Productivity and Choosing a New PDA

pdas.jpgiPhone? Palm Handheld? Palm phone? ipaq? Dell? Razr?

The choices are numerous, and the technologies being used today are simply mind-boggling. When I encountered the first iPhone in person
I was stunned at what Apple had created – an amazing blend of functionality and aesthetics.

It was at the very least a tasty piece of techno-candy.

But is a PDA more than just a portable entertainment device? Does it actually make a person more productive? Should a user always be chasing after the latest gadget? If a product has a new function that is new, does it deserve to become an object that I carry with me each day, showing it off as my new piece of techno-jewelry?

How does a user see past the features that have nothing to do with being productive, to determine which ones are important? Once the right features are determined, how should they be evaluated?

Why I Am Asking
I happen to own and use a Tungsten T, and this week I almost made a decision to upgrade it to a newer Tungsten TX. The single reason that almost pushed me to do so is the fact that on a flight this week, my battery died in mid-sentence. As a frequent writer, this was right up there with my heart stopping in mid-stride.

I was so pissed I made plans right then and there to purchase the new device, if it had a better battery life.

Well, it does have better battery life, but my plans were changed when I learned that I’d have to buy a new keyboard… a wireless keyboard that consumes battery life. I learned from my reading that my current keyboard would not work with the TX, which meant another US$69 purchase. At the very best, I’d have to spent some US$350 or so, just for more battery life. I opted instead to purchase another 2 batteries for my Tungsten T, setting me back some $12.99, including shipping.

Converting Down-time to Productive Time

The seems to be 2 kinds of productivity that a PDA can be used to improve.

The first is simple: A PDA converts down-time to productive time. For example, the time I spend in an airplane seat has become an opportunity to write my articles and blogs, and I will pay extra for a device that ensures that the choice is available to me. I would to also love be able to send and receive email, and browse the internet.

This conversion is particularly important to people who spend time commuting on buses and trains, and are loathe to waste the time doing things like reading the free newspaper, when they could be listening to their favorite music or reading email.

This kind of productivity improvement is obvious to see.

The second kind is less so.

When a PDA is being chosen, the device also has an impact on a user’s productivity in the sense that it changes the way he/she engages in the 11 fundamentals.

For example, a user who purchases a Palm Smartphone to replace her paper pad may discover that she has forced herself into a HUGE change in how she Captures without realizing it. A phone call she gets that gives her a phone number she needs for later can’t be scribbled down in an instant — instead it must be entered into the tricky and time-consuming interface of the PDA.

She has become immediately less productive as a result of her new gadget.

How to Make the Right Choice

The best way to prevent the fiasco of becoming less productive after buying a productivity gadget, is to forget about the gadget for a minute, and instead concentrate on the 11 fundamentals.

Which fundamental is the user trying to improve?

At what expense are they looking to make the improvement?

Will the choice of the new PDA actually destroy the way in which a fundamental is practiced?

Here are the steps I recommend:

1. Go through each of the 11 fundamentals and decide what the appropriate belt level currently happens to be in each discipline

2. Decide which fundamental is the one that requires the most improvement

3. Look to see which PDA would help to improve the chosen fundamental. Look to see what will happen to ALL the fundamentals when the PDA is purchased and used.

4. Make a choice based on the information on hand

What the Manufacturers Are Not Doing

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, I had the sense that the companies selling productivity solutions — DayTimer, DayRunner, FiloFax, Covey et al
were committed to finding productivity solutions that happened to be paper based.

Now, when I visit any of the PDA or smartphone manufacturer’s sites, I don’t see anything other than a focus on new features.

As an engineer, I confess a certain love of technology. However, I am unwilling to destroy my productivity just in order to obtain a
new piece of techno-candy, no matter how much it enhances my appearance.

The problem is that it’s just so easy, fun and sexy to jump on the internet or visit the Apple store to buy the latest device. And it’s
just so damn hard to sit down and figure out the fundamentals by following the steps I describe above.

It’s the reason why so many gadgets end up at the bottom of so many desk drawers. Trying to engineer an improvement in one’s time
management system by purchasing a PDA without knowing the fundamentals is a hard trick to pull off.

Some are able to do it, but many fail.

Time Management and Cognitive Load Theory

I was searching the internet to find some ideas on the most recent thinking on how habits are learned and unlearned when I ran across a rather dense article “for beginners.”

“Cognitive Load Theory for Beginners” makes some excellent points that seem to echo what we know about developing the skills we normally see at the higher belt levels of 2Time.

The article, by Howard Solomon, is a summary of some of the thinking developed by J. Sweller. Here is a beginner’s summary for ultra-beginners:

Recognizing George Miller’s research showing that short term memory is limited in the number of elements it can contain simultaneously, Sweller builds a theory that treats schemas, or combinations of elements, as the cognitive structures that make up an individual’s knowledge base.

Sweller builds a theory that treats schemas, or combinations of elements, as the cognitive structures that make up an individual’s knowledge base. (Sweller, 1988)

The contents of long term memory are “sophisticated structures that permit us to perceive, think, and solve problems,” rather than a group of rote learned facts. These structures, known as schemas, are what permit us to treat multiple elements as a single element. They are the cognitive structures that make up the knowledge base (Sweller, 1988). Schemas are acquired over a lifetime of learning, and may have other schemas contained within themselves.

It sounds as if “time management” is made up of schemas.

The difference between an expert and a novice is that a novice hasn’t acquired the schemas of an expert. Learning requires a change in the schematic structures of long term memory and is demonstrated by performance that progresses from clumsy, error-prone, slow and difficult to smooth and effortless. The change in performance occurs because as the learner becomes increasingly familiar with the material, the cognitive characteristics associated with the material are altered so that it can be handled more efficiently by working memory.

This seems to make sense to me, as I recall becoming a good student by simply making up my mind at different points to practice as hard as I could. Even now, as a teacher of statistics and research to graduate students, I recommend that students set themselves a certain number of problems to do each week, as a way to practice the ideas they have learned. At first, they are all quite clumsy, but those who are better at engaging in practice learn more quickly.

What I am not sure about is how the idea of “working memory load” fits into ways of learning the 11 fundamentals of 2Time. I think that it’s trying to say that practice should be simple, and free of too much competition or difficulty.

Podcast of the Manifesto

podcast.jpgRecently, I published a recording via podcast of my manifesto on — ‘The New Time Management.”

It came out in 2 broadcasts, serialized in my monthly ezine: FirstCuts. It was given a different name, but the words are almost exactly the same.

Here are links to both podcasts, which can be downloaded to an mp3 player or iPod, and also streamed to your computer for immediate listening.

Part 1: The Untaught Fundamentals of Time Management

Part 2: The Untaught Fundamentals of Time Management

How I Do My Emptying

emptying-checklist.jpgI have been looking at the way in which I have been doing the practice of Emptying more closely, and I am still convinced that it’s one of the most difficult practices. (For details on the practice of Emptying, see the list of Categories at the left, and click on — “Emptying.”)

It’s a big hump I encountered once I started capturing with a frenzy.

Over the years, I have changed my approach in order to try to empty more frequently and more smoothly.

I started out Emptying whenever I felt like it. The result was predictable: pages and pages of items that were filling up my capture pad, email inboxes that would extend for several screens…. I saw Emptying as a painful practice that I would put off as long as I could.

And no, these thoughts haven’t changed a whole lot as I still have these feelings from time to time.

What I have been able to do, however, is to become much better at emptying frequently. I think that what’s happened is that I have learned that the pain of not emptying is FAR greater than any feelings of drudgery.

I have found that when I don’t empty well, I end up in fear that someplace in my captured time demands, there is something important that is buried someplace between the other non-important stuff. Of course, there are consequences for not dealing with it that I suffer, at which point I kick myself for not emptying sooner.

This all sounds like common-sense but I assure you this habit has been one that has changed VERY slowly for me.

Beyond the drudgery, however, there is a greater fear. Emptying involves confronting a certain reality with decision that we must make in the moment.

David Allen of GTD® fame talks about making a choice to Do/ Delegate / Defer. These are just some of the choices that one must make at that critical moment in time when we, and we alone, must make a call about what to do next when: — we get an email from a friend telling us that they want to “talk over their problems”
— a voicemail advises us that our cousin wants to borrow some (more) money
— that question we asked our S.O. still has not been answered by them
— the instructions from the guy in tech support are impossible to figure out

These are just example of what makes Emptying difficult — it involves making hard decisions about what to do next, and often that includes confronting our fears, doubts, upsets and anxiety. This is really what makes Emptying difficult… not the drudgery, but all the feelings that we have about our friend, our cousin, our S.O and the guy in tech support that we must deal with in order to figure out what action to take next.

Having determined the “truth” about Emptying, and what makes it tough, it has actually become easier to do.

As I mentioned, I used to empty whenever I felt like it, which resulted in major backlogs in my capture points.

Then I changed my timing and decided that to do it as the first thing in the morning. This was an improvement, as I was now regularly
emptying on a schedule, as opposed to doing it whenever I felt like it.

In the past couple of years or so, I have changed that practice, mostly in response to my growing commitment to leave my mornings closed to
everything but exercise and my most creative work. I happen to be a morning person, and a triathlete, so this fits in well with my already existing habits. As a result, I decided to schedule my emptying in the afternoon, as a part of scheduling the next three days.

I started off by emptying in the late afternoon as the last act I would take before ending work in the office. I soon learned that
it wouldn’t work — I happen to love my work, and I often work until I literally am falling asleep at the keyboard… the keyboard and
computer are my paintbrush and canvas…

So, I changed the timing of the practice to take place at 4:00pm each day, and at that point I empty out all my different capture points.

This has been working much better for me so far.

Based on the belt system that I have developed, I have determined that I am at a Green Belt level, but only at a grade of 2 out of 3. I think that there is a higher level of green belt for me to attain, in other words. At that level, a I would be much more reliable at emptying than I currently am, and rarely ever miss a 4:00 pm session of emptying and next-day planning, except in the case of emergencies.

I am still looking to try to understand how a Black Belt would operate, given that their specific expertise is working with people who don’t use the fundamentals. How would a Black Belt work with someone who never empties? I had a colleague once who kept notebook upon notebook of copious notes. He appeared to be always in the process of writing his memoirs (while in his 30’s.)

The problem was that the he never, ever emptied, and items would be placed in the notebook but rarely ever leave the page. I could not work with that, and found it irritating, definitely not demonstrating the Zen-like state of peaceful calm that I imagine a black Belt to have! A Black Belt would know how to work with someone like that, it’s just that I cannot recall ever meeting anyone with that level of skill in this discipline.

Please, let me know if you have any suggestions — I am open to hearing them.

An Interesting Interview with David Allen

I just listened to a very interesting interview of David Allen of GTD® fame conducted by Merlin Mann of 43 folders.

In the interview Allen speaks frankly about the development of the GTD system, and concludes that if he were to write the book today, several years later, it would have “no difference whatsoever” from what he originally published.  He also said that based on feedback that he has gotten over the years, “no-one has said anything (is) wrong in there.”

Of course, the difficulty that arises is that it’s impossible to evolve the work to the next step when there is no creative input, and  little idea of how the system could be improved.  This is something Allen alludes to later in the interview when he talks about coming out with a third book, and the pressure that’s on him to take things to another level (both from his fans and his publisher!)

He talks about the new frontier having something to do with people giving themselves the time to”get into” the system, and also mentions the “low implementation percentage” that GTD experiences.

I think that a paradigm shift would help.

Here is the message I’d say to David in a nutshell, in response to the concerns shares so openly in his podcast:

” GTD is an excellent system, and I love it, and use some of its ideas.  However, it is simply one system that works for some people who share a particular style, culture, comfort with technology, etc.  Most people struggle because they need to develop their own time management system, and don’t know how.  Also, they don’t realize that their system needs to evolve over time, and that the best starting point is the system they are using right now, which can only be changed gradually over time. Encouraging this self-determination, and the acceptance of their need to grow themselves patiently over the course of their lifetime is the new frontier.”

Here is a link to the podcast. 

Component/Fundamental #7 – Listing v2

A critical part of any time management system is the activity of Listing.

In the prior component, Scheduling, I addressed the power of expanding the use of a schedule from a mere Appointment Calendar to a possibly useful planner of each and every kind of activity that places a time demand on a user.

As useful as a schedule is, however, it has its limits.

Any user that tries to schedule too many items into a calendar will ultimately cause their calendar to fail from the weight of too many time demands. At the moment, there is no calendaring system or technology that exists that will not fail from over-scheduling.


Listing involves putting a time demand on a list that is created to pull together items that share some common attribute.

Continue reading “Component/Fundamental #7 – Listing v2”