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How do you make improvements when you're already productive? Get more done this year with advice from Francis Wade.

Francis Wade, author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, guest posts today. If you missed his post on Why College Students and CEOs Manage Time the Same Way, be sure to give it a read. 

When you are someone who is already more productive than most people you know, how can you still make improvements?

At first it may seem to be an easy question to answer: just browse the Internet, pick out a bunch of websites or books and find some tips, tricks and shortcuts. Try a bunch of them and see what works.

If you are someone who has lots of time on your hands, this approach might bear some fruit. In times past, when there were only one or two credible resources available, you had no choice. Now, however, you have a plethora of advice at your fingertips, but no way to choose between different sources. Therefore, you waste a lot of time in your attempts to get just a little bit better.

Is there a better way?

There is. Just look at the way top athletes learn. They don’t chase after trivial bits of advice from everyone they meet — that’s a recipe for disaster, or at the very least, permanent distraction. Instead they find ways to focus their energies on precise behavior changes, in small doses.

Michael Jordan put it well. “My attitude is that if you push me towards something that you think is a weakness, then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength.”

He was fortunate: he had others around him like teammates, coaches and opposing players who helped him find potential areas of growth. You probably aren’t as lucky. In the workplace, as in everyday life, there remain few clear cut measures of success and few people who can give clear feedback. Instead, you need a way to assess yourself and provide you with the same edge that Michael Jordan had at the height of his days in the NBA.

Your Time Management Autobiography

If you have ever read a time management book or sat in a productivity workshop you probably found yourself discarding many of the specific practices and habits the author/instructor recommended. Others may have seemed to be in love with them all, but some struck you as unnecessary for your situation. Why the difference?

It’s because each of us has an individual time management autobiography which has brought us to this point place in time.

Your biography started at the age you learned to tell time, which for most people happens before 10 years old. You were probably taught that time was a real substance that needed to be learned and understood.

Once you mastered the concept, it didn’t take long for you to create what are called “time demands” — internal, individual commitments to complete actions in the future. They are psychological constructs, according to academics  Dr. Wendy Wood and Judith Oullette who labeled them “conscious intentions.” With MacGyver-like ingenuity, you didn’t stop there — you also taught yourself how to deal with time demands each day.

Unfortunately, these two life-changing events go unnoticed by most of us. As important as they are to our future success in life, we usually can’t recall either when we discovered time or started manipulating time demands.

However, once you started creating time demands, you exerted a supreme effort to keep them alive long enough to get the prescribed actions done. If you are like most people, the first thing you tried was your memory. Over time, you were forced by its limits to use other devices. For example, the chances are good that if you are reading a blog post such as this one on Psychowith6.com, you taught yourself to use a To-Do list, either written on paper or kept on an electronic device.

The transition you made was typical: the research shows that as time demands increase, over time we progress through a number of turning points. The first was the decision to use memory (rather than rely on chance), while the second was to replace memory use with a To-Do list. Perhaps you have also reached the third: the use of multiple lists rather than a single list. Some have even reached a fourth: they tend to be time-starved and use a detailed schedule, without any To-Do lists at all.

These turning points — the moments when we decided to switch methods — are an all-important part of our biography. Dr. Key Dismukes and others have shown that we commit fewer errors when we switch to the right technique at the right time: the one that happens to match the volume of time demands we are trying to process daily. Stress occurs when there is a mismatch, and we experience persistent failures.

Now, see if you can fill in some holes in your time management biography. Which tools do you use to manage time demands? Which ones predominate? When did you hit some of these turning points and start to change your habits? What habits, practices and rituals did you unlearn, then learn?

These aren’t easy questions to answer because we hardly noticed them happening, but your answer provides a beginning — an understanding of how you came to do what you do, and why.

Your Current Profile

Your history has brought you to this moment, the time when you are using a particular set of habits, practices and rituals developed over time. It’s responsible for every single one of your achievements. However, if you are experiencing time-stress, the answer probably doesn’t lie in tips and tricks randomly tweeted out into cyberspace.

A better place to start is with an important part of your biography — your current day assessment.  For example, in 2008, Dr. Lydia Liu and her team of researchers gave one of the few self-assessments for adolescents to over 800 seventh-grade students. They found that they were well on the way to developing their own system which, in general, was less sophisticated than those being used by college students — a great piece of information to have for a parent who is guiding their kid’s development.

In my book, Perfect Time-Based Productivity, I also provide a self-assessment covering over 40 critical skills that, like Dr. Liu’s work, results in a personal profile. This profile is the end-product of your autobiography, but you don’t need to know the details of each turning point to develop it — it’s just better if you have that knowledge as you can understand why you possess certain behaviors and not others.

These are just two methods. You can also keep a detailed diary of your behaviors, tracking repetitive errors as they occur. Hiring a coach who can tell you what your developmental needs are is another. You can also develop your own assessment. In my book, I share the methodology I use so that you can create an assessment based on any best-practice whenever you want.

The result is the same whichever path you take: an in-depth understanding of your current skills which reveals the most obvious gaps. A good assessment may reveal the fact I found in hundreds of self-assessments delivered during training; most of us had no formal training in time management during our adolescent years. The result is predictable: unorthodox profiles that owe more to Rube Goldberg than scientific research. Dr. Liu makes the point: figuring out this piece of our autobiography is critical if we want to be effective in the future.

Your Future Biography

In my book I tell the story of a fictitious CEO named Rebecca. She made the switch from one technique to another in response to increasing responsibilities, first at school and then in her career. She had help along the way, but the transitions were still difficult to undertake because our ingrained habits, practices and rituals are unlearned slowly.

Advancement up the corporate ladder is one guarantee of greater time demands. Others include having children, getting married, undertaking a degree part-time and taking care of an ailing parent. All of us who have swapped a feature-phone for a smartphone know that technology also changes the way you deal with time demands. In all these examples, the outcome is the same — you need to upgrade your methods.

Fortunately, if you have completed your autobiography you know exactly where to start. Your self-knowledge sets you apart from others who feel the need to change, but only have random tips, tricks and shortcuts to choose from. Their job is much harder — and it takes a much longer time.

Armed with your autobiography, however, you can ignore irrelevant advice, snazzy technology upgrades and silly shortcuts that have nothing to do with your needs. As opposed to chasing down trivial recommendations and advertisements, you can commit yourself to making slow, steady progress — the kind that’s unfashionable, but ultimately works.

In this way you can write your future biography — one in which you improved your skills at will with the awareness, intuition and skills of an adult. This gives you a way to keep your peace of mind regardless of the challenges life might bring.

Francis Wade is the author of Bill’s Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure, (http://perfect.mytimedesign.com) and Perfect Time-Based Productivity and a consultant who started Framework Consulting Inc., after leaving AT&T Bell Labs in 1993. Today, he lives in Jamaica, inspired by the differences he’s discovered between productivity in the Caribbean and North America. It’s led him to continue the learning he started as a student at Cornell University, where he completed Bachelors and Masters degrees in the discipline of Operations Research and Industrial Engineering. He’s been a proponent of Time Management 2.0, a robust set of ideas that are challenging the conventional wisdom in the area of time-based productivity. When he is not working, Francis is an enthusiastic triathlete.

References

Dismukes, R. (n.d.). Prospective Memory in Workplace and Everyday Situations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 215-220.

Liu, O. L., Rijmen, F., Maccann, C., & Roberts, R. (2009). The assessment of time management in middle-school students. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(3), 174-179

Ouellette, J., & Wood, W. (1998). Habits and Intention in Everyday Life: The Multiple Processes by Which Past Behavior Predicts Future Behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 124(1), 54-74.

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