How to Gain Control Over Your Data with The Informed Self

Informed Self

We live in a world in which we receive a lot of data, and behind it there’s an even greater avalanche promised. How do we make sense of it all? And who has the time?

App designers and developers who have found ways to gather this new data need to take a step further and teach us – the users – how to gain important insights without devoting our lives to sorting through mountains of information.

In the third and last piece of the manifesto for The Notified Self, I focus on a few of these skills. They are fast becoming a professional requirement for lives in the modern world where new sensors are giving us unprecedented access to data about ourselves and the world around us.

Now, we need to develop these hitherto unforeseen skills to merely keep up, a critical aspect of the equation that software and wearable companies seem to have overlooked.

Visit my article on Medium – How to Use Data-Driven Insights to Accomplish the Informed Self.

Exploring a New Definition – “The Warned Self”

Warned SelfI just posted a followup article on Medium that addresses the second component of The Notified Self.

It’s called “The Warned Self” and it’s all about creating alarms which alert you when a part of your life has become problematic.

As you can imagine, having this aspect of your life properly constructed can deeply enhance your peace of mind, preventing you from having to continually look over your shoulder.

The article is entitled How to Set Up “The Warned Self” to Protect Your Peace of Mind.

Productive Notifications on Your Blackberry

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

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

Principle of Uninterrupted Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Escalating Interrupters

check.jpgOnce I was late for a call with former coach.

What made it more significant  than just ordinary lateness was the fact that this was the first call we had arranged.

Her response was even more drastic, to my mind.  She put a clause in our contract that stated that if I were late for another call, the rate I as paying her would go up by 50%, and if I were late again, it would go up by 100%.

Needless to say, I was never late again!

This simple system of escalating reinforcement got me thinking.

Lots of people try to motivate themselves to develop new habits, but fail to create mechanisms that are designed to kick in when their commitment fails.  I’m not sure how this would work for getting rid of bad habits like smoking, but here is an idea of what it would look like for someone who wants to commit to exercise, for example.

Write a series of checks to a work-out partner (e.g. for US$50 each.)  Tell them that for each week that you keep your commitment to turn up at the gym, they are allowed to destroy one check.

If you don’t keep your commitment for a week, they are allowed to cash the check and spend the money in any way they decide.

Then, the game continues, except that the stakes are raised to US$100 per week instead.

The wonderful thing about this is that there is an actual cost for not showing up at the gym — the cost to one’s personal health.  So, in a way it’s just a vivid reminder that skipping a workout does not take place without a cost.

I think that many people would refuse to agree to this kind of self-reinforcement, simply because they are not serious, and would prefer to keep up a pretense of being committed.  If that were to happen, I think it would be a good thing, as it would separate serious commitments from casual, feel-good promises that we often make to ourselves.

What do you think?

Research on Interruptions

istock_000004136298xsmall.jpgIn other posts on this blog, I lament the lack of proper research in the entire field of time management, but recently I did come across the following paper that describes some empirical results in a study of interruptions.

The original article that quoted the study was  from the New York Times, and it’s entitled “When Texting Is Wrong.”

In the article, a paper was cited as a reference entitled “The Effects of Interruptions on Task Performance, Annoyance, and Anxiety in the User Interface.”  This, based on research conducted at the University of Minnesota.

The paper concludes the following:

 The key findings of this work are that (i) a user performs slower on an interrupted task than a
non-interrupted task, (ii) the level of annoyance experienced by a user depends on both the category of primary task being performed and the time at which a peripheral task is displayed, (iii) a user experiences a greater increase in anxiety when a peripheral task interrupts her primary task than when it does not, and (iv) a user perceives an interrupted task to be more difficult to complete than a noninterrupted task. The implication of these results is that we need to build systems, such as an attention manager, which help manage user attention among competing applications, thus mitigating the effects of unnecessarily interrupting a user.

Now, I have no idea what an “attention manager” is, and I suspect that the writers are looking at some piece of technology as a solution.

That struck me as a bit odd.  Imagine using one piece of technology, an attention manager, preventing a user from using another, such as a Blackberry.

How did we get to this point?

I think they’d be on firmer footing if they dealt with the face that individual habits create unwanted interruptions, and not the technology itself.

Blaming the technology is a little like blaming an alarm clock for ringing in the morning.  Alarms, Blackberries and iPhones do what they are programmed to do.  It’s crazy to blame them for performing functions that a user’s habits are making them perform.

But I guess that somewhere out there someone is selling an Attention Manager for US$19.95 and is about to make a few millions.

Ironically, buying the manager with a credit card, is a lot quicker than trying to change a habit if a user lacks the necessary skills.

Advanced Interruptions

In the 2Time Management system, there is a fundamental practice called “Interrupting” which is essential in helping to bring a user out of the Flow state when it’s time to move on to the next time demand, or it’s time to attend to an ermegency of some sort.

An article from 2008 in the New York Times entitled “Meet the Hackers” looks at some sophisticated ways to think about interruptions.  Here is an excerpt:

When Mark crunched the data, a picture of 21st-century office work emerged that was, she says, “far worse than I could ever have imagined.” Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else. What’s more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering e-mail messages, reading a Web page or working on a spreadsheet. And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task. To perform an office job today, it seems, your attention must skip like a stone across water all day long, touching down only periodically.

The article is worth reading, even if it is a bit outdated.  One scientist is researching the effect that Windows has on people’s productivity, which made me wonder if the tail wasn’t wagging the dog.

In other words, shouldn’t they be studying how people work, and then build software to help them accomplish the job they are trying to do?

I do hope that Microsoft and others are doing that kind of research.


Where Your Eyes Go Your Attention Flows

eyes-baby_blue_eyes_9tog.jpgBy special guest blogger — Andre Kibbe of Tools for Thought (

A great strategy for maintaining focus is to to set up visual cues that return your attention to your intention. Cues can take many forms: a photograph that represents some component of your ideal lifestyle, a written goal, an entry on your calendar, or a mind map that graphically details every aspect of a project.

Holding intentions entirely in the head without external reinforcement can work in an environment without distractions, but that’s not a reality for most people. Setting up review protocols helps us keep our eyes on the prize – or as productivity coach Jason Womack once said, “Where my eyes go my attention flows.” Here are a few ways to get your eyes going to where you want your attention flowing.

Make reviewing your calendar that very first action of the morning. Keep your day planner, PDA or printout of your desktop calendar on your nightstand, and review it when you wake up, before doing anything else. I use my smartphone as my alarm clock, with my wake-up alert as a calendar entry; so when the alert goes off, the calendar is evoked automatically.

This won’t necessarily be the only time you review the calendar that morning. It’s a good idea to review it at your work desk when you first sit down, or on your laptop when you first open it. But the idea is to use a visual cue to create a mental focus for the day before your attention has a chance to wander.

Set reminders to reinforce new habits. Behaviors we want to retain as habits are like facts that we want to keep in long-term memory. They need to be refreshed repeatedly.

I used to review my @Office action list rigorously, but frequently neglected to apply the same discipline at home. So I put a reminder in my tickler file to look at my @Home list. I filed the first reminder for two days later, then I refiled the reminder for three days later, then three days later again, then four, and so on in increasing intervals. The only criterion for deciding how far in the future to file it was the question: “When will I start forgetting to do this?”

You can apply the same principle for habits you want reminders of throughout the day by setting alarms on your watch or cell phone, asking yourself when you expect to forget the habit. I’m fond of using Twitter’s timer bot on my phone, sending the text message “d 180 log your activities” – where d sends a private message to the timer bot, and 180 is the number of minutes to receive the reminder from Twitter.

Set reminders for just before the time you think you’ll forget, not earlier. Memory research shows that repeating things when they’re still well remembered has a weaker reinforcement effect than at the brink of forgetting.

Make sure the actions on your task list can be visualized. Tasks that aren’t physical or visible are generally too abstract and unclear to motivate action. Replace verbs like “learn” with “read,” “plan” with “write,” “remind” with “call” or “email,” and so on. Being able to see yourself doing things helps clarify their execution, and reinforces your self-image as a doer.

Component/Fundamental #8 – Interrupting v2


In the book titled “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author talks about the optimal psychological state – one in which a person gets lost in the activity at hand. They get lost in time, and experience a kind of empty silence as they focus all their attention on the task at hand. Their creativity and productivity are as high as they can get.

Then the phone rings, someone answers it and someone wants to sell them stocks. They brush off the call, but not quickly enough. Their state of flow is gone.

They buckle down again, and 30 minutes later they are back in the flow state. They are once again focused, and time whizzes by.

That is, until they get a note from their spouse via their secretary that screams at them because they forgot to pick up their child, who is now languishing at the day care facility, and all of a sudden they are over two hours late.

While the state of flow is the best possible one to be in, it is potentially a dangerous one, because one’s full range of awareness is intentionally limited to complete the task at hand.

To effectively manage time, a user needs methods for both entering and interrupting the flow state. Continue reading “Component/Fundamental #8 – Interrupting v2”