Steve Ballmer – an Orange Belt in Scheduling?

In an earlier post on the apparent skills of Richard Branson at Capturing, what I didn’t think of doing is estimating the belt level at which he is performing this particular Fundamental.

In retrospect, it seems as if he’s operating as an Orange Belt.

Today, I was checking the recent tweets on time management, and heard this fascinating clip from Steve Ballmer, which makes me think that he’s also operating at an Orange Belt level, but he’s doing it in Scheduling.

I’d love to hear your opinion — what do you think?

Notice that he’s not using Outlook to build his time budget. In the recent series of posts I wrote criticizing Outlook, I should also have included that it’s a poor tool for time demand budgeting.

I happen to use my schedule in Outlook for that purpose, even though it’s not built for that purpose.  Clearly, he agrees.

Time Management and Jamaica’s Olympic Success

Here in Jamaica, as you can imagine, we are glued to our television sets watching our countrymen win an unprecedented number of medals.

We are a famously proud people, and right about now we are ready to burst with pride!

Traffic halts, television sets appear in offices and phones buzz across the world as productivity in Jamaica drops a notch or two (or ten) — first things first, after all.

As a recreational runner in Jamaica, and as a triathlete I am reminded of a lesson I learned when  I completed an  Iron-distance triathlon a few years ago (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, 26.2 mile run.)

Looking back at the  months that it took to lose 20 pounds, work on several disciplines at once and research the demands of the race and its effects on the body, I think that the most critical factor that separates those who are successful from those who are not  is simply one thing.

Time management.

Or to put it more accurately, habit management that results in good time management.

Becoming an ironman has more to do with the months that precede the event than anything else, and there are only a handful of athletes who can devote unlimited time to the pursuit.  Most people who attempt the race have a spouse, children, jobs, friends and other real obligations that must be maintained while the madness of completing a race of this distance is entertained.

Somehow, 15-20 hours per week of training need to be carved out, at minimum,  in order to be able to finish the race.  That’s no small feat — you might be thinking that it would be “impossible” to find that kind of time in your own life, so no ironman for you.

Someone training for the race must create a 10-12 week schedule that describes which training is done on each day.   A tremendous amount of organizing must take take place in order to practice the three sports (plus do the necessary weight-lifting) in addition to changing one’s diet, which is often necessary.  The training typically follows a 3+1 rhythm, based on 3 hard weeks followed by 1 easy week, which is necessary for the body to recover from the stress it’s being put under.

A bicycle must be maintained and transported, at times.  A pool must be visited during the right hours.  The stores that sell the nutritional aids need to be open at the right time.

Many find that their sleep patterns must change in order to accommodate  an early morning workout.  I used an alarm on my watch to remind me each night that it was time to get to bed (this helped me become a firm believer in the fundamental component – “Interrupting” – described elsewhere in this blog.)

In short, an entirely new set of habits must be adapted in order to become better at time management.  Also, a new set of habits must be learned in order to accomplish improved weight management, work management, money management, race management, etc.

The irony is that almost no time is spent in any of the training books I have read on the topic of time management.  Yet, it’s exactly what stops most people from even attempting this particular goal that happens to demand so many new time demands.

My recommendation for users who are interested in improving their skills in time management is to create the need to practice better skills in a way that doesn’t threaten their jobs or their marriages.  The trick is an easy one — pick something like a marathon or triathlon that would ordinarily be impossible using the old skills, and learn the new skills while undertaking the new challenge.

Whether the goal is accomplished or not, it’s possible to produce an improvement in time management skills, in addition to those of swimming, cycling and running.

To become top-class in their sport, our Jamaican Olympians had to learn these skills, particularly as  I heard that the most successful coach in Jamaica (an ex-accountant with an MBA who is a school-mate of mine) insists that all team-members must be on time – no matter what.  In the Jamaican culture, that runs very much against the norm and I imagine that there have been thousands of young athletes over the years that failed to make to grade.

They simply failed to develop the time management skills necessary to accomplish the bigger goals of winning a medal in the Olympics, or completing an ironman triathlon.

More on Scheduling

shed.jpgAndre over at The Tools for Thought blog has made some fine points about moving from using a calendar to do more than schedule “hard-edged appointments.”  These are called “hard-edged” because they simply must be conducted at the prescribed time — such as a dental appointment.  (Here is the link to Andre’s article entitled Reclaim Time by Unscheduling Arbitrary Tasks.)

Reading over the post led me to do some deeper thinking about exactly what happens in the 2Time system when users develop new habits and practices in the area of scheduling.

In the 2TimeManagement system, one of the basic ideas is that there is not a single time management system that works for all users.  This applies in the area of Scheduling, as it does in all of the other 11 fundamentals.  Click here to be taken to the original set of ideas on the topic of “Scheduling.”

(In this context, a “time management system” comprises the total of habits and practices  that impact a user’s productivity.   In the 2Time system, the belt system is used to show that progression from one skill level to the next.)

Perhaps the most difficult change to make is the one that Tools for Thought outlines — from being a Yellow Belt to becoming an Orange Belt in the fundamental: Scheduling.  Essentially, a Yellow Belt uses a schedule to manage only hard-edged items, while an Orange Belt uses their calendar to manage many more time demands that require calendar time.

Important to remember:  there is no requirement for anyone to be at one belt level or another. The only question for a user is…. “What system of scheduling will provide me with the greatest peace of mind?”

Users that intend to move from the Yellow to Orange Belt levels face a variety of challenges, many of which Andre outlines.  They all involve unlearning old habits, and learning new habits, which of course is not an easy task for practices that have become ingrained over time.

1.  Trying to Schedule Too Much

Each user must make a choice about the quantity and quality of activities to schedule.  For example, take the complex task of doing one’s taxes.  At the very end, let’s say, there is the task of mailing the return.  I may decide to do so between 4-5pm on April 15th.  (I am expecting long lines at the post office!)

A White Belt would simply commit the task to memory.

A Yellow Belt would schedule the following appointment:  “Taxes — 4-5pm — April 15”

However, regardless of the belt level I am at, I do know that in addition to the time I spend at the post office, I will also consume time driving to the post office and back.  Let’s say that includes time on the road driving 30 minutes each way.

If I were an Orange Belt, I’d go the next step, and use the schedule to account for the following items that are needed to make that April 15th date at the post office.

Before mailing it, I know I need to schedule a few items combined into one:  reviewing it, printing it and signing it, and packaging it along with the required back up documents.  That might take 2 hours on April 14th from 3-5 pm

A 1 hour conversation with my accountant on April 10th from 9-10 am would help me to understand how he arrived at the end-results he calculated.

Back on February 15th and 20th I also would schedule 2 – 4 hour slots to gather the information that I needed to send him, after scheduling multiple time slots in January to close my books out for 2007, balancing all the accounts and updating all pertinent information through December 31, 2007.

The typical Orange Belt would not schedule all these time slots ahead of time — but a look back in the calendar would reveal that they were used in order to get the job done.

For some Orange Belts, the above set of scheduled items would be the right level of detail.  Others might need to schedule even further appointments, such as appointments to:

—  balance the books one account at a time, in separate steps, at separate times
e.g. “balance asset a/c #0001 from 3-4pm on January 9th” and “balance expense a/c #0002 from 5-6pm on January 9th”
— retrieve bank statements from their online sources, one at a time
—  schedule time to search for each and every document needed

Other Orange Belts would see this an burdensome, and would prefer to schedule a single time slot, for example, to “balance the books on January 9th,” and use a list in conjunction with thattime slot that might look like this:

  • balance asset a/c #0001
  • balance expense a/c #0002
  • find expense reports for expense a/c #434

The combination of a single time slot and a related list would be enough for some.

There is no right way — it all depends on the preferences of the user, and each user must develop habits that assure them the greatest dose
of peace of mind.

2.  Using Guilt in Conjunction with their Schedule

Many users find a great challenge in setting a schedule in the morning that they need to change within minutes when the first emergency
pops up.  They feel a sense of guilt that they are not accomplishing their schedule, and even a sense of failure.  This comes in part
from an onslaught of thoughts and feelings of obligation — “if I schedule it, then I MUST do it.”

The negative feelings that result are quite common, and a user that experiences them will only feel burdened by an activity that
is designed to bring peace of mind.

The truth is that any schedule is liable to be completely disrupted by life’s ups and downs, and users must prepare themselves for the times when that happens.  One of their greatest obstacles is the thoughts that pop into their heads, telling them that” I should be doing something else” or that “I am too lazy” or that “I need to stop this procrastinating.”

(I recommend the Work of Byron Katie — as an effective method for dealing with these thoughts.)

3. Trying to Maintain an Inflexible Schedule
The purpose of scheduling as an Orange Belt is not to maintain discipline, or to optimize how time is spent or to minimize
down-time.  Instead, the goal is to boost peace of mind.

How does having an Orange Belt-style schedule boost peace of mind?

First of all, it doesn’t — at least, not for everyone.  For some users, a White or Yellow Belt schedule is all that’s needed, and trying to implement Orange Belt skills when they are not needed can also ruin one’s peace of mind!

For those who decide to master the skills of a Orange Belt, the decision should be made after some consideration, as the habits
needed are quite different from those at lower levels.

Second, those who decide to upgrade from Yellow to Orange Belts are  are often users who must deal a high volume of time demands.

They follow the Yellow Belt system of scheduling only the hard-edged appointments.  In the typical 12 hour day, let’s imagine that
they schedule an hour or two per day of activity.

The remaining 10 hours in the day are also scheduled… but only in the mind of the user.

The key difference between the Yellow and Orange Belts is that the Orange Belt takes the extra step and translates their mental
schedule into one that is kept in writing, usually in Outlook or some other similar software.

In taking this extra step, they are able to do a variety of useful things, such as:
— ensure that it is indeed possible to accomplish their plans for the day
— plan in enough down time, and non-scheduled time to regroup and allow for interruptions
— pick up unfinished tasks that are left over from earlier days
— start activities that won’t be complete for months or years
— balance out the day’s activities to assure themselves that they can maximize their peace of mind

Yellow Belts who decide to move to Orange often do so when they have so many time demands that they find themselves unable to manage them all in their minds.  Their ability to plan their schedule mentally is simply unable to keep up, and their peace of mind suffers.

In particular, managers of other people who experience many interruptions each day often reach the end of the day wondering where the day went, and what happened to the plans they had made for themselves. Because their schedule is kept mentally, they are forced to make any necessary changes in their memory, and the result is that it’s often difficult to give 100% of their attention to whatever they
are doing, because they must be continually making adjustments to their plans.

As an Orange Belt however, once their schedule has been created, it becomes their single point of reference when everyday disruptions

For example, an Orange Belt has learned that they must change their schedule when it’s necessary.  They see it as completely flexible,
and will sit down at any point and simply move time slots around as needed, without any negative feelings.

Also, Orange Belts deal with interruptions very differently than Yellow.  Both might receive a call asking for an immediate meeting.
The White Belt would scan their memory before deciding to accept or reject the meeting.  The scan would probably be a partial one,
and given the pressure of the call, might make a poor decision.  A Yellow Belt would look to see what hard-edged appointments they have set before making the decision.

Orange Belts know to refer to their schedule before making changes whenever they can.  As one Orange Belt put it me — “when
my Vice President comes around as he often does with the emergency du jour, I simply show him my schedule of activities for the day
and what I planned to accomplish and ask him what he thinks I should reschedule in order to tackle the emergency.  It’s amazing how many emergencies turn out to be not as important as the items I already have planned, all of which involve projects that he cares deeply about…

The fact is, every user at every level must make quick decisions in the course of the day about what to do, and what not to do at any time.  Much of what comes up is unanticipated.  White Belts and Yellow Belts make decisions based on very limited information.  An Orange Belt can make a better decision simply because he/she has already planned how to use their time.

To use a simple analogy, while it’s possible to build a small shed using nothing but a decent memory, a more complex building that requires thousands of manhours, tonnes of material and millions of dollars of spending cannot be managed using the memory of a single individual.  Gantt charts, work breakdown structure (WBS) and other methods have been developed to handle more complex tasks.

While shed building might not require such sophisticated tools, the builder who attempts to use a mental schedule to build his new customer’s 5 story office complex would probably give himself more than a few sleepless nights.  It would be a better idea to upgrade his tools and skills to be able to handle the complex time demands that are part and parcel of complex projects.


There is much more to becoming an Orange Belt than I have indicated here, and the habits that must be mastered simple, but the change in habits that must be made is not easy.  Stay tuned for the release of the MyTimeDesign program which will help users to make the transition I have described above in a systematic way.

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.