Find the Right Personality for Your Productivity

A basic idea underlying Time Management 2.0 is the notion that one size / system can never fit all.

There are few places in books or on the Internet where this point is embraced, accepted and addressed in some form, and here’s one I stumbled across.

Kirsten over at the Being MultiPassionate blog has found some time to come up with a quiz that gives some insight into the kind of productivity system you should be implementing, based on your personality.  It’s an interesting take on this very new idea — follow this link to take her short quiz.

Learning and Practicing by Writing

One of the quarrels that I have with myself is… “Why Do You Insist on Putting All Your Ideas Out There in the Public?”

The answer isn’t too hard to figure out, now that I am writing “the book” in earnest.  My ideas don’t gather steam and make sense unless I am actually spelling them out in words for other people to see.  It’s a little like the difference between doing a live performance versus one that’s being recorded.

When I know something will be “out there” I write differently, in a way that not only enhances the standard, but also helps cement it as a building-block for further ideas and insights.

Writing “the book” isn’t much different.  The part I’m having the hardest part with is not the ideas I want to include, but instead it’s the story around the learning that I want the protagonist, to experience.

To that end, I have found wonderful help from a book called “Techniques of the $elling Writer” by Dwight Swain.  There are some memorable quotes in the book, which clued me in to the fact that it’s written very much along the lines of Time Management 2.0.  The author claims that there are certain fundamentals of writing fiction that are simply inescapable, and it takes continuous practice in order to become proficient in each of them.

I almost fell out of my chair, especially when he stated:

“the skill of a skilled writer tricks you into thinking there is no skill.”

“You first have to be willing to be very, very bad, in this business, if you’re ever to be good. Only if you stand ready to make mistakes today can you hope to move ahead tomorrow.”

“Can you learn to write stories?
Yes.
Can you learn to write well enough to sell an occasional piece?
Again yes, in most cases.  Can you learn to write well enough to sell consistently to Red-book or Playboy or Random House or Gold Medal? Now that’s another matter, and one upon which undue confusion centers.

Writing is, in its way, very much like tennis.  It’s no trick at all to learn to play tennis—if you don’t mind losing every game.  Given time and perseverance, you probably can even work yourself up to where Squaw Hollow rates you as above-average competition.
Beyond that, however, the going gets rough. Reach the nationals, win status as champion or finalist, and you know your performance bespeaks talent as well as sweat.

So it is with writing. To get stories of a sort set down on paper; to become known as a “leading Squaw Hollow writer,” demands little more than self-discipline.

Continued work and study often will carry you into American Girl or Men’s Digest or Real Confessions or Scholastic Newstime. But the higher you climb toward big name and big money, the steeper and rougher your road becomes.
At the top, it’s very rough indeed. If you get there; if you place consistently at Post or McCall’s or Doubleday, you know it’s because you have talent in quantity; and innate ability that sets you apart from the competition.
Now this doesn’t seem at all strange to me. The same principle applies when you strive for success as attorney or salesman or racing driver.

Further, whatever the field, no realist expects advance guarantees of triumph. You can’t know for sure how well you’ll do until you try. Not even a Ben Hogan, a Sam Snead, or an Arnold Palmer made a hole-in-one his first time on the links. To win success, you first must master the skills involved. A pre-med student isn’t called on to perform brain surgery.”

Alrighty then…  This isn’t a book about tips, tricks and shortcuts:  the kind of stuff that’s killing time management training and learning.

Instead, it’s about honest hard effort to learn a craft that doesn’t yield it’s deeper secrets to anyone who simply picks up a pen.

In like manner, if you are serious about time management, don’t expect anything to change when you purchase your first Blackberry (even though you might feel more productive.)  Getting better at time management, and becoming really, really good both take hard work.

I imagine that some would say that he’s being too discouraging but, as I have said in prior posts mentioning Usain Bolt and Andre Agassi, they didn’t arrive at the top by taking every silly piece of advice.  Why should we?

 

Why New Employees Struggle with Time Management

In the area of time management, it turns out that some vital skills we picked as kids have to be un-learned, if we have an interest in being successful working adults.

Grade school and high school turn out to be nothing more than extended memory tests for many people.  A bunch of facts and techniques are thrown at them, and their challenge is to remember as much of them as possible, mostly in order to pass tests, quizzes and exams.  Good students are the ones who are able to recall this information when tested, and they come to take pride in their ability to remember even trivial information, such as the names of all the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Period.

This ability to commit data to memory, and to recall it at will, quickly becomes a habit that they apply not only to factual information but also to their future commitments, such as “the meeting 2 weeks from Friday with the marketing department.”

Here at the 2Time website, we refer to the latter as “time demands” — commitments that ones makes to oneself to complete a task at some point in the future.  For example, a commitment to “pick up the milk on the way home” is a time demand, whereas the route to the supermarket is different — it’s useful, factual information.

It turns out that we humans relate to these two kinds of information – time demands and factual data – quite differently, which is a useful thing, because they are in fact quite different.

Factual information, such as the route to the supermarket, carries with it an objective quality that is unchanging.  Time demands, on the other hand, are individual creations that exist only in the mind of their creators.  They are ephemeral in the sense that they have a finite lifetime – they come into being once they are created, and disappear once they are completed.

When we die, of course, they all vanish.

At the same time, they are critical to human beings as they allow us to think about and plan future actions, even if they are never written down.  You can hardly think about tomorrow without surveying the time demands that you have created for yourself that you think you should complete in that 24 hour cycle.

In very early grades, we are taught to manage time demands by keeping a schedule of classes so that we turn up at the right place at the right time, and we are taught to write down our homework so that we don’t forget.

Smart students eventually learn to discard both practices as they get older, and instead use they learn to use their finely tuned memory to manage these time demands.  This works well for the most part because they have few time demands to juggle.  After all, there are no bills to pay, and their weekly schedule of activities is a simple one to follow.  They can’t understand how their parents could forget simple time demands, like picking them up from school to take them to soccer practice.

Very few time demands slip through the cracks as a result, and they conclude that others (like their parents) who suffer from frequent mishaps, as just not as smart.

They take this practice with them into the workplace, in their first jobs, and for a while it works.  They appear at meetings with nothing in their hands to wrote with, or on, and when asked will scornfully tell others: “Don’t worry, I’ll remember.”

However, the time comes when they don’t.

At some point, their habit of committing time demands fails, and it happens for any number of reasons.

One may be that their managers give them additional responsibilities, and assign them complex projects that are too big to be managed by even the smartest person.  Another might be that as they marry, have children, assume mortgages, handle finances, pay taxes, play roles in their communities, and jump on volunteer projects , the number of time demands rapidly increases.

Also, even the smartest notice that as they get older, their powers of recall start to fade.  They realize that their parents’ momentary inability to recall their own children’s names is a malady that is about to befall them.

They need to develop some new habits in order to continue to be as effective as they once were.  Some persist however, and convince themselves that they can do no better.  They insist that that “their plates are full,” “they have too much to do” and “get too much email.”  They blame their circumstances for the number of balls they drop each day — I’ve known some to conclude that they simply cannot seek a promotion, or accept a new project because they cannot imagine a way to craft the 26 hour workday they think is required to be successful.

The solution is a simple on to describe — adopt new habits that are required in order to handle a new volume of time demands.

It’s much harder to do, and many smart people develop never develop these new habits, insisting that they already have good time management techniques.

What they really mean is: “I’m the most productive person I know, and I already know everything I need to know about time management.”

For some, it’s not until they are shown a multi-belt system like the ones that I give them in MyTimeDesign or NewHabits classes, that they begin to see that there are people who are way more productive than they are, even if they don’t know them.

A few never get to learn the lesson, and instead they use their ability to think fast on their feet to talk themselves out of trouble.  This works for a while, but it never moves them up the ladder to greater productivity.  Instead, it just helps them stay stuck at a low standard… just a little bit better than those around them.

Unfortunately, learning new habits has nothing to do with being smart, and has more to do with being resilient, or stubborn, and more than a bit humble.

It’s difficult (and sometimes scary) to admit that your strengths don’t work as well as they should, especially when they have never really failed

Why Emergencies Should be Handled Outside Email

A few weeks ago, I visited The Bahamas and mentioned to a NewHabits-NewGoals class that it’s becoming clear that companies need a way to communicate emergencies outside of email.

We had a discussion about the different reasons why email doesn’t work for immediate notifications and emergency requests:
1. not all email is delivered
2. sometimes email is diverted to a spam folder
3. too many people read email and don’t let the sender know that it was received
4. email messages are difficult to craft well and often result in mis-communication, especially when the content is emotional in nature
5. urgent messages can get lost in the hundreds of other pieces of email sent each day
and the biggest reason of all….
6. the practice of sending urgent email trains all employees to keep checking their messages continuously, just in case something important has just come in — making them all slaves to email – a pernicious and unproductive habit

The fact is, companies to establish alternate ways to communicate urgent messages, and avoid using email wherever possible.

Some have decided to use face to face conversations, phone calls, Skype or instant messages instead. The one thing these methods have in common is that they are synchronous communications that allow for immediate responses, and some degree of negotiation back and forth about how quickly an issue should be addressed, and whether it’s more important than every other time demand someone might have.

It would help the millions of people who waste time checking their email tens and even hundreds of times per day, just in case something juicy has come in within the past few minutes. Too many companies are encouraging their employees to become “more responsive” via email, and fast responders to urgent email, even as they damage their own productivity and that of others.
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Jumping from a Yellow to Orange Belt in Scheduling/Listing

In the 2Time system, there is a critical point that must be crossed to make the jump from a Yellow Belt to an Orange Belt. At this point, a professional must change two major habits at once, doing much less Listing and more Scheduling.

This is no mean feat.

I’ll be covering this switch and all that it means in a series of posts, but let me start off by giving the reasons why someone would want to make such a major change.

Most adults who grew up without computing resources learned how to make lists somewhere in their teens or early twenties. These were paper and pen lists that were intended as memory joggers. They easily and cheaply expanded individual effectiveness, and allowed one to work on a greater number of time demands than their memories could manage. The results were easy to see: homework that would have been forgotten was remembered, phone numbers that would have been lost forever were stored later and the skimmed milk made it to the fridge at home as a result of a trip to the corner store.

At some point, they also learned to use a calendar as a method for scheduling meetings and appointments. The first appointment calendars were modeled after the ones used in doctors’ offices, and only included a few items. These were also built with paper and pens or pencils.

Most time management books stop at this point, and advocate this approach, with only minor variations. Some emphasize the way in which the lists must be categorized and sorted. Others say that the key list needs to be limited to only what can be done on that day, and other lists should be kept of future time demands.

There are a few systems, however, who advocate the upgrade to Orange Belt Scheduling, and it’s a shift that’s ctually being driven by today’s college students.

Smartphone, laptop and iPad penetration in tertiary institutions have placed powerful productivity tools at the hands of millions of smart kids. They aren’t limited to paper and pen like their parents were. Instead, they have a choice of using electronic calendars in a variety of devices.

For example, their classes are scheduled on their electronic calendars, and not on paper.  When they sign up for a class, their schedule is instantly updated.  Once that happens, many go the extra step and schedule other important activities that must be done if they are to be successful.

Most of who are effective will also create a study schedule at the same time, and if they are realistic they’ll also set time aside for life’s other essentials such as meals, exercise social time and leisure. Here is an example of a Darden School of Business student who has done just that.

He hasn’t scheduled all his meals, or exercise, and he hasn’t included all his study time, but you can imagine that this is an important part of his plan for doing well that  semester.

The reason that a schedule like this works so well is that students have a tremendous number of time demands to manage in any given week, and any item that falls through the cracks is likely to produce an immediate impact on their grades or some other part of their lives.

At the same time, it’s not too hard to see that managing an electronic schedule of time demands is more efficient than the alternative: keeping a list of these same items to be done each week.

Listing is a very efficient method for tracking a low number of time demands, and it was a decent tool to use before the advent of internet communication.  Now, life is different, with the average professional facing hundreds of time demands each day.

The old method of keeping a list on paper no longer works at higher volumes, for practical reasons.  Updating a paper list with more than 10-20 items is time consuming.  Also, paper lists don’t have backups. It’s a practice that can only be afforded by entry-level employees with light workloads, or someone who works part-time.

Electronic lists are better, but they become a mental burden.  Let’s use the example of the Darden student.  If he were to create a list instead of a schedule, he’d end up with a physical list and a mental schedule.

The reason is simple.  When anyone makes a to-do list of any kind, they automatically make a calculation, and need to store some information in their memories.

For example, the item: “Learning Team” appears on the student’s schedule five times.  If he weren’t using a schedule, and instead had the item on a list it might look like this:

  • Football practice
  • Learning Team
  • Dinner
  • Cold Call

As he glances down the list and his attention rests on “Learning Team” he instantly makes a calculation:

  • On what days will I perform this action?
  • What times will it start each day?
  • What time will it end?
  • How far ahead do I need to prepare for it?

Once he answers each of these questions, he’d store the results in his memory.  If you multiply these actions of calculating and memorizing by the number of items in his schedule, you could see that he has now given himself the difficult task of remembering a great deal of his schedule, rather than having it plotted out in front of him.

When someone asks him if he’s free on Friday night, he has nothing to consult but his memory at that moment, and he’s likely to make a mistake.

It’s obvious that an attempt to remember all these items for every item in the list is likely to fail.  It’s just not possible to manage a great number of time demands using memory.

This is precisely the challenge that many working professionals face today.  They have a large and growing number of time demands, that simply cannot be managed with a long list and a basic schedule of appointments.  When they try to do so they end up feeling overwhelmed, burdened and stressed out, with lots of time demands slipping through the cracks.  They spend inordinate amounts of time reviewing their lists each day, making sure that nothing has popped to the surface when they weren’t looking.

They need to perform the upgrade that will take them to a different blend:  short lists used infrequently, and a deeper schedule that includes all the time demands they are likely to forget, overlook or under/over estimate in terms of their duration.

(If you’re a fan of project management techniques, you’ll undoubtedly recognize some best practices taken from that discipline, and applied to individual time management practices.  The most recent mobile latest technology makes this translation a feasible option for the first time on a large scale. )

In future posts I’ll address other questions related to this upgrade, such as when it should be undertaken, how it should be initiated and who would gain the most from making the switch.
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A Treasure-Trove of Data on Time Management Needs

In prior posts I have made the point that Outlook and Gmail have become much more than email programs.

While they both started out as email managers, they have become the primary portals that people use to manage time demands of all kinds. I have argued that they do a poor job for the majority of users because they are designed for email management, rather than time demand management.

Recently, Google opened up a site to ask for suggestions on how to improve Gmail. So far, they have gotten 2844 votes on all aspects of the program, but to my biased eyes, it seems as if there is a theme emerging.

Instead of just using lists of tasks, users want to integrate them into their calendars. (In the 2Time ranking of skills, it equates to an upgrade from Yellow to Orange Belt in the practice of “Scheduling.”)

I read through a few hundred suggestions and it struck me that anyone who is interested in creating a time management portal could use the information as market research — after all, this is a lot of data gathered from some very committed users of Gmail who are essentially asking anyone to come up with something better than the Gmail portal they are forced to use now.

I am not too optimistic, however, that Google will be able to make the leap that users want.

As I read through the suggestions, voted on quite a few and added some of my own, it struck me that the worst thing to do would be to figure out the most popular requests and simply add them to the list of features to be developed in the next release.

That’s a little like polling one’s family members to find out which surgery they think Great-Grandpa needs in order to get better.  In other words, it’ a bad way to make a decision of this complexity.

What Google really needs is not a bunch of suggestions, but some kind of time management philosophy around which to design an entirely new kind of portal that will be fully integrated into Gmail, and Google Calendar in a holistic way that mimics the habit patterns that users are likely to follow.

In this blog I offer a philosophy of sorts, and there are a number of books and websites that do the same. Adding more features willy-nilly will simply leave the door open to a competitor who gets it, and offers users a portal that puts the task of email management in its place alongside a number of other tools that people use to manage their time.

This isn’t to say that the research Google is doing is useless. Far from it. But it needs a context or framework to make all those suggestions come to life, and to prevent Gmail from simply becoming another Outlook in terms of its zillions of features, and heavy ponderous feel.

Check out the suggestions or add your own here on the Google website.

If you have a comment or question about what I have said in this post, let me know below.

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Choosing My First Smartphone (for Productivity’s Sake)

If you are a frequent reader of this site you will know that I have questioned at length the unproductive practices and habits that have arisen around smartphones.

With that in mind, I have decided to start a quest to discover whether or not I can boost my productivity with a Blackberry, iPhone, Android or one of the newer devices.  I am going to share the process with readers, and I kicked this off with a new article over at the Stepcase Lifehack website, entitled:  How I’m Getting a Smartphone, While Avoiding Crazy Habits.

I may choose not to make a purchase, by the way… find out more by reading the article.

P.S. I just made a video to help describe what I’m doing by trying to make a “smartphone decision.”

Wish me luck!

LifeHack: Measuring Your Time Management System

01_01085-ruler-d_-20x-zoom.jpgToday I posted up a new article at the LifeHack website entitled: Are You a Productive Person? Look at the Number of People Who are Waiting on You to Get Back to Them.

The article makes the point that if you look at how many people are waiting for you to get back to them, it can give you an idea of the overall health of your time management system.

But in addition to the total number of people, you can go even deeper and determine the quality of that list and learn even more.

For example how many are actually overdue?  What is the longest wait time?  What is the average time it takes for you to respond when there is no explicit promise made?

My hope is that one day, Outlook makes it easy to capture metrics like these, because there is an ugly secret I am continually confronting as I launch MyTimeDesign:  there is no standard, measurable way to measure individual productivity, or the quality of one’s time management system.

This is part of the reason why there’s so much hype around time management programs — one promises even to “triple your productivity.” Of course, they make no mention of  how it is to be measured in the first place, let alone “post-improvement!”

Over at the MyTimeDesign blog, I have been putting together the descriptions of the features and benefits of the MyTimeDesign programs, which will be launched next week.  One thing I am trying to be careful about is not to over-hype the program, and make promises that can’t be fulfilled.

Stay tuned for more on this, as I am coming up with a more realistic way to describe ways in which participants can tell whether the program is for them or not.

Harvard Business Review Letter

harvard-biz-rvw.jpgI just got word from the editors of Harvard Business Review that a letter I wrote in response to an article on information overload was included in the January-February 2010 edition.

Unfortunately, they don’t carry letters online and it takes ages for my copy to reach Jamaica, so if anyone can confirm its inclusion would you let me know?

Here is  an excerpt of the letter I sent, which I am fairly sure has been edited down to size.

“Death by Information Overload” (September 2009) by Paul Hemp was a well-written and provocative piece that I’m sure had many heads nodding. But I fear that the author did more to inflate a popular complaint than he did to guide readers toward a proper answer.

By the time I finished reading the article, I had the distinct feeling that we were all victims of the proliferation of information, and that we had no choice except to suffer from the “floodgates” of content that were “rush(ing) towards us in countless formats.” Hemp suggested some weak remedies, such as putting in place filtering software or getting others to send fewer messages — actions that hardly seem designed to stem the tide.

I went on to argue that the real problem is one of time management.

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 — Stickk.com — 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.
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