the 2Time Management approach.

I have mentioned my acid-test on this blog:  when someone comes to me with a “great” idea I ask them to “call me next week Friday at 2:30pm.”  Most are unable to make the appointment, or even to remember that it was missed after the fact.  When confronted, they refer to their inability to remember stuff like that.

Here is a synopsis of professionals I have worked with who demonstrate different levels of productivity.  I might be a bit harsh in my judgments, but you may recognize some of these traits.

Alvin the Avoided
He is unreliable to the point that people around him refuse to work with him.  He may never know that he is being avoided, but he is the last person asked to undertake anything important.

Edna the Earnest
Edna is someone with the best intentions in the world, but none of the skills that it takes to manage her time well.  She lives and dies on the quality of her memory, and is reliable on good days, and simply awful on bad days.

Fred the Fearful
Fred does life simply — he refuses to do too much work for fear that it will be overwhelming.  His “plate is always full” and he is ready to provide  evidence of that sentiment at a moment’s notice.  He refuses to grow — the risk of failure is too great if he does and he insists on keeping things the same, no matter what.

Hurricane Harry
Harry is a very hard worker who always seems to be in the middle of a crisis.  He’s the right guy to have in such a case, but he’s hardy saving lives in the ER and he’s not a professional fireman.  The chaos around him makes him a dangerous person to entrust with very much, as it’s sure to be turned into a crisis of some kind instead of being resoved in an orderly, quiet manner.

There are others to be sure, and I am open to some suggestions to add to this list of observable types.

Giving up Scheduling on Graduation

I have been playing the video shown below in my NewHabits time management programs, primarily to illustrate Orange Belt scheduling skills.

It’s a great teaching video, as it shows clearly the advantage of using a schedule (even on paper) over a list, or personal memory. It’s an essential level of skill for college students who are taking lots of classes, have lots of assignments and want to do well.

In other words they are inundated with time demands, and many migrate to Yellow belt skills in order to deal with the volume they must handle.  As I watched the video I realized that I probably used these skills as a college student who had a full course-load, and a part-time job.

But something happened when I graduated.  All of a sudden the volume dropped, as I no longer had the same time challenges, and I recall the sense of relief I felt at no longer ever having to feel the pressure of an exam date.

Unfortunately, I also threw out the baby with the bathwater, and lost my Yellow belt Scheduling skills.

It wasn’t until later, when I started my own company, that I began to rediscover these skills.  Once again, it was in response to a huge increase in time demands, and a situation in which  I had to upgrade my skills in order to cope.

I imagine that I’m not alone here.

One of the basic tenets of Time Management 2.0 is that one’s skills are not fixed, and they change over time in response to the number of time demands we face in our lives. The problem comes when we practice our habits for so long that we lose the ability to change them, and even defend our old habits as somehow “fixed” and impossible to change.

The useful thing is to know that we can change them, and that they are indeed malleable, even though I’m sure it’s harder to teach older dogs like myself new tricks.

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!