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?
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?


Practice vs. Progress – Which should you focus on?

One of the critical ideas here at 2Time is the notion that practicing the 11 fundamentals of time management is the key to upgrading one’s time management system.

With that in mind, here’s an article that goes a step further and argues that it’s better to focus on the process of practicing, than it is to become fixated on the specific goal being accomplished.

On one level, this makes perfect sense, given the recent research that indicates that ten years of practice is required to master a particular discipline.  One must find a way to give oneself to continuous practice over and over again in order to keep practicing for that long, and it’s better to focus on the moment and what’s happening in it in some detail, than it is to achieve a certain milestone.  Zara Lawler, the author, uses the example of practicing a piece of music as her example, and here in 2Time it’s not too hard to see an important parallel.

Some 2Time basics:  upgrading one’s time management system is best accomplished by determining which habits need to be changed in order to effect an improvement.  These changes usually don’t come quickly, as they are the result of putting in place new practices that only become habits after much mindful repetition.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to get distracted by the belts that are set by those use the 2Time method  (they range from White to Green, denoting different skill levels.)  The point she’s making is that goals like these are good to have in the background, but it’s dangerous to have them at the forefront of one’s attention where they get in the way.  It’s better to commit to a certain amount of practice time, rather than specific results.

It’s a subtle distinction, and I invite you to check out her post:  Process Not Progress.

Best Practices in Time Management

Is there such a thing as a best practice in time management?

It might seem that this is a no-brainer… of course there are things one should be doing, and things one should not be doing!

I would argue the opposite, based on my experience of teaching time management programs.  Here’s why.

I assume that people who take my programs have taught themselves the skills that they use on a daily basis.  Some are more capable than others, to be sure, and can handle a larger number of time demands.

However, before improving a single habit, practice or ritual, I encourage each person to make an assessment about whether  or not the change they are contemplating will enhance their peace of mind.  In some cases that surprise me, the answer is a clear “no.”

From my point of view as an outsider to their lives, there seem to be clear-cut cases of changes that people “should” make.  As a coach/expert in the area, I sometime think that all my experience adds up to something, including a right to tell someone what’s best for them… as if I can know what’s best about their lives.

I’m better when I remember an important principle: maximum peace of mind comes when there is a match between the volume of time demands in one’s life, and the capacity of one’s system.  While it’s fine to have more capacity than volume, we hate it when the opposite is true and we find ourselves falling behind, stuff falling through the cracks, overwhelmed by email and stressed.

At that point, an upgrade is sorely needed.

For some, however, there is no need to change anything, and their “best practices” happen to be the ones that they are currently using – regardless of how they stack up against Black Belts in time management or any standard I might dream up.  They don’t anticipate an upsurge in time demands, and can keep their peace of mind by operating at the same level indefinitely.

It would be a mistake for them to try to change things for silly reasons, such as a need to keep up with the Joneses by using the latest smartphone technology.  Yet, that is exactly what people do all the time.

They adopt a new technology without having an understanding of their time management systems, and end up learning bad habits that must be un-learned in order to retain their past levels of productivity.  (If you’d like to hear some statistics on how that happens, I recommend the new book “The Activity Illusion” by Ian Price.)

So, the long and short of it is that there are no universal best practices.  There are only personal practices that we each need to follow, in order to maintain our productivity and peace of mind.

This doesn’t say that there aren’t consequences for ALL the habits, practices and rituals we include in our time management systems.  There most certainly are.  it’s up to the user to decide when to change them, however, and not someone who comes up with some list of “best practices.”

No Time for 2 Hours of Time Management

I recently heard a complaint made by a trainer — no-one in their organization had enough time to take a 2 hour class in time management.

On one level it’s a bit of a joke… I remember hearing once that the very thing that we want to improve, keeps us from taking advantage of improvement opportunities.  For example, being “late to a class in procrastination” is an old chestnut that some resurrect now and again to knowing laughs.

On another level, it represents all that’s crazy about our hunger for instant results.  We refuse to believe in the slow, steady progress required for accomplishing results at a  world-class level in any discipline.  Instead, we spend time Googling for instant tips, magical shortcuts and cute tricks.  We want our improvements fast and easy, and we strenuously ignore messages to the contrary.

With respect to time management, we trick ourselves into thinking that it we buy the right gadget, or software package, then it will take care of everything for us.  If we get the right insight it will make all the difference in the world.  Unfortunately, we are wrong.  These tactics represent a basic misunderstanding about the ways that time management skills are improved, and the fact that they are made up of habits that take years to learn, and unlearn.

As Werner Erhard said, “understanding is the booby prize.”  So are the kinds of effortless insights that we love so much.  Instead, we should probably just pick one hard-to-learn common-sense habit and focus on it until we get to a half-decent standard, before moving on to learn another.  There’s more to gain from that kind of activity than any of the sexy or shiny stuff that seems so exciting at first blush.

Nothing New in Time Management

I sense that there is a certain fatigue around the topic of time management.

I remember a time in the early 1990’s when productivity tools were all the rage, and you wouldn’t be caught dead without a DayTimer, FiloFax or Dayrunner folder equipped with custom tabs from Staples or Office Depot.

These weren’t entertainment devices, communication gadgets or portable search engines.  They were designed for productivity… and that was it.

Nowadays, the buzz around smartphones has little to do with productivity and time management, and more to do with stuff like connecting with your friends using Facebook Places and upping your score in Cityville.

Sexy?  Absolutely.  Productive? Not really.

Most of the articles related to the topic of time management consist of “Quick and Easy Tips,” “Top 10 ShortCuts…” and “Simple ways to gain two extra hours each day.”  We want our time management like our fast food.  Quick. Cheap. Filling. Instant.

Unfortunately, for those who are really interested in improving their skills there is little of substance, and little that’s new.  The market for instant time management tips has been saturated with books and websites touting hundreds of instant, effortless tips.

The get-rich-quick mentality has infected time management with its promise of fast results with little or no investment, risk or effort.

It’s the reason why so many companies are giving out Blackberry’s as the solution to issues of productivity.   If your employees are complaining because you have each of them doing the work of three people, then “Let em eat cake!”  Buy them a Blackberry, and that will be enough to do the job.

Those who are serious about improving their time management skills are tired of the tips and tricks, and aren’t looking for another gadget to buy.  They are already weary of these “solutions,” even if the general public seems quite to be quite happy.

They are focused on the 11 fundamentals of time management, and improving their overall skill by practicing each one at progressively higher levels.  They are like professional athletes who isolate parts of their game, and spend hours eking out small improvements via structured practice, often with the help of a coach, but often by working just by themselves.

It’s what most people call “anal.”

But it’s just not like that if you are serious about improving.  Instead, ut’s the price that must be paid for sustained achievement in any field.

Tiger probably spends very little time scouring the internet for easy, instant tips, and a lot of time in practice sand-traps perfecting his methods for digging out half-buried balls.  In the sun, wind and rain.

The same applies to Grand Masters in chess, Grand Slam winners in tennis and top NASCAR drivers.

Time management is no different, and I see that part of my job in 2Time and MyTimeDesign is to provide a viable pathway for improvement for any professional who is serious, and willing to discover what habits they need to work on in order to take their game to the next level.

This is a trickier assignment for those who are already operating at high levels of accomplishment (i.e. Green Belts and above) but Zen speaks of a beginner’s mind that comes with superior achievement.  I believe that the same applies to professionals who are ultra-productive and can manage a huge number of time demands — they don’t believe they have reached as they can see more clearly than others how far they still have to go.

Leaving Practice with Raw Hands

As I mentioned in my prior post: “The Pedagogy of Time Management,” there is a need for anyone who wants to improve their skills in this field to craft specific opportunities for structured practice.

Mark Needham’s summary of Talent is Overrated describes three kinds of practice from the book:

With regards to improving skills, three models are suggested for non-work related practice:

  • Music Model – Break down activity into smaller pieces; analyse each for ares of improvement; repeatedly practice each area. This is a useful approach for practicing presentations and speeches where we know beforehand what we want to do.
  • Chess Model – Study real games; practice the situations from the games; compare what you did vs what happened in the real game. This approach has been applied in business for many years, disguised as the case method.
  • Sports Model – re-learn the basics of the field; simulate situations that may come up in real life.

He goes on to apply these models to the improvement of software development skills in an interesting way:

I think some parts of each of these models can be applied to software development. From the sports model we can take the idea of re-learning the underlying principles of computer science and how our code is actually working behind the abstractions languages create for us; from the chess model we can take the idea of considering different options when we have a choice to allow us to select the one which will best solve our problem; and from the music model we can take the idea of identifying specific areas of improvement in our work and relentlessly working on these.

That’s cool thinking… and it makes me wonder how I can do the same with time management skills.

Ever since I created the NewHabits training programs I have wanted to include practice sessions – the equivalent of hitting shots from the driving range – but I have been unable to think of a realistic way to do this.

I’d love some help on this.  Is there a way to practice the 7 fundamentals – (Capturing, Emptying, Tossing, Acting Now, Storing, Scheduling and Listing) in a classroom environment?

Also, is there a surefire way for someone who wants to improve their skill in a particular area to focus on practicing that skill in keeping with the guidelines for deliberate practice from Talent is Overrated?:

  • Designed to improve performance
  • Can be repeated a lot
  • Feedback continuously available
  • Highly demanding mentally
  • Not much fun

I don’t think I’m the only one with this challenge, and from prior posts you might find that I have been struggling with this question for a while, and that progress has been slow.  Why?

Let’s look at some of the critical skills in Capturing:

– carrying something to capture with at all times

– capturing manually, instead of using memory

– maintaining a backup strategy

At one point, I have imagined an elaborate real-life case study in the middle of my live programs, in which a manufactured crisis results in participants having to use these three skills.  One fantasy involved a fake fire-alarm, mysterious phone calls involving elaborate instructions and a rapid response requiring information that had to be successfully captured in order to be used.

What I was thinking…???

I also am not a great believer in “analogy” learning exercises… for example, showing the importance of Capturing by going out to a ropes and logs course to do physical activities that teach similar lessons.  There is a certain physical motion required to Capture, and it’s this action that must be practiced… (Michael Jordan didn’t practice passing a basketball by playing soccer.)

The difficulty seems to be that it’s devilishly hard to re-create the original events that trigger manual capturing in the average day.  (This is distinct from automatic capturing, which happens when someone sends you an email, for example.  It requires no action on our part.)

What are these triggering events?  Here are a few “cases:”

  • as you are sitting at your desk you remember to pick up the milk on the way home from work
  • during a meeting, your boss asks you to meet with a customer, and you agree
  • you decide to open a new Gmail account for personal email
  • you put in place a backup strategy for those moments (like a day at the beach) when you don’t have anything to write with and you want to remember to remove the chicken from the freezer when you get home, and to send email to the guy in accounts receivable the following day

Each of these events naturally leads to the use of one of the critical skills in Capturing.  Something must happen at that critical moment for the user to realize that this is an opportunity to practice a new time management skill.

As an aside — let me explain how that works in my training.  Each person evaluates their current Capturing abilities using a scale ranging from White to Green Belt skills.  Some decide to make an upgrade, and pick up new habits.  In other words, they decide to engage in a brand new practice in response to the usual events they face each day.  (Take my online Capturing Quiz to see what I mean.)

The question is, how do they know (in the heat of the moment) that this is an opportunity to Capture using a new habit (by writing down the new time demand on a pad of paper) rather than using their old habit of, for example, committing it to memory?

And, how do they remember to practice that new skill until it becomes a new habit?

At this time, all I can think of is that they can engage in a form of visualization, in which they picture the event happening and their new, preferred response.  It might require a short definition such as “when I commit to a time demand in a meeting I immediately write it in my paper pad.”

Also, they could get a colleague or their boss to help them recognize and point out those moments when they say things like:

  • “I forgot / didn’t remember”
  • “I was too busy”
  • “I didn’t have enough time”
  • “I had too much to do”

These might be indicators that an error in Capturing took place.

They could also look for themselves to see the times when they don’t capture well, and time demands fell through the cracks.  I imagine something like a Crack Score to be kept by an individual who tracks the number of time demands that fall through the cracks each day, and some record of the source of the error.  In some cases, it might be traced back to a fault in Capturing.

While you may read this and think to yourself, “I would never bother with all that!” you may want to take note of the message of Talent is Overrated as related by the Fundamental Soccer blog:

2) Deliberate practice can be repeated a lot. High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts. Tiger Woods may face that buried lie in the sand only two or three times in a season, and if those were his only opportunities to work on that shot, he’d blow it just as you and I do.

Repeating a specific activity over and over is what people usually mean by practice, yet it isn’t especially effective. Two points distinguish deliberate practice from what most of us actually do. One is the choice of a properly demanding activity just beyond our current abilities. The other is the amount of repetition.
Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent. Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest hitter, would practice hitting until his hands bled. Pete Maravich, whose college basketball records still stand after more than 30 years, would go to the gym when it opened in the morning and shoot baskets until it closed at night.

Talent is Overrated is unambiguous on the point — if you want to get better, then deliberate practice is THE “secret sauce” that high achievers have been applying behind the scenes in order to accomplish the amazing goals that we so admire in ALL fields.

Time Management is no exception, and the widespread mediocrity that passes for acceptable performance around the globe, in virtually every workplace, will only be reversed with a commitment to deliberate practice.

The Making of an Expert in Time Management

I just finished  reading a paper that echoes a great deal of what has motivated me to develop the 2Time approach:  The Making of an Expert published in the July-August 2007 edition of the Harvard Business review by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely.

I have always been struck by people who tell me that they are “bad” at time management.  They suffer from the usual ills:
– being late for appointments
– feeling burdened by all they have to do, and believing that they have too much
– falling behind on critical tasks such as emptying their Inbox
– feeling haunted by stuff they think they might have forgotten
– seeing time demands fall through the cracks, due to what they think is a faulty memory
– becoming someone who cannot be trusted by others

However, they have convinced themselves that they have as much time management skill as they can develop in this lifetime.  They see time management expertise as a talent, rather than a skill.

Here in 2Time, I disagree wholeheartedly.  My experience tells me that time management capacity is built on habits that are picked up over time, and that for most people this happens in a haphazard way.

Apart from the lack of a systematic process and decent coaching, they are taught that time management is something that you gain once, and never need to work on again.  One reason that the belt system is such an integral part of the Time Management 2.0 approach is that we all need to see that an increase in time demands brought on my most workplaces, and the evolution of technology both mean that if we stay stuck in one place for too long, we’ll quickly become stale.

I run into many people who compare their time management skills with others around them and conclude that they aren’t that bad, simply because they happen to be better.  They quickly become defensive… as if the challenge to their current skill-level is an insult of sorts that doesn’t acknowledge their current expertise.  Even those who have learned their skills from a book or class fall into the trap of thinking that they need not look any further — their current skills are all they need.

What “The Making of an Expert” makes clear is that experts are the ones who are willing to put a lot of time and hard effort in continually improving their skills … some 10,000 hours worth in fact… or ten years.  They don’t just practice the skills they already have either.  Instead, they put themselves into the zone of discomfort in order to develop new skills, and they work with teachers and coaches who help them hang out in that zone until new skills are learned.

In Time Management 2.0 terms, it means that they are able to improve their belt level by practicing the unfamiliar skills of higher belts.

Not that this is an easy path to take.  To quote the article:

“The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice-practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort. You will need a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself. Above all, if you want to achieve top performance as a manager and a leader, you’ve got to forget the folklore about genius that makes many people think they cannot take a scientific approach to developing expertise.”

I don’t know how long on average it takes a White Belt to become a Green Belt, but my sense is that it can be done in less than 2 years.  I know of one person who made a jump in 2 belts within 18 months, and a Green Belt shouldn’t be an impossible task to accomplish.

It’s the kind of improvement that experts apparently relish.  What’s clear is they aren’t afraid of the hard work required.  The article continues:
“(Sam) Snead, who died in 2002, held the record for winning the most PGA Tour events and was famous for having one of the most beautiful swings in the sport (of golf.) Deliberate practice was a key to his success. “Practice puts brains in your muscles,” he said.

What a brilliant way to describe what we as professionals have stopped doing in this critical area of our development.
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The Taxonomy of Teaching Kids

I just read a fascinating article from the New York Times entitled Building a Better Teacher.

It’s a long article, but what got my attention was the fact that it’s built on a search for the fundamentals of teaching.

It turns out that teacher quality is the single most important variable in the ability of students to learn in a classroom setting.  The article describes the years of research that’s been done to identify the practices that good teachers use to produce results.  They selected the teachers to study that are able  to produce results in some of the poorest schools in the US, where resources and family support is below average.

The researchers have isolated these practices in a way that that has put them into words, and has helped teachers to begin to set up sessions to master individual skills in coaching sessions with other teachers.

It turns out that a lot of things that schools and teachers do to impact their effectiveness don’t really matter, and a few things do that are not that hard to learn with enough dedicated practice time.

In other words, it’s a bit like the world of time management.

The journalist who wrote the article reported that many teachers and well-meaning experts are looking for improvement in the wrong places.

I believe the same is true in the case of time management.  Some of the approaches that have a minimal effect include:

– trying to follow someone else’ system of habits without regard for one’s current habits

– improving by ignoring habits and instead focusing on things like “energy,” “attitude” and “motivation”

-over-simplifying the challenge that we all have of changing ingrained habits quickly, whether it involves learning or un-learning habits

It struck me that it took a long time to develop this taxonomy, and that it’s all based on empirical research that’s been captured on film.

I started to wonder… how long will it take to popularize the concept of Time Management 2.0? After all, like the teaching researchers, I am actually (and mostly) putting some names to things which people have done for many years.

I am also daunted by the fact that years and years of work has been put into the taxonomy of teaching, and that I have spent only 4 years on this effort, but I haven’t started any kind of empirical research.


Here is the link once again to “Building a Better Teacher.”
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An Interesting Experiment?

experiment.jpgI came across a post entitled: An Experiment with Time Management that describes an entrepreneur’s decision  to track his time each day, to see how he could improve his time management.

I have seen different software programs that help users to do the same thing, but I fear that there is not much to be gained from this approach, and certainly nothing that will lead to a fundamental shift in behaviour.

The reason is simple – entrepreneurs don’t work in a job in which each day is like any other.  On any given day, they are faced with all sorts of emergencies, projects and opportunities that make it impossible to compare one day to another, in order to determine whether or not Friday was a more productive day than Monday.

The best that can came out of the exercise is some after-the-fact self-criticism, such as “I shouldn’t have taken such a long break after I checked my email last Wednesday” or “I should have focused more on the accounting I was doing in order to get it done faster on Monday.”

Most knowledge professionals are performing jobs with a high creative content in which success is not easily measured.

What a time review can help to tell this blogger, however, is what habits he is lacking in his repertoire, given that he has an interest in improving his time management skills. He can see where he checks his email before doing anything else each day, and how that habit might be destroying his productivity.

But to what end?

He’d have to come to understand that good time management is ultimately about peace of mind, which exists only when there is a match between  a user’s intentions, and actual outcomes.  In other words, he’s trying to have days in which there is no frustration at wanting more time in the day, no missed appointments, no skipped commitments and and no forgetten promises.

That’s very different than “getting more stuff done” which is the goal that most professionals maintain when they do a survey of their time management expenditures.

Unfortunately, there are only a few jobs left in the world in which “getting more stuff done” is the single goal, and I doubt that any of them are held by knowledge workers.  Trying to narrow the game down to this simple variable might work in baseball (i.e. score more runs) but it’s not useful in real life, for real workers.

As Stephen Covey says, you might be climbing the ladder of success, only to find that it’s leaning against the wrong wall.  In like manner, it makes no sense to  get more done, and to sacrifice the peace of mind that’s ultimately the real goal.