What is the best way to optimize your time?

ItWhat is the ebst way to optimize your time? 2Time Labs‘s obvious to most of us that time is a precious resource. Unlike others, it is finite and non-renewable. When we get to a certain point in our philosophical development, we begin to face the fact that we won’t live forever and that our lives as human beings has an inescapable quality: it is marked by an unknown expiry date.

This realization hits us at different times, and perhaps it occurs as a slow, creeping acknowledgment for most. As we live our lives with this concern in the background, we experience a growing urge to make the best of what we have. That is, we try to optimize our lives.

Mathematical optimization  is a field of study that has existed for at least a century. It’s inhabited by operations researchers, management scientists and other applied mathematicians. However, their tools are normally applied to physical objects or physical activities in time.

In Perfect Time-Based Productivity I take the concept the step further, but state that human beings are caught in a tangle of misnomers and misunderstanding. That is, we know that we want to make the best use of the time we have been given. Specifically, at the end of every day, week, month and year we want to be able to look back on the time elapsed with satisfaction and give ourselves a passing grade. The same applies to the last few minutes of life.

However, we have a problem. While we want to optimize our use of time, something is broken which leads us into a state of confusion.

Time Cannot be Managed

Dr. Brigitte Claessens is an Assistant Professor at Radboud university in the Netherlands and she’s one of the foremost researchers in the area of time management. Quite fittingly, she’s in the Psychology Department where she has created waves with her bold assertion that “Time cannot be managed in any sense.” She’s not the first person to make that claim, but she is the first academic of note to pull together her knowledge from a number of fields to state the finding in plain terms. It’s stark, unequivocal stance does more than provoke: it brings into question all the work that has ever taken place in the field. (In the 2Time Labs InnerLab we are conducting a year-long research effort examining this assertion.)

If she (and others) are right, then humans have been looking for all the right answers in the wrong places. And it won’t be the first time.

Weight management, for example, isn’t accomplished by trying to manage weight directly. Instead, we all know that it’s accomplished by jointly managing our food intake and level of exercise. In the language of mathematical optimization, there is an objective function which maps calories consumed and calories burned onto the results shown on our bathroom scale, measured in pounds or kilos.

The same is true for time optimization. We have always thought that optimizing one’s time was a function of managing time but, according to Claessens and others, we are wrong.

In Perfect Time-Based Productivity, I discovered that we manage a psychological object which other researchers have called a conscious intention  but I named a “time demand“. I defined it as “an internal, individual commitment to complete an action in the future.”

A new objective function would be stated like this, as a start: optimized time usage is a function of managing time demands.

The Two Main Ways to Optimize Time Demands

How should we optimize time demands? Immediately, two kinds of activities spring to mind.
1) The activities that take place before a time demand is executed.
2) The activities that take place while it’s being executed.

Perhaps optimization has something to do with paying attention to these practices.

In the first case, we know that a time demand is created in the mind in response to a trigger of some kind. In some cases it’s an explicit thought that represents a kind of internal promise. Successfully shepherding a time demand from the moment of creation to the moment preceding its execution involves a series of steps I lay out in my book in further detail.

My research shows that all functioning, adult human beings create time demands – a skill that we teach ourselves in our early teens. We do so with varying levels of skill: here are some typical flaws in the ways we manage time demands before the point of intended execution.
Flaw 1 – we create too many time demands to be accomplished in a day, year or lifetime leading to feelings of regret or guilt
Flaw 2 – after a time demand is created, it becomes lost. Some of us blame our memory, which psychologists call prospective memory. Others point the finger at the surfeit of data in our environment i.e. information overload. Whatever the cause (and there are many possible culprits), the result is the same: a time demand unconsciously disappears before the intended moment of execution.

In the second case, once a time demand has begun to be executed, the research shows that it’s best to give it our full, undivided attention. It’s the best way to maximize the quality of the end-product, its timely completion, the cost of the effort and the quantity of output realized. Writers such as Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi have written about the flow state – our most productive way of completing time demands.

There is evidence, however, that humans do more than just create and execute time demands like machines. Given the role time demands play as carriers of commitment, they are essential to the completion of every goal we have in life in that require our agency.

Deeper Optimization Techniques that People Use

Relationships, money, well-being, happiness: any of our goals in these or other important areas require the creation, management and execution of time demands. As we enter our teens, we come to realize that this isn’t an easy activity for anyone to perform. It’s a hard job – in the words of Julie Roberts in the film “Pretty Woman”, they are “slippery little suckers.”

What makes things worse is that they are all competing with each other due to limited temporal space. According to Jordan Etkin of Duke University , the fact that some may be in direct conflict makes us feel more time-pressured. As a result, most adults live in a state of anxiety with regards to the burden of their time demands. Apparently, they are anxious that the time demands they create simply won’t be completed due to forces outside their control.

Given this concern, there are a number of techniques people use to mitigate the risk. These techniques are mostly self-taught, according to my research. As a result, they end up with skills that are uneven as the data collected from participants in my training confirm

However, there is another important reason why these techniques are different.

When someone creates a time demand, it appears that they also attach certain attributes to each one. To understand how this happens, imagine the creation of a record in a database of customer names.

While the name is an essential component in the record, it’s also likely that the database creator may want further information to be used, such as the person’s age, gender, address or phone number. There’s no limit to the number of attributes that can be added – we could let our imagination run wild and create a list of infinite length.

However, in a broad sense, we wouldn’t be creating this list without a reason. The “Why?” behind the creation of this database determines which attributes we would pay attention to, and which ones we’d ignore. When we create the database, we’d therefore collect a limited number of attributes – the ones that are important to us.

When we create time demands, we do something similar. A simple time demand such as “pick up the milk” could also have attributes we care about such as urgency, importance, time duration, scheduled start time, physical location, emotional mood, price, and others.

Of course, none of us creates a list of attributes a mile long – we only use those we care about. Like former President George H. W. Bush, we may not have a clue what the price of the milk we are about to purchase might be because we simply don’t care. It’s only natural for us to ignore those attributes which are least important.

But there’s more.

In my book I lay out a theory: we human beings often focus on a single attribute. It’s the one we find most scarce. We then use this attribute to manage all our time demands.

Here are a few examples:

  • a man of limited means walks two miles each way to work in order to save the bus fare. Why? The out-of-pocket cost of the trip is his most important attribute.
  • a woman runs two miles to work each day in order to improve her well-being. She’s optimizing her lifespan by warding off diseases related to a sedentary lifestyle.
  • a senior citizen walks two miles to work because of the inconvenience of the bus routes, which would take 2 hours. This person is optimizing time.
  • an adolescent walks two miles to school because his parent encourages him to enjoy the experience of going to school in the same neighborhood. He’s optimizing the proximity of his location.
  • a teenager walks two miles to her job after school because the fellow she has a crush on often walks that route and she’d like to spend time with him. She’s optimizing the relationship.

This motley group may end up side-by-side at the same intersection, but each is there for a different reason. They are each attempting to optimize an attribute that’s most critical to them, subordinating other attributes in that moment.

These are just a few examples, but the two that stand out are time and physical proximity. Most people who have read several books on the use of schedules focus on the former, while some of those who focus on the latter have been influenced by books like Getting Things Done® by David Allen.

Which Approach to Optimizing Time is Best?

Some do argue that the attribute they happen use is the only one that’s important, and that the use of other attributes is irrational or foolish. However, my research shows that optimizing your use of time demands depends on your concerns in life, and even on the phase your life is in. In other words, one size doesn’t fit all.

What’s true in general, is that as you attempt to optimize your time via your creation, management and execution of time demands, you use a hierarchy of attributes. I would speculate that Pareto’s Law applies: 80% of the time you use the same attribute. Furthermore, your current habits, practices and rituals are geared to optimizing this attribute.

Therefore, the best attribute to use is the one that works best for you, and you alone.

Knowing this fact while being fully aware of the attribute you currently use is the first step. Unfortunately, life keeps changing and with it we need to make adjustments. With full understanding, for example, a young couple who is recently married may start by “maximizing opportunities to be together.” Six years, three children and two promotions later, their needs in life may shift to a different focus: “maximizing time.” When this change occurs, it’s best to make a conscious change in their individual techniques in order to optimize their use of time.


Therefore, the final answer to the question: “What’s the best way to optimize your time?” is “It depends.” A new objective function might be that one’s optimal use of time is a function of the way one manages time demands, the way one executes time demands and the “attribute of scarcity” one happens to use.

When this awareness falls short, it’s easy to end up trying to optimize your time in ineffective ways. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, we aren’t taught these skills. Left to our own devices, we often struggle, especially if all we know to do is try to “manage time.”

Having an expanded awareness and understanding is the key to getting tasks done, completing projects and achieving your life goals over the long term. Knowing when to switch and make an upgrade becomes all important.

Tasks vs. Time Demands, Being a Victim vs. Responsible

As I mentioned in a prior post on the topic of time demands, this distinction is one that we at 2Time Labs were forced to create when the old definition of a task just simply stopped working.

One of the major differences has to do with agency – where do time demands come from?

I’m reminded of the following quotes, the first of which is from A Course in Miracles:

I am responsible for what I see

“The default way of thinking about conversation is that it is ‘just talk’ and that it is is a poor cousin of Action. But that misunderstands the formative power of language. My promise is to bring you a way of utilizing language so that what you need is created rather than ‘just talked about’.” David Firth TEDxCSU video

The power of using the concept of a “time demand” is not just a matter of labeling “the stuff we have to do” with a different name. New language opens up new meaning according to David Firth, and also a possibility. Here’s the definition we share in our classes:

A time demand is an individual commitment to complete an action in the future.

Implied, but not stated in this definition is a new kind of agency or responsibility. No time demands exist until you, the individual, bring them into being. Picture this – nothing is there, and all of a sudden you create a time demand, triggered by a conversation, memory, television advertisement, etc. Someone else sees the same ad and nothing happens, demonstrating that your willpower is required to create a time demand each and every time.

Some people in my programs tell me that their boss or spouse creates time demands, and I ask them not to confuse the trigger with the source. You can always elect to refuse a request, while accepting the consequences. Or you can simply ignore it. Failing that, you could quit the job or get divorced. Ultimately, you even have a choice whether to live or not.

Something psychological happens when we create a time demand, however, and it always involves some obligation. When it gets created in your mind, it includes some action to take, by definition. General commitments (to one’s family for example) are not time demands, but a promise made to oneself to pick up the milk on the way home certainly is.

One the other hand, when you don’t have the distinction at work in your way of being, you are left in a delusion that the stuff flying at you to be done everyday is out of your control, like being caught in the middle of a blizzard in which each time demand is a snowflake.

In their experience, they are victims. The best they can do is struggle and fight to stay alive against an onslaught of overwhelming data, information, requirements, invitations, obligations, promises, etc.

It’s what we do: sign up for every newsletter in sight and then complain about getting too many messages while griping that we don’t have enough time to read them all.

The great thing about taking responsibility for _all_ the time demands we create is that doing so empowers us to stop creating so many. At the same time we can start a serious efort to manage the ones we do create.

This isn’t ordinary thinking, but it’s the start of a transformation.

If you examine your day, you’ll see that your mind is always creating time demands. At the moment of creation, your mind simultaneously might tag on some more information: a likely start date/time, the duration, plus some level of commitment to get it complete. You may also add other information such as who else must be involved, where it is to be performed, other resources that are required, etc.

Skillful professionals don’t allow all this information to float around in their heads – they immediately capture it somewhere so that they can keep track of it outside their heads. They appreciate the fact that it’s much less risky to do so.

What do you think?

P.S. This distinction is at the core of my book – Bill’s discovery of time demands is where everything good starts happening for him. It’s so important, I have created a new page here on the website to bring together my most important posts, a podcast and a video on the topic of Time Demands.




A New Paradigm for Time Demands

Those of us who are older (over 40) have a hard time escaping the To-Do-on-paper mentality in favor of time-demand-in-the-cloud thinking.

In the old days, when you had something to do you added it to a list using a pen or pencil.  That piece of paper/list was the point of storage for what we now call “time demands” here at 2Time Labs.

Nowadays, that same item might be stored in any number of places instead of a paper list, such as:

  • a tweet
  • a comment on Pinterest
  • an email message
  • an instant message
  • a voicemail
  • a page on Facebook
  • a text message
  • a recommendation request on Linkedin
  • an attachment sent to your iPhone
…plus many others.

On the upside, the increasing number of electronic storage locations means that some stuff will be backed up and safe from being lost.  The downside is that we often get confused if we don’t make the jump to understand the nature of time demands, and why we need to think of them as residing in the cloud.

To start off, a time demand is an individual commitment to complete an action in the future.  It’s a mental creation, and it ceases to exist once the action is completed.  Also, like physical objects in space, time demands accumulate in the mind, and create problems when their number exceeds a certain threshold.

An email that arrives in your Inbox may contain several time demands, depending on its nature.  Once that email is read for the first time, it’s disposed of in a number of ways based on your methods.  It can be:

  • stored in your Inbox, while the time demands are committed to memory
  • deleted after the time demands can be placed on a list or schedule
  • placed in an email folder for later view
  • printed on paper and added to a To-Do manila folder

We make the mistake of focusing on the object, like an email message, instead of the time demands which it includes.  Email messages, text messages, meeting minutes, tweets, etc. are all variations of the same thing:  containers or transmitters for time demands, much in the way that a mango skin is the the container for its pulp.  (It’s mango season here in Jamaica as you can probably tell!)

When we try to “reduce the number of emails” we get each day we are barking up the wrong tree.  5000 email messages per day are not a problem if 4999 are spam.  One email can contain 150 time demands.

Once we focus on time demands, it’s not hard to think of them as being stored in the cloud, and all we need is access to the handful we need at any time in order to do our jobs and make decisions.  If the number is quite small, we can even manage them in their entirety, as a group.

Once the number grows, however, we get overwhelmed, and try to find ways to cut down the need to be looking at too many all at once.

The first attempt people make is to migrate from one single list to many lists.  This helps a bit, and the technique works as long as the number of time demands remains below a threshold.  What’s important to note is that a list or sub-list is just a particular view of all the time demands that exist.  It might be a view of the tasks to do in the office, those that are urgent, those that require big commitments of time, etc.

When a user upgrades to a schedule, it’s an attempt to shield oneself from the onslaught of all the time demands at once, as they are spaced out over time.  Once again, the schedule is just a particular way of looking at all the time demands that are in the cloud.  It’s a more robust tool than a simple list; the fact is, a schedule is just a list enhanced with dates and durations, and sorted by the former.

In other words, it’s also a view of all the time demands that you need to complete. It requires more time to set it up, and more time to maintain, but much less time to review than simple lists when the number of time demands is below a certain threshold.

No single approach is better than others but it’s important that professionals understand that they have a choice, and that there is likely to be stress if their approach is not a sufficiently robust one.

Time Demand: A Confusing Definition Cleared Up

In different posts here on 2Time, I have defined time demands as commitments that we create to complete actions in the future.

They are created by the individual in his/her own mind.  While they are essentially inventions of the mind, they do accumulate in one’s memory, and they disappear or cease to exist once the action has been completed.

That definition seems simple enough, and I use it when I’m teaching a class to illustrate this important concept.  A simple example would be watching a television commercial that advertises a discount at your favorite restaurant.  You decide to visit before the offer expires, and immediately write down the day and time that you are thinking of visiting.

Where I’m a bit confused at the moment is what happens in the electronic world.

Does a time demand get created when you receive an email in your Inbox (without being aware of it) or when you glance at it for the first time and form an impression that there is something for you to do about it, or with it?

Is the fact that you have an email Inbox an open invitation to receive time demands?  Is every message therefore a time demand?

The answer to that seems to be “no.”  Just because someone sends you email doesn’t mean that it’s a time demand of any kind, any more than junk mail in your P.O. Box is a time demand.  Or a piece of paper that randomly blows into your yard, or an instruction shouted in your direction in a crowded subway.

Information in an email, or on paper, or in the sound waves only become a time demand when they are converted from words by a live recipient.  An instruction shouted at a group of people, for example, would only be a time demand for a few.

This might clear up some of my confusion when it comes to email.  I can see that email sent to you isn’t a time demand until you have read it.  The problem that many have is that they skim rather than empty their email Inboxes, especially when they don’t know what to do with an item once they have determined that it includes valid time demands.

However, does the fact that you have an email Inbox mean that you are inviting potential time demands, and therefore committing to process messages from everyone who send you  email?

I say not.  But I could be wrong.  Legally, a piece of mail that gets sent via registered mail must be accepted by a live person who accepts responsibility for it.  That’s not what happens with email.

There is no way to legally guarantee anything via email, even if the the sender hits the right buttons.

Someone who decides to set up an email Inbox and never checks it isn’t breaking the law by any means.  However, they are displaying White belt behaviors, and possibly allowing time demands to fall through the cracks.

I’d got a bit further and say that anyone with an email Inbox that’s used by the public is wise to treat any piece of email as a time demand in and of itself, whether or not it includes anything useful.  You are committing to spend even a fraction of a second reading, making a  decision and disposing of the message. This is true even for Spam that warrants a peek before permanent deletion.

Those fractions add up, of course, which is why many fear a buildup of email from being on vacation.

So, the best practice I’d suggest is to treat each piece of email as a time demand before it’s read, with the understanding that it might lead to even further time demands.

More on Time Demands

As I re-read my prior post on time demands, I started to have some additional thoughts.  Not second thoughts, but old ones that I failed to add.

In the original post I listed 8 characteristics of time demands that were a bit incomplete as far as my current thinking goes.  Here are some others:

Characteristic #9: There are a finite number of time demands in play at any point in time.  Some might be in our memories, while others sitting are in our time management systems.

Characteristic #10: Time demands differ from each other in time length, and in the mental time-slots we assign to each of them.  The actions to be taken to complete each one are also different.  However, a time demand may occupy a range of start and end-dates, or a range of durations for completion.

Characteristic #11: Time demands sometimes come bundled together in a single message, email or commitment.  For example, a single message might include several time demands, and a complex commitment such as a project might have to be broken down into numerous time demands.

The management of time demands differs widely from person to person, depending on their belt level.  Yellow Belts tend to put a great deal of effort into making lists of time demands sorted in different ways.   Some use contexts, others use priorities, a few use lists based on time horizons.

Orange Belts, however, have schedules in which they put all the time demands they have committed to complete.  Lists are used in other ways.

White Belts, of course, keep the majority of their time demands in their memory, and often talk about remembering and forgetting them.

Once time demands are well understood, it’s not too hard to envision them moving through different points of your time management system.
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Time Demands: Time Management’s Widget

It might be my training in industrial engineering and operations research, or just my love of factory environments, but I am still tinkering with the idea that the basic unit of time management is something called a Time Demand.

I just re-read a post I wrote back in 2007 on Time Demands and realized that there are some new concepts I need to add in that have become more clear as I’ve shared them in classes and here online.  I think of them as the widgets of time management, drawing on the times when I studied manufacturing, and the product being created was always a widget.

Time demands are invisible, and intangible, and are silently created by an individual when he/she decides to devote future time to accomplish some result.  In the 2007 post, I provide lots of examples.

For the purposes of this post, let’s imagine that you want to do some early work on your Christmas gift-list.

What prompted the decision is not very important, but the fact that you have created it means that you have placed a subtle pressure on yourself to get it done.

At that moment, all that exists is a mental commitment.  If you don’t write it down, or record it in some way outside your memory, then you will recall it at some future point when you happen to remember it, perhaps prompted by some event related to the season such as an advertisement on television.

Many people, however, choose to record their commitment in some way so that it enters their time management system in a manner that ups the odds that it won’t fall through the cracks.

What I have said so far can be summarized in the following:

Characteristic #1:  Time Demands are always and only created by the individual

Characteristic #2: Time Demands are comprised of a commitment to take action in the future

Characteristic #3: Time Demands disappear when they are not managed, and may never re-appear

Characteristic #4: Time Demands have a finite life-cycle from creation to disappearance

When Time Demands are reliably recorded for future use, they may be embodied in one or more more different ways. Here are some examples:

  • A note is written with a marker on a piece of paper and stuck to your fridge
  • An email that describes a Time Demand is kept in an Inbox or moved to a folder
  • A Post-It Note that mentions the Time Demand is stuck on your monitor
  • A letter you need to reply to is placed on your desk, where you won’t forget it
  • A string is tied around your finger
  • Your secretary is told to remind you of a Time Demand
  • You add a Time Demand to your To-Do List
  • In your calendar, you schedule a Time Demand
  • You leave an unfinished project in your garage to remind yourself to complete it
  • Before going to bed at night, you lay out your gym clothes where you can’t miss them so that you work out tomorrow morning
  • Today’s tweets are printed out and placed in a file

These are just some of the ways in which we give Time Demands some tangible reality, to prevent them from falling through the cracks.

After a Time Demand is created, it must be manipulated in order to move it from creation to completion.

After it’s created and stored, the next moment in its life-cycle occurs when it gets removed from its place of temporary storage.  On your fridge, you may have a reminder to yourself to make that Christmas list, and you decide to take the next step before the paper disappears.

This is a critical moment of decision, as the future of the Time Demand depends entirely on your next move.  You actually have some options at this point.

Option 1:  You decide to forget about making a list this year.  The recession is impacting your budget, and you throw the piece of paper away, never to think about it again.  A nice clear spot on the fridge now appears, awaiting your next Time Demand

Option 2:  You decide to make the list immediately.  Once you are done, the Time Demand disappears

Option 3:  Your note to yourself had included a website that helps people make gift-lists.  You store that site in your list of favorites for later use

Option 4:  You add the Time Demand to a To-Do list

Option 5:  In your calendar, you block out dedicated time to complete the Time Demand

Those are the 5 ways in which Time Demands can be handled, until they are brought to completion.  They help us to understand the other 4 characteristics.

Characteristic #5: Individual Time Demands can easily become lost in the clutter of other Time Demands

Characteristic #6: Time Demands can be manipulated and moved around a time management system at will

Characteristic #7: When a Time Demand has begun its journey within a time management system it can be safely forgotten, or dropped from active memory

Characteristic #8: Once Time Demands are completed, they disappear and cease to exist

Part of what I am attempting to do here is to catalog the universal nature of Time Demands so that those who have an interest in this area can start talking with a common language and concept.  In this sense, I am also saying that the 8 Characteristics are inescapable, and essential to an understanding of time management, much in the way that an understanding of the elements of an atom are necessary in order to do physics.

Once Time Demands are well understood, it becomes much easier to do other kinds of work related to the field of time management, such as:

  • helping a working professional carve out her own system
  • assisting designers of products that recommend specific habit patterns, such as those described by David Allen, Mark Forster, Sally McGhee, Neal Fiore and others
  • redesigning programs like Outlook and Gmail so that they do a better job of assisting users to manipulate time demands that enter their lives via email
  • coaching individuals who want to improve their personal productivity
  • writing better articles and books – fewer lists of simplistic tips and more solid insight into the way that time demands can be managed
  • creating apps for smartphones, and even reshaping their design, so that they promote productivity (rather than game-playing and other distractions)
  • researching the flow of time demands through an individual’s time management system with more precision using tools like digital simulation and
  • sum

The fact is, there is not a single employee in the world who is not constrained by the 8 Characteristics of Time Demands.  These characteristics are a simple fact of working life, and it’s better to understand how they work than it is to be unaware.

With greater understanding comes an ability to achieve more of the goals that we set for ourselves in our lives.

To illustrate the point, here are some slides from one of my live programs that I use to describe the idea that Time Demands make their way through our lives in a very structured way.  In the video, I use the language of the 2Time fundamentals — described elsewhere on this website.

P.S. This article is continued in a subsequent post, More on Time Demands

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