How to Decide – Will a Tablet Help or Hurt My Productivity?

8137908684_df848e3622_cRecently I submitted an article I hope will be published by the Harvard Business Review blog having to do with performing an analysis of your productivity system before buying and trying to implement a new gadget.

I know… it sounds so blindingly obvious when I put it this way… analysis before purhase… except that most professionals have no idea how to do such an analysis even if they wanted to. For the vast majority, the thought doesn’t even cross their mind.

Manufacturers aren’t interested in doing more than putting out fancy advertisements with beautiful graphics, and getting people to line up outside their doors for the latest version with the coolest features. They only offer technical assistance on how to manipulate the device and access its doo-dahs.

They certainly don’t give a fig whether or not the damned thing actually helps you in the end or not. Not as long as you join the line for the latest upgrade at the appropriate time.

One of the blessings of my moving to live here in Jamaica might have been the need to adopt a “simpler” lifestyle. (Some would see that as a euphemism for what we call “broke-pocket.”) When I lived in the US, the latest gadget was literally five minutes away sitting on a shelf at Best Buy, waiting for me to arrive. Now, I don’t have that kind of access.

Here in the “developing world” one pays a 50% premium (due to import duties, extra shipping, higher security needs and high sales taxes) or waits for someone to bring a device down from the US at a reasonable price; which involves handling a number of tricky logistics.

Each option involves a waiting time… a cooling-off period. During this time, the effect of the envy, advertising or whatever else is driving the purchase wears off. In its place rises some well-placed doubts about the value of the purchase and its actual contribution to my productivity system.

For example, I went through a number of gyrations before buying my first smartphone. I took months to make a decision that takes others seconds, and I enjoyed asking the question – “Of what benefit is this… really?” I’m glad I did that, because when I do something stupid like answering the phone while driving on our infamous Junction Road, I am hyper-aware of the danger that I am putting myself and others in. (The truth is, I have scared/informed myself into picking up calls while driving in only the rarest of circumstances. I tell myself “I don’t care if Jesus Himself is calling…”)

Now, I’m feeling the itch to buy a shiny new tablet.

Oh sure, there is some gadget envy. My Mom just bought an iPad. The only reason I haven’t commandeered it (for experimental purposes of course) is that she’s away for a few months in Africa. Too hard to borrow it for a few hours.

Beyond these feelings is another one related to my productivity that I felt acutely, and its arisen because of a gap.

I use my calendar as my command center for all time demands, and I have two options at the moment to get into it: use my laptop – Outlook or Gcal – or use my smartphone. When I sat down at the desk this morning I felt the need to shuffle around my calendar for the day. Fifteen minutes later, I was finally able to start doing so.

Why? My laptop had to be rebooted. Both of my screens were useless while it updated whatever stuff it seems to like updating every single time it slows to a crawl. Thank you Microsoft. My smartphone screen is too small to see or do anything. (It’s a Blackberry 9700.) I doubt that a Samsung Galaxy screen would be big enough.

As I sat waiting, I started to feel the need for another screen, one that is instantly on that provides the kind of real estate that I need to get in and out of my calendar in a few minutes. In other words, I started to imagine, I need a tablet.

Well, that’s where my mind jumped and I have a few good reasons for doing so. Here’s a video of someone manipulating their iPad’s calendar in exactly the way I imagine.

Research shows that more screen space equates to greater productivity, a fact which I know from having two screens running at all times, not including my smartphone’s mini-screen.

There might be other solutions than a tablet, and I’m wiling to explore them, but once again I am back to where I was with my smartphone decision. I don’t have a single guideline to work with, other than “buy it and try it.” (Or, in my case, “wait until Mom returns from Africa and then borrow it and try it.”) Best Buy’s generous return policies meant that I could return it if I didn’t like it. It might come as news to some that here in the developing or Third world, that’s not an option.

But even if I bought/borrowed it, what the heck would I be using to evaluate its value to my productivity system? I suspect that I’d end up wanting to keep it for other reasons, like it’s effect on my friends, my ego, or the movies that I can watch while sitting on the beach… This productivity stuff would just be forgotten in a flood of cool graphics.

The fact is, I have nothing – not even a set of the most rudimentary tests to perform.

The gist of my proposed article to HBR is that we know how to make smart decisions around big corporate purchases like whether or not to use Oracle or Itanium servers. There is an established discipline for making such decisions.

However, when you hear that a company’s board has banned smartphones from its meetings you have to wonder. What sequence of stressful events led to that decision, and did it involve hilarious Pavlovian behavior?
“Put down that smartphone, Smith, we are trying to make a multi-million dollar decision here.”
“Give me a second, please, my next-door neighbor’s daughter just poked me, and I need to poke her back.”

How many of these incidents did it take for someone to “move a formal motion to prohibit smartphone use during board deliberations.” It’s remarkable that a supposedly time-saving device was inserted into the lives of the most powerful people in the company, whose productivity then became corrupted and disabled to the point where they could no longer make independent decisions.

I want to come up with something that helps me make this particular decision, before I buy one for lesser reasons or receive one as a gift: breaking the spell of not having one, and thinking about its value with some rigor. Once the spell is broken, I know from my smartphone acquisition that the device will fade into my system, and become invisible to me, even as it helps / hinders my productivity.

I notice that my mind jumps to what brand tablet I should consider, but that’s just too far down the chain of decisions to start. I need to be closer in time to the moment when I need to have instant, easy access to my calendar, and imagine myself reaching for… <fill in the blank> …in order to…<fill in the blank.>

Before the Palm was invented, Jeff Hawkins walked around with a block of wood in his pocket, pretending that his vision had been realized, and getting an idea of what he’d use it for, and when. That makes me think… not about blocks of wood, but starting to visualize what the perfect solution might be. For example, should it be a single-purpose device like my bottom of the scale Kindle, which is for reading books or listening to audio-books, and nothing else?

So, I need to go do some research on how to make productivity equipment decisions. After all, someone in this world must buy stuff like monster tractors. How do they decide what to buy? I imagine that the cost of making a mistake is enormous, so they might have figured out some decent critera, and a useful process.

I’d bet, however, that the same guy who buys those tractors is the one ahead of you in the line at the Apple Store, thirsting to get the latest i-whatever. After this article, you might be the only one to find it ironic.

P.S. If you know anything about buying monster tractors, let me know.






Ways to Avoid Digital Distractions

For some strange reason, the world is conspiring to keep us in a constant state of digital distraction.  It affects our productivity, and ruins our peace of mind… while robbing us of that great feeling that comes from knowing we had a great day, in which we got a lot of good stuff done.

Solve the problem with the latest ideas in time management that get all the way down to the ways in which you manage your smartphone, tablets and other gadgets.

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.

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.

Blackberry-Specific Habits

This is a great article written by a friend of mine – Ian Price – for the Guardian newspaper in the UK.

One of the startling statistics he quotes is the fact that Blackberry users spend much more time checking email on weekends than those without.  It backs up an argument I have been making:  an employee with a smartphone is better for a manager than one without… at least in the short term.

It might be worse for the employee, their families, their friends and also for the company in the long-run, but managers who require their employees to check email on weekend needn’t worry.

Ian also makes the point that those who like to appear busy have found the perfect companion in their smartphones, but this frenetic attention comes at a price — lower productivity via less quiet, reflective time that’s needed to do deep thinking.  It echoes the words of the book “Flow” perfectly.

Here is the link to Four-Day Working Week? Three Cheers!

Using My First BlackBerry

I spent a few minutes today setting up my first Blackberry… this after writing several articles about the way that the device is being abused by working professionals around the world.

It’s barely been a day, but I am coming to understand its addictive nature, and why people seem so engrossed by them, especially to those who are non-users.

#1: the screen and keyboards are very, very small compared to the usual freedom I have using a laptop with one or two screens and keyboards.  It feels as if I’m threading a needle every time I pick it up, and my bifocals are finally getting the workout they deserve as I quint, furrow my brow and tune everything out in order to hit small key, teensy radio buttons with a slippery feeling trackball.

#2:  as a practitioner of the Zero Inbox, push email drives me crazy.  To the new user, this is crazy.  My device, a not-so-new Curve 8320, does not allow me to turn off email.  I must either disable every communication app off (the browser, email and even the phone) or keep them all on.  This is awfully distracting, as it’s very hard to work with a single email while others are pouring in at the same time.  Isn’t there an app for that?

All in all, I appreciate the convenience of mobile email, but so far it’s not a game-changer in productivity terms.  Maybe I need to find the games that have fast become the most popular items used… but where are they?

What Happened to Smart Technology Choices?

Corporations making large-scale technology changes have learned over the years that it’s a big mistake to go out and buy the biggest, newest flashiest product available on the market without first doing a thorough study of the company’s needs.

In fact, there are procurement guidelines set up for precisely that purpose and best practices that govern the process so that all the right factors are appropriately weighed before a decision is made.  Some professionals make a career in this area, and have developed skills that are highly prized due to the critical nature of certain technology choices, and the high costs involved.

However, up until now, academics and corporate executives have focused on the purchase of single large, complex systems.  My research isn’t complete in this area, but I can’t find any critical thinking to help executives make another kind of technology decision that corporations make — the decision to equip their employees with individual, portable technologies like smartphones.

What are the differences between these kinds of decisions?

Purchasing a Single Large System
– the price per unit is high
– a failure is highly visible
– the processes and requirements are usually well defined before vendors are sought
– implementation, training and maintenance are seen as important elements of the process
– total-cost-of-ownership methods are used
– there is clear accountability for, and measurement of the business impact

Purchasing Smartphones
– the price per unit is low
– failures are almost invisible (such as a near-accident brought on by texting while driving)
– the processes that people use are not defined before vendors are sought
– no training is offered
– the cost of owning the gadget is seen as the price
– there is no-one accountable for the business impact, or any measurement

Here is an imagined “worst case process” that takes place when a company decides to make a smartphone purchase:

1.  The CEO or other executives fall in love with their new smartphones, as it enables them to communicate with each other outside hours, during vacations, weekends, sick days, holidays and from any point in the world
2.  They decide to make the units mandatory for all employees
3.  They offer no training, and no new company policies are crafted
4.  Anecdotal evidence floats up to the executive suite that the devices are being abused, and the CEO takes them seriously when he notices that his meetings at all levels are taking longer because at any moment, half the attendees are someplace in cyberspace via their smartphones.  Among his executives he seems unable to conduct a half hour conversation without someone stopping to answer a call, check email or send a text.  He learns that some companies are banning smartphones from meetings altogether, citing addictive behavior driving up the time spent in meetings
5.  He commissions a study which shows that among his employees, smartphones are being used in the following way:
– 85% are texting while driving
– 72% use their smartphones in the bathroom
– game playing and social networking are the most popular everyday use
– 80% use their device in meetings
– 28% are afraid that they’ll lose their jobs if they are not available on weekends
– 35% answer messages on sick days
– 45% check messages between 12am and 6am
– 70% believe that some overall productivity has been lost, even as 80% “enjoy” their device
6.  He decide to come down hard, and bans non-business apps from being used, blocks social networking and gaming websites and purchases a new technology to block internet access from smartphones within company vehicles, and meeting rooms
7.  The annual company survey reveals a new complaint — work-life balance is suffering as employees complain about being “always on” and required to be available to be at work even when they are trying to get away from work.  A quick check with IT reveals that the volume of email has exploded, driven by new messaging on weekends and holidays.  Also, they report that employees are taking inordinately long periods of time in picking up their gadgets for the first time, or retrieving them from the repair shop.
8.  The CEO establishes a joint team between IT/HR and Operations to look at the issue
9.  A followup study shows that 88% believe that overall productivity has fallen, and a mere 33% are “enjoying” their device
10.  The joint team recommends training for each employee, plus a raft of new policies about the company’s expectations of employees when they are not at work

If you can imagine this sequence of events, you can probably see that the initial error was to skip the customary needs analysis study that is required of large-system purchasing decisions.  The executive team, like many managers, made several assumptions about  their employees’ behaviors and needs.  What’s remarkable is that in this case, everyone is trying their best to save time and boost productivity, even as obvious mistakes are being made.

In most companies, however, a decision to provide employees with “time-saving technology” is made without a good understanding of the complexity of individual behavior in the area of time management.  They don’t take into account the fact that each employee has a unique, home-made productivity system that they put together for themselves as young adults or teenagers.

Employees lack the skill needed to evaluate their time management systems, in order to decide how best to affect an improvement.  That’s why so many unproductive, and unexpected habits cropped up in the “worst-case” described above.  The time-saving technology ended up affecting employee safety, productivity, etiquette and hygiene in negative ways.

Fortunately, there is a great deal that can be learned from the methods used to purchase large systems:
Lesson 1 — understand the current system to be improved.  In this case it means, bring every employee to the point where they understand their current time management system
Lesson 2 — help employees determine the gaps in their current systems, by giving them access to best practices
Lesson 3 — look for process changes that need to be made.  In the case of individuals, this translates into new habits, practices and rituals of time management
Lesson 4 — source new technology
Lesson 5 — train employees to use the new technology within company guidelines and policies
Lesson 6 — monitor the implementation and adjust as necessary

The case described above is not an example of one large mistake, but instead it involves a small mistake repeated many times.  The end-results are no different, but the lack of accountability for and measurement of individual productivity in most companies allows the problem to gain the momentum that it shouldn’t.

If there’s a place to start at a high level it might be to clearly assign responsibility for individual employee productivity to one executive, and give them the authority to decide on how best to use technology to make improvements.

P.S.  This is a new area of research for me, so I’d appreciate any related sources of information that you might know of.

The Herbie in Time Management

I’m writing an article that I’m submitting to the Harvard Business Review, and in the process I asked my subscribers for feedback on the latest draft.

In the process, I received a great response that was more than just a comment on what I had written.  Instead, it was a thesis of sorts, about the ways in which technology should be helping us to become more efficient.  The author argued that we need to figure out our true needs before looking for new technology. This is in contrast to buying technology and then figuring out how it can help… in a haphazard kind of way.

When it comes to smartphones, I agree.  For example, I’d argue that many people who bought smartphones are actually using them as “time-saving” devices, when I’m not sure that’s what they were intended to be.

For example, a small device that allows you to get email wherever you go could be either a laptop, iPad or smartphone.  However, the particular advantages of smartphone design have lead to professionals using them in unlikely and unproductive ways, all in order to save time.

Obviously, the inventors at Apple, Palm and RIM did not intend to invent devices that would lead to habits such as:
– dangerous distracted driving
– rude interruptions in mid-conversation
– holidays spent working instead of relaxing
– 3:00am games of email ping-pong
– people checking messages hundreds of time per day just in case something interesting has come in that they missed

– employees who believe that their management is forcing them into overtime work that intrudes on personal space

These new widespread practices are smartphone-specific.  The technology itself calls forth new and different habit patterns.  It’s clear that the technology needs to be evaluated in a unique way, especially as it’s not too hard to predict a time when all employees are either expected or mandated to carry these devices at all times.

The author of the comment, however, went further than that and made the point that a proper evaluation of one’s time management system needs to be made before technology is contemplated.  This made me think of the book “The Goal” by Eli Goldratt.

In this business fable which is about optimizing the ways in which factories operate, the main takeaway is that it’s best to find the single, greatest point of weakness and work to improve it.  Goldratt calls this his “Theory of Constraints.”

I believe that the same idea applies to individual time management systems.  As Goldratt illustrates in his book, in complex system it’s easy to improve the wrong thing, leading to no overall improvement.

In an early paper I wrote after starting this blog, I made this point.  In ”The New Time Management – Toss Away the Tips, and Focus on the Fundamentals” I argued that people were barking up the wrong tree by chasing down the latest list of “Top 10 Time Management Tips!!”  Instead, they should be focusing on practicing the fundamentals of time management with a view to making incremental improvements.

The comment on my article went further, and made me think that the 2Time system of 11 components can be used as a method to find “Herbie’s” – Goldratt’s name for bottlenecks, or weak points.  For example, if you learn that you have a Yellow Belt in 9 disciplines and a White Belt in 2, it probably makes sense to focus on improving the 2… rather than buying an iPad because ”they are just so cool!”

As cool as new devices are, they might do nothing for your fundamentals.

In fact, they might do some damage.

If the average person who upgrades to a smartphone ends up engaging in new, unproductive habits 6 months later then we are right to ask – “what’s the point?”

The fact is, smartphones are not all bad.  In a prior post, I described the process I’m undertaking to decide whether or not to upgrade from my bottom-of-the-line, monochrome cell phone.

At the moment, I’m leaning towards the upgrade, but I have developed 2 principles –
Principle #1 – Do No harm
I want to make sure that I don’t pick up any nasty habits that are obviously unproductive.  For example, I have made myself a promise to never use the device while driving (or in the bathroom, movie theater, while cycling, etc.)
I am simply barring myself from these habits.  (Wish me luck!)

Principle #2 – Real Upgrades
So far, I haven’t been successful in finding real ways that the device will add to my productivity in terms of the fundamentals.

There are other some gains to be made by having a convenient way to access mobile email, instant messages and web browsing but these still don’t impact any of the fundamentals in a profound way.

However, I am confident that new innovations, apps and add-ons are coming that will make impact the fundamentals, and I do want to take advantage of them as they arise… and perhaps make a suggestion or two.  This means that I have to get into the game at some point… but it’s hardly an urgent need on my part.

I might have to make some adjustments, however.  For example, my primary manual capture point is currently a paper pad.  Migrating to capturing on a Blackberry would be a major change, and I still haven’t found a Blackberry wallet that allows a paper pad to be carried within it.  I am quite wary of entrusting my capturing to a tool that requires a battery and a charger, but I am thinking that if I can find a paper solution, that I could always take a picture of what I have captured.

More to come on this…!

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 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.