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.
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.
I spent a year doing weekly experiments in productivity. The benefit of the series is that I learned the most important habits for getting more done. My hope is that reviewing what works for me might give you some insights into what could work for you. I hope you’ll listen to an interview I did with Barb Raveling of the Christian Habits podcast on the subject. Barb wanted specific advice for a time-management hiccup that plagues many of us. I’d love to know if you have different advice.
#1 Plan your week
David Allen’s Getting Things Done was my first foray into productivity literature. I loved it and should have been a paid seminar leader for as many people as I told about it. GTD was the impetus behind me finally getting my email under control and collecting all my to-do’s into one trusted system. I had these habits prior to experimenting. The GTD habit I didn’t have was a weekly review.
I became overwhelmed by the process of reviewing all potential to-do’s each week as part of the GTD process and so I just didn’t do it. Unfortunately, that meant that I wasn’t reviewing my calendar or projects for the upcoming week. I was often finding myself surprised that I couldn’t get to a number of tasks I planned because I had forgotten about prior commitments.
Using a paper planner during my experiments convinced me weekly planning was important. Now I have the habit of planning my week each Sunday. I actually look forward to it! I review my calendar, projects, and life areas in ToDoist, and even Pinterest ideas that are sorted into corresponding secret boards. Rather than overwhelming me, a weekly planning session (or review) helps me feel in control. I can set weekly goals and make sure that the tasks I can reasonably accomplish in the upcoming week are visible. The rest are put aside. I no longer have calendar surprises! For more on my weekly planning process, read this post.
If you aren’t getting much accomplished in a given week, try a weekly planning session. Just 30 minutes of planning will be a wonderful investment in your productivity.
#2 Schedule your day
Before my year of productivity, I wasn’t really wild about scheduling my days. It felt too restrictive for this spontaneous, time-rebel woman. I did love my week of using SmartDay, an iOS app that automatically places to-do’s around scheduled activities. But my passion for the habit of scheduling my days didn’t reach its peak until after the series was over.
The first thing that convinced me of the value of scheduling was Francis Wade’s post that has been hugely popular on this blog. I thought I needed to revisit the idea and I did begin using SmartDay more frequently. But it wasn’t until I read this article about how the president’s day is scheduled that I realized that I needed that kind of productivity. While I don’t have an assistant who schedules for me, I am that assistant.
About the time that I read this article, I heard about an iOS scheduling app very similar to SmartDay called Timeful. I love it! Each morning I put together the day’s agenda based on my weekly plan. When each new activity is supposed to start, Timeful plays a pleasant tone on my phone. Unlike a paper schedule, Timeful makes it easy to move things around and change the amount of time I plan to devote to them. Timeful reigns me in when I start off thinking I can easily finish 101 tasks in a day; they just won’t fit in the calendar! If I want to leave times open in my schedule, Timeful makes suggestions and learns from my behavior when I am most likely to want to do tasks. The bonus is Timeful can be used to schedule goals as well. I don’t think I’ve ever completed the schedule as written, but here’s why this doesn’t discourage me: I accomplish more in half a day that’s been scheduled than I do in an entire day just working from a to-do list. I created a Timeful calendar in GCal and now also have a record of how I’ve spent my time.
If you need to get more done, try scheduling your day. Even old-fashioned paper will work!
#3 Build energy-based routines
Routines differ from schedules in that they are tasks you repeat daily or weekly and don’t need to be put on your to-do list. I relied on routines before starting my year of productivity, but I kept trying to force myself into idealistic routines that just didn’t work for me. For example, I tried to get myself to do homeschooling subjects with the kids (that I don’t enjoy doing) in the afternoon. Once afternoon comes, I have very little energy left to overcome resistance. I learned that putting those subjects early in the day, when I’m most energized, made all the difference. I saved the subjects I loved to teach for the afternoon.
Similarly, I learned that trying to get myself to do high-energy tasks in the evening was a waste of time–no matter how ideal it would be. Evenings are now saved for social media, schlepping kids to activities (when I can’t talk my husband into doing it), and family fun. That understanding enabled me to stop being so mad at myself for “not getting anything done” in the evenings.
But I was left with a dilemma. I am writing a homeschool curriculum–a major undertaking. I kept trying to find a time to work on it in my daily schedule. Morning was an obvious choice, but it wasn’t working for me at all. I can find morning time to exercise, do devotions, and chat with my husband, but not for writing. I tried getting up even earlier during the course of my year of productivity and found I was crashing mid-morning. I’ve already made it clear that I’m worthless most evenings, but I thought I would just have to force myself to write at night. You can imagine how that went. I realized that the ideal time for me to write was early afternoon. Yes, I just said that I didn’t like to teach aversive subjects in the afternoon, but that’s teaching after a full morning. I have always longed to write in the afternoon, but felt guilty about it. After reviewing other homeschooling mothers’ schedules (who have many children and blog, too), I realized I was not only spending more time doing hands-on teaching than they were, but than most public school teachers! I reevaluated my teaching schedule, made some changes to encourage more independent learning, and started writing in the afternoons. I have written every single day since making the change and feel energized while doing so!
If you are struggling to get things done, build a routine around your energy levels. Keep experimenting until you find the right combination of times and tasks.
#4 Work little and often
It’s a waste of time to try and figure out why you procrastinate on some tasks. Yes, I’m a psychologist and I’m saying that! I have no idea why I hate mailing things so much, but I do. I would rather take a paper and drive it across town. It’s weird. But during my year of living productively, I discovered a solution: just do a little and do it often.
I discovered that I could get things mailed if I counted any tiny step as done for the day. I would find an envelope and re-date the mailing task for the next day when I would put a stamp on it. Yep, it’s ridiculous, but it worked. Before I started practicing little and often, I would have items to be mailed sitting for weeks. Now when I come across a scheduled task that I’m putting off, I will count any little step as done for the day. Fortunately, I don’t have to do this often, but it makes a world of difference to do something. The next day when I’m faced with the same task, it feels less onerous because “I’ve already started it.” Even though Pomodoros were a separate weekly experiment during the year of productivity, they’re effective for the same reason. For a particularly aversive task, I will set the timer for five minutes and call it done.
Do you keep facing the same yucky task day after day? Do five minutes or one tiny step on it and count it done! Repeat tomorrow.
#5 Do it now
My week of doing it now appealed to readers and even my kids who loved this video. I can be doing a great job with my schedule, but if I don’t do the little tasks when they need to be done, I can easily find myself overwhelmed. I’m talking about things like adding things to shopping lists as you see you need them, putting clothes away as you take them off, and cleaning up messes as you make them. David Allen recommends doing tasks that took less then two minutes. I think that’s a fine rule, but even better is to do tasks now if now is the best time to do them. We will not have more time later!
Some quick tasks are better batched. Paying bills is a good example. I pay bills online on Mondays. Even though it would take me just a minute to pay a bill I receive on a Tuesday, I don’t. But if I spill a box of cereal, I’ll clean it up now. I won’t wait until kitchen clean up day. Does this seem obvious? I become an imbecile when it comes to these things.
If tasks are starting to pile up, do them now if now is the best time to do them.
#6 Ask for help
I have my kids do chores and my husband is a big help, but I rarely ask for help in other ways. During my weekly experiment, I learned how important delegating can be to get more done. But in the months since my experimenting, I have learned that asking for help can be an even more powerful way of accomplishing things.
Because I didn’t have the ask-for-help habit, I wasted a lot of time doing things myself or doing them the hard way. I recently found another example of how my behavior hurt my productivity. I had been wishing for an iOS app that would enable me to process my to-do’s. I had to wait to use the desktop to get them into ToDoist. I also wished that there were an iPhone app that would allow me to attach photos or files to email automatically. Mike Vardy mentioned Dispatch in the ToDoist Google+ group. Turns out, it does everything I need it to do. I could have been enjoying the faster email processing if I had only asked if there were apps that did what I needed. It’s a hard habit to break, but I’m trying to ask people for help more often.
I’ve also learned to ask for help from God. I have always been willing to ask God for help for medical and relationship and even emotional issues. But not to-do’s. When it came to tasks, deep down I felt that I had no business asking God for help. I just needed to work harder, stop procrastinating, and stop watching cat videos. If I asked for help, that’s what He would say anyway, isn’t it? It turns out that God is much less of a task master than I am. Even when I waste time, God wants to help me. He doesn’t want me to be a self-reliant Christian, but to get to know how good He really is. He has canceled appointments when I’m overbooked, left the stoplights on green, and even given me a close parking space when I asked. Asking God for help with all the little to-do’s is a habit I’m in the process of developing. God is in the process of using it to develop me.
If you don’t know what to do first, try going to God! Ask Him for help, even if you’ve been on a cat video marathon.
Which of these habits do you need to develop most? Or is there another habit that helps you get more done?
I’d love to connect on Google+, Facebook, Pinterest, or via productivity posts in your inbox.
Francis Wade is guest posting today. I was a fan of his time-management novel and he became a fan of A Year of Living Productively. If you’re a busy person, I think you’ll be rewarded by reading.
Top college students and CEO’s share a few things in common. They both lead time-starved lives which are filled with short-term deliverables. Furthermore, in both professions, the penalties for failure are high. A meeting with a shareholder that is forgotten can cost a CEO his/her job, while a college student can flunk out of school by handing in a term paper only five minutes late.
They are not alone, of course, in being time-starved. While he was President, George W. Bush managed his time in sharp 15 minute increments. Like many people who are time-starved, his most frequently asked question each day was “What’s Next?”
Some other symptoms these very hard-working people share are:
– a tendency to give up personal time to do work
– a need to be available 24×7 to respond to emergencies
– the real likelihood of skipping meals, sometimes without realizing it
– having the experience of moving from one thing to another without having time to breathe
– finding they have not time to “do nothing”
– a restless feeling when, after graduation or retirement, the number of time demands is radically reduced
– a willingness to work at extreme hours, either late at night or early in the morning
– a difficulty in maintaining a balanced life
Obviously, this kind of life isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Nor should it be. Those who choose to live this way are part of an exclusive club whose members place results at the forefront, while everything else follows behind. The demands they place on themselves are tremendous.
What are the techniques they use to cope with the pressures they face each day? My research shows that their primary tool is their personal calendar as shown by the following video which shows a student building her weekly schedule in real time.
Notice how packed her schedule is with activity, and the care she takes to include items like eating and bathing that she’s likely to forget. She obviously takes her college success seriously and isn’t willing to leave her schedule to chance.
Here on the Psychowith6 blog, Melanie did a monumental job in 2013 of trying out new time management techniques and sharing the results. In week 11 she wrote a post about her experience using a daily calendar entitled “Could Scheduling Tasks Help You Get More Done?“
Her positive findings echo those discovered in academic research performed by separate researchers such as Dezhi Wu, Christine Bartholomew and E.J. Masicampo/Roy Baumeister. Their separate studies have shown that maintaining a schedule of activity results in greater productivity; notably, the first two researchers did their work with college students.
Furthermore, there is anecdotal evidence gathered by Mark Horstman at manager-tools.com that the vast majority of executives he’s worked with use detailed calendars such as the one developed in the video. He has completed a number of podcasts on time management which can be found here, repeating this finding in a number of episodes.
All the evidence, however, doesn’t mean that you should use this technique. There are other alternatives.
Another very popular approach is to place most tasks on a list, while only using the calendar for appointments. (The only other alternative – to use memory – is widely held to be ineffective.) Incidentally, Melanie has also experimented with using a To-Do list and found that it was difficult to be effective without one.
The key here is to understand that there are benefits to each approach and that there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all. You are the only one who can decide how best to proceed. Here are some guidelines.
1) Never rely on memory
Both list and schedule-based approaches are built on the philosophy that trying to use your memory to manage the demands on your time is a poor practice. While it may work for a teenager, it fails miserably when the teen becomes an adult with a wide range of responsibilities. When the adult enters middle-age and his/her ability to recall short-term memories diminishes, the problem only gets worse, making the use of memory the least effective technique (although perhaps the most common.)
2) Start by making lists
If you are making the transition from using memory, it’s best to start by learning to use a single list. It’s a relatively easy new habit to learn, although it might become hard to manage as you get busier. This happens because lists require constant checking throughout the day, and when they grow past a certain length, this routine becomes tedious.
The remedy is to find a way to avoid having to look at the entire list, and instead focus on a subset. There are a number of techniques that one can use, but the first approach that people try is to tag or categorize each task in some way, and then use the tag as a way to filter the list.
There are any number of tags that can be used, but some popular categories include physical location (e.g. home vs. office,) person (e.g. spouse, boss, coach) and equipment required (e.g. desktop computer, printer, scanner.) The choice of tags is up to each person – there is no perfect system. In general, however, people choose tags that represent their scarcest resources.
3) Upgrade to a single calendar
If, like a CEO or college student, you are time-starved, then you might consider a major upgrade: using your calendar instead of lists.
A calendar of tasks differs from a list of tasks in two important ways. When we use a calendar we are adding three pieces of information, in a single step. By placing a task on a calendar we are giving it a start time/date and an expected duration. We also show, in graphic form, the relationship of that task to all the others around it. A calendar is a rich source of information.
For CEO’s, college students and other time-starved professionals, this information is critical to have in front of them as they attempt to make the most of their scarcest resource – time. Their calendars are usually electronic and mobile, synchronized between several platforms including the cloud.
For them, their calendar is their central point of control and they only use lists in conjunction with their calendar in the cases where it’s a practical add-on: such as a grocery list, or agenda.
To repeat the point – this particular approach isn’t for everyone. It’s not easy to learn and it requires constant practice and a high degree of discipline. New, fancy technology can make the learning curve a bit easier, but the underlying practices to be mastered remain the same.
This challenge reinforces the point – one size simply doesn’t fit all. Each of us must choose the approach that fits our particular needs and consists of habits that we can learn successfully. The decision to use one approach or another is up to you, and hopefully you can use these insights to make a choice that allows you to live a life that’s as productive as it can be.
Like this post? Be sure to read Francis’s follow-up guest post.