No Time for 2 Hours of Time Management

I recently heard a complaint made by a trainer — no-one in their organization had enough time to take a 2 hour class in time management.

On one level it’s a bit of a joke… I remember hearing once that the very thing that we want to improve, keeps us from taking advantage of improvement opportunities.  For example, being “late to a class in procrastination” is an old chestnut that some resurrect now and again to knowing laughs.

On another level, it represents all that’s crazy about our hunger for instant results.  We refuse to believe in the slow, steady progress required for accomplishing results at a  world-class level in any discipline.  Instead, we spend time Googling for instant tips, magical shortcuts and cute tricks.  We want our improvements fast and easy, and we strenuously ignore messages to the contrary.

With respect to time management, we trick ourselves into thinking that it we buy the right gadget, or software package, then it will take care of everything for us.  If we get the right insight it will make all the difference in the world.  Unfortunately, we are wrong.  These tactics represent a basic misunderstanding about the ways that time management skills are improved, and the fact that they are made up of habits that take years to learn, and unlearn.

As Werner Erhard said, “understanding is the booby prize.”  So are the kinds of effortless insights that we love so much.  Instead, we should probably just pick one hard-to-learn common-sense habit and focus on it until we get to a half-decent standard, before moving on to learn another.  There’s more to gain from that kind of activity than any of the sexy or shiny stuff that seems so exciting at first blush.

Nothing New in Time Management

I sense that there is a certain fatigue around the topic of time management.

I remember a time in the early 1990’s when productivity tools were all the rage, and you wouldn’t be caught dead without a DayTimer, FiloFax or Dayrunner folder equipped with custom tabs from Staples or Office Depot.

These weren’t entertainment devices, communication gadgets or portable search engines.  They were designed for productivity… and that was it.

Nowadays, the buzz around smartphones has little to do with productivity and time management, and more to do with stuff like connecting with your friends using Facebook Places and upping your score in Cityville.

Sexy?  Absolutely.  Productive? Not really.

Most of the articles related to the topic of time management consist of “Quick and Easy Tips,” “Top 10 ShortCuts…” and “Simple ways to gain two extra hours each day.”  We want our time management like our fast food.  Quick. Cheap. Filling. Instant.

Unfortunately, for those who are really interested in improving their skills there is little of substance, and little that’s new.  The market for instant time management tips has been saturated with books and websites touting hundreds of instant, effortless tips.

The get-rich-quick mentality has infected time management with its promise of fast results with little or no investment, risk or effort.

It’s the reason why so many companies are giving out Blackberry’s as the solution to issues of productivity.   If your employees are complaining because you have each of them doing the work of three people, then “Let em eat cake!”  Buy them a Blackberry, and that will be enough to do the job.

Those who are serious about improving their time management skills are tired of the tips and tricks, and aren’t looking for another gadget to buy.  They are already weary of these “solutions,” even if the general public seems quite to be quite happy.

They are focused on the 11 fundamentals of time management, and improving their overall skill by practicing each one at progressively higher levels.  They are like professional athletes who isolate parts of their game, and spend hours eking out small improvements via structured practice, often with the help of a coach, but often by working just by themselves.

It’s what most people call “anal.”

But it’s just not like that if you are serious about improving.  Instead, ut’s the price that must be paid for sustained achievement in any field.

Tiger probably spends very little time scouring the internet for easy, instant tips, and a lot of time in practice sand-traps perfecting his methods for digging out half-buried balls.  In the sun, wind and rain.

The same applies to Grand Masters in chess, Grand Slam winners in tennis and top NASCAR drivers.

Time management is no different, and I see that part of my job in 2Time and MyTimeDesign is to provide a viable pathway for improvement for any professional who is serious, and willing to discover what habits they need to work on in order to take their game to the next level.

This is a trickier assignment for those who are already operating at high levels of accomplishment (i.e. Green Belts and above) but Zen speaks of a beginner’s mind that comes with superior achievement.  I believe that the same applies to professionals who are ultra-productive and can manage a huge number of time demands — they don’t believe they have reached as they can see more clearly than others how far they still have to go.

Leaving Practice with Raw Hands

As I mentioned in my prior post: “The Pedagogy of Time Management,” there is a need for anyone who wants to improve their skills in this field to craft specific opportunities for structured practice.

Mark Needham’s summary of Talent is Overrated describes three kinds of practice from the book:

With regards to improving skills, three models are suggested for non-work related practice:

  • Music Model – Break down activity into smaller pieces; analyse each for ares of improvement; repeatedly practice each area. This is a useful approach for practicing presentations and speeches where we know beforehand what we want to do.
  • Chess Model – Study real games; practice the situations from the games; compare what you did vs what happened in the real game. This approach has been applied in business for many years, disguised as the case method.
  • Sports Model – re-learn the basics of the field; simulate situations that may come up in real life.

He goes on to apply these models to the improvement of software development skills in an interesting way:

I think some parts of each of these models can be applied to software development. From the sports model we can take the idea of re-learning the underlying principles of computer science and how our code is actually working behind the abstractions languages create for us; from the chess model we can take the idea of considering different options when we have a choice to allow us to select the one which will best solve our problem; and from the music model we can take the idea of identifying specific areas of improvement in our work and relentlessly working on these.

That’s cool thinking… and it makes me wonder how I can do the same with time management skills.

Ever since I created the NewHabits training programs I have wanted to include practice sessions – the equivalent of hitting shots from the driving range – but I have been unable to think of a realistic way to do this.

I’d love some help on this.  Is there a way to practice the 7 fundamentals – (Capturing, Emptying, Tossing, Acting Now, Storing, Scheduling and Listing) in a classroom environment?

Also, is there a surefire way for someone who wants to improve their skill in a particular area to focus on practicing that skill in keeping with the guidelines for deliberate practice from Talent is Overrated?:

  • Designed to improve performance
  • Can be repeated a lot
  • Feedback continuously available
  • Highly demanding mentally
  • Not much fun

I don’t think I’m the only one with this challenge, and from prior posts you might find that I have been struggling with this question for a while, and that progress has been slow.  Why?

Let’s look at some of the critical skills in Capturing:

– carrying something to capture with at all times

– capturing manually, instead of using memory

– maintaining a backup strategy

At one point, I have imagined an elaborate real-life case study in the middle of my live programs, in which a manufactured crisis results in participants having to use these three skills.  One fantasy involved a fake fire-alarm, mysterious phone calls involving elaborate instructions and a rapid response requiring information that had to be successfully captured in order to be used.

What I was thinking…???

I also am not a great believer in “analogy” learning exercises… for example, showing the importance of Capturing by going out to a ropes and logs course to do physical activities that teach similar lessons.  There is a certain physical motion required to Capture, and it’s this action that must be practiced… (Michael Jordan didn’t practice passing a basketball by playing soccer.)

The difficulty seems to be that it’s devilishly hard to re-create the original events that trigger manual capturing in the average day.  (This is distinct from automatic capturing, which happens when someone sends you an email, for example.  It requires no action on our part.)

What are these triggering events?  Here are a few “cases:”

  • as you are sitting at your desk you remember to pick up the milk on the way home from work
  • during a meeting, your boss asks you to meet with a customer, and you agree
  • you decide to open a new Gmail account for personal email
  • you put in place a backup strategy for those moments (like a day at the beach) when you don’t have anything to write with and you want to remember to remove the chicken from the freezer when you get home, and to send email to the guy in accounts receivable the following day

Each of these events naturally leads to the use of one of the critical skills in Capturing.  Something must happen at that critical moment for the user to realize that this is an opportunity to practice a new time management skill.

As an aside — let me explain how that works in my training.  Each person evaluates their current Capturing abilities using a scale ranging from White to Green Belt skills.  Some decide to make an upgrade, and pick up new habits.  In other words, they decide to engage in a brand new practice in response to the usual events they face each day.  (Take my online Capturing Quiz to see what I mean.)

The question is, how do they know (in the heat of the moment) that this is an opportunity to Capture using a new habit (by writing down the new time demand on a pad of paper) rather than using their old habit of, for example, committing it to memory?

And, how do they remember to practice that new skill until it becomes a new habit?

At this time, all I can think of is that they can engage in a form of visualization, in which they picture the event happening and their new, preferred response.  It might require a short definition such as “when I commit to a time demand in a meeting I immediately write it in my paper pad.”

Also, they could get a colleague or their boss to help them recognize and point out those moments when they say things like:

  • “I forgot / didn’t remember”
  • “I was too busy”
  • “I didn’t have enough time”
  • “I had too much to do”

These might be indicators that an error in Capturing took place.

They could also look for themselves to see the times when they don’t capture well, and time demands fell through the cracks.  I imagine something like a Crack Score to be kept by an individual who tracks the number of time demands that fall through the cracks each day, and some record of the source of the error.  In some cases, it might be traced back to a fault in Capturing.

While you may read this and think to yourself, “I would never bother with all that!” you may want to take note of the message of Talent is Overrated as related by the Fundamental Soccer blog:

2) Deliberate practice can be repeated a lot. High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts. Tiger Woods may face that buried lie in the sand only two or three times in a season, and if those were his only opportunities to work on that shot, he’d blow it just as you and I do.

Repeating a specific activity over and over is what people usually mean by practice, yet it isn’t especially effective. Two points distinguish deliberate practice from what most of us actually do. One is the choice of a properly demanding activity just beyond our current abilities. The other is the amount of repetition.
Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent. Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest hitter, would practice hitting until his hands bled. Pete Maravich, whose college basketball records still stand after more than 30 years, would go to the gym when it opened in the morning and shoot baskets until it closed at night.

Talent is Overrated is unambiguous on the point — if you want to get better, then deliberate practice is THE “secret sauce” that high achievers have been applying behind the scenes in order to accomplish the amazing goals that we so admire in ALL fields.

Time Management is no exception, and the widespread mediocrity that passes for acceptable performance around the globe, in virtually every workplace, will only be reversed with a commitment to deliberate practice.

You Think We Don’t Know

A few weeks ago, I was talking with someone on the phone, and in the middle of the conversation, I felt things shift slightly.

All of a sudden, her replies got just a bit slower, and her answers became a bit shorter.

Sure enough, when I paused for breath, I could hear the quiet clunk of her keypad’s keys in the background. She was now “multi-tasking.”

As the quality of the conversation plummeted, she did what we all try to do when we think we get busted. She gave a response that was a little bit longer than necessary, trying to prove that she was indeed listening.

Which I guess she was, but I certainly didn’t have 100% of her attention. That, of course, was what I wanted.

I am thinking that it’s time for a new personal policy… no talking over other people when they are using their smartphone or keyboard, unless I am dictating information. That doesn’t seem to be a bad idea.


Green Belt vs. White Belt Excuses

One of the key differences that I explain in my training classes between White and Green Belts is the excuses they give when something fails.

Let’s imagine that both are late for a function such as a wedding, by 30 minutes.

White Belts would often explain the error by using an excuse that’s memory based:
– “I forgot what time it started”
– “I couldn’t remember the directions”
– “Another appointment I didn’t recall came up at the last minute”

These excuses are consistent with the White Belt habit of using memory, following on the memory skills that were were all  taught in school.

On the other hand, a Green Belt who arrives at the same time would say something like:
– “My capture point was destroyed”
– “My emptying has broken down”
– “I didn’t follow my schedule”

In other words, they look for problems in their personal time management system, and attempt to diagnose it in a way that would allow for a permanent solution.

The White Belt, however, has no easy remedy, because there isn’t a tried and true way to improve memory, especially when it comes to time demands that get created each day.  Over time, in fact, their memory is likely to worsen, and so will their time management system.

White Belts depend on memory.  Green Belts depend on reliable systems.


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!


Saving Time in Costly Ways

A hilarious new video from Windows Phone 7.

On a serious note, each of these people is trying to save time and be more productive – using unproductive habits. (At least none of them is driving… that would be a bit too realistic, and not-funny-at-all.)

The Taxonomy of Teaching Kids

I just read a fascinating article from the New York Times entitled Building a Better Teacher.

It’s a long article, but what got my attention was the fact that it’s built on a search for the fundamentals of teaching.

It turns out that teacher quality is the single most important variable in the ability of students to learn in a classroom setting.  The article describes the years of research that’s been done to identify the practices that good teachers use to produce results.  They selected the teachers to study that are able  to produce results in some of the poorest schools in the US, where resources and family support is below average.

The researchers have isolated these practices in a way that that has put them into words, and has helped teachers to begin to set up sessions to master individual skills in coaching sessions with other teachers.

It turns out that a lot of things that schools and teachers do to impact their effectiveness don’t really matter, and a few things do that are not that hard to learn with enough dedicated practice time.

In other words, it’s a bit like the world of time management.

The journalist who wrote the article reported that many teachers and well-meaning experts are looking for improvement in the wrong places.

I believe the same is true in the case of time management.  Some of the approaches that have a minimal effect include:

– trying to follow someone else’ system of habits without regard for one’s current habits

– improving by ignoring habits and instead focusing on things like “energy,” “attitude” and “motivation”

-over-simplifying the challenge that we all have of changing ingrained habits quickly, whether it involves learning or un-learning habits

It struck me that it took a long time to develop this taxonomy, and that it’s all based on empirical research that’s been captured on film.

I started to wonder… how long will it take to popularize the concept of Time Management 2.0? After all, like the teaching researchers, I am actually (and mostly) putting some names to things which people have done for many years.

I am also daunted by the fact that years and years of work has been put into the taxonomy of teaching, and that I have spent only 4 years on this effort, but I haven’t started any kind of empirical research.


Here is the link once again to “Building a Better Teacher.”

A Typo, a Move and Some Lost Habits

istock_000005291546xsmall.jpgI was hardly prepared for so many things to fall apart when I recently moved my home, and by extension, my home-office.

Things came to a head a few minutes ago when I noticed the topic of a post I wrote: “Procrasination Teleseminar.”

At least I didn’t put off fixing the typo until later…

But I did  ask myself why it is that a move is so disruptive, and why so many of my habits developed over the past few years simply dropped out of sight once we started packing

That’s not all that happened to my .

Gargling each morning with peroxide has been shown to reduce incidences of the common cold by almost 30%.

After moving almost two weeks ago, the practice disappeared.  I didn’t even remember that it had now become a habit that I was doing each morning without missing a beat.

It re-appeared only when I discovered the peroxide bottle nestled in one of the boxes marked “bathroom.”

What bothered me in particular was that I had nurtured this habit from the point where it was just an idea, until it grew into a daily ritual.  I used my habit tracker to keep it in front of me each morning, and I rarely forgot to gargle right after bathing in the morning.

That is, until I moved and the whole practice completely dropped out of sight.

Why is this important to time management?

As I have established in prior posts, time management systems are made up of habits.  These repetitive actions are  the atoms of each and every system that humans use to get their lives done each day.

They are tough to learn, yet when they are practiced enough they become second nature and in turn become difficult to change.  I do know that my habits gain a certain neuro-muscular back-bone as they take their place in the group of actions that I take each day without really thinking about them consciously.

What I learned is how that many habits of mine are actually hard-wired into their physical surrounding.  Change the surroundings dramatically, and many habits will simply cease to exist.


When the physical environment changes, many of the cues that we use to spur us into action are removed.  No prompts, no action.

For example, I had the peroxide for my daily gargle beside my toothbrush, making it easy to remember to use each day.

I had  a desk supporting my habit list for the day written into my Palm Tungsten, and each morning I’d check off the items on the list.

Now, take away the peroxide bottle and the desk and you have a problem.

At the moment I don’t have a clear solution.  All I can do is to give a warning that a physical move can  signal the demise of any time management system.

Procrastination Article – A Point I Missed

istock_000001479642xsmall.jpgI wrote an article for the StepCase LifeHack website on the topic of procrastination after getting a bit pissed that the word was getting a bad name!

(If you read the article by clicking at the link below you’ll get the lame joke that I just made.)

It’s a serious article, however, on a problem that I think afflicts professionals from White to Green belt levels alike — being hobbled by what they call procrastination.

After writing it, however,  it struck me that I missed one tiny point.

What I didn’t mention are those people who make indefinite commitments without due dates, and instead make vague promises to themselves to do something in the future.  The thing never gets done as a result, or only after they think it “should” have been done.

This is also called “procrastination” but is it really?

I believe it’s also the same kind of mistake that I mention in the article… a real problem with the wrong label.  A better label for this particular problem would be “habits that need to be changed.”  In 2Time language,  it might mean upgrading one’s skills in 3 fundamental disciplines: Capturing, Emptying and Scheduling.

This would solve the problem of putting off vague promises indefinitely.

But how do we get over the problem that has so many saying:  “I procrastinate too much!” ?

The answer is over at the Stepcase Lifehack website in my new article — Click here to  read “Procrastination — NOT a Problem.”

P.S. Sorry for the gap in posts — I have been working hard on MyTimeDesign 2.0 for its January release, and I also moved homes here in Kingston.  Doing both made me procrastinate… in the good way!