How to Make Task Management Apps Way More Engaging

Recently, I write an article on Medium geared towards designers of task management “apps” ranging from those who support the use of memory, to paper, to task management apps, to calendars to auto-schedulers. In the article, I shared the following graphic that shows the progression that users make as they

progress from the use of one skill level to the next. As you may recall, the idea that different tools are needed for different task volumes is a key research finding here at 2Time Labs.

In this article, I use two different tools to analyze this progress, explaining that a transformation actually takes place (or is struggling to emerge.) It happens when the user is able to experience their task management as a game.

Unfortunately, their game-play is thwarted by several factors. One is that they are unaware of this journey and a second is that many task management software designers are also blind to the whole picture.

This means that people aren’t engaged. Their apps are dull, even though the contents are vital to their everyday lives.

Imagine storing your most precious worldly items in a dull, nondescript warehouse.

Check out the article here: What Task Management App Developers Can Do to Catch Up with Pokemon Go.

Does Email Volume Hit a Natural Limit?

While there are lots of people who complain about receiving too many emails per day, the complaint that “I get too much email” is a bit of a red herring.

While there is a certain amount of email that is written with poor quality (sometimes as high as 65% according to research by Burgess, Jackson and Ewards;  Email Overload: Tolerance Levels of Employees within the Workplace,) and a further amount is simply SPAM, there is a critical percentage of email that involves communication required to perform one’s job, career and profession.

In other words, it’s not an extra chore, it’s the very essence of the job of a knowledge worker: to craft skillful communication, manage time demands and make critical decisions that move projects to completion.  If there were no email, the communication would still have to be realized, albeit at a slower pace.

What does a professional have to complain about when it comes to email volumes?  If they are part and parcel of the job, then each valid message is to be expected and should be welcomed as it shows that necessary communication is taking place, as it should.  Email is an excellent medium for most kinds of communication, and cannot be effectively replaced by paper memos or face to face meetings.

It should be expected that with a promotion, a new project or an expansion in one’s accountabilities that email volume will increase.   Each step up in one’s career requires further communication, not less, and also greater skill.

The question is whether or not there is a “natural” amount of email communication that is inherent in a particular role.  Does it increase to a certain level, and then level off?  Or, should we expect one’s email to increase, and to keep growing without any logical limit.

I can’t claim to have answers to these questions, but my intuition tells me that there’s a natural increase in daily messages that takes place from one job to the next.  While we don’t know how to measure the difference, or predict it, it seems reasonable to assume that it does exist.

If it does, then there’s some comfort in knowing that email doesn’t come out of nowhere.  Instead, each and every valid message appears in your Inbox because you are doing your job well.  It needs to be embraced, and managed — even if it requires a user to performance an upgrade to his/her skills.

Certainly, blaming the new job or one’s colleagues is not an empowering stance to take.

My Blackberry Update #1

Background: As you may know, I spent months describing all the ways in which I observed a relatively new phenomena – smartphone abuse.  I then embarked on a process to choose one for myself in a way that I hoped would enhance my productivity, rather than turn me into an habitual drive-and-text offender.  I have used one for the past few months, and am ready to give some updates on what’s happened to my “precious” productivity!

As I noted in a prior post: “Productive Notifications on Your Blackberry,” it’s amazing to me that Blackberry (BB’s)s are shipped with so many notifications turned on.  I noticed a rumor somewhere that RIM is now shipping them with the notifications turned “off.”  This is progress!

The biggest change I have noticed in my own productivity is the way that I manage the flow of emailed time demands.

Before:  I used to manage all incoming email from my Outlook Inbox.

After:  I now manage all messages from the BB Inbox, which is continuously synched with with my Outlook Inbox.  I use the BB to do a form of triage in which I delete stuff I don’t want immediately (i.e. Tossing) and allow some items to flow into my Outlook Inbox for immediate processing when I return to my desktop environment.

By the time the message gets to Outlook, I have already decided what to do with it — dealing with it there is a matter of convenience as the small screen of the BB makes it hard to do things like read downloads, process pics, etc.

I was able to find a powerful BB app called “AddThis” that allows you to immediately convert an email message into an item in a calendar.  Using Google Calendar to synch my calendars in Outlook and BB has meant that I can change my calendar on the road and have it also change on my desktop.

Sweet!  (Even though it’d not quite working perfectly yet.)

These changes represent major shifts in my time management process, and I have tried to be careful in making them because the benefits are now more obvious.

Being able to check email without having to fire up my laptop, and assure an Internet connection has been a tremendous benefit.  Lately, my DSL line has been spotty (ever since a painter came in to do some decorating work.)  Having consistent access to email has been useful, and being able to fill the odd spot here and there when I’m on the road or far from an Internet connection has allowed me greater choices.

Have I been tempted to do indulge in the dangerous, rude, unhygienic and unproductive behaviors that I have written so much about?  Absolutely.

However, the benefit of knowing about them in advance has certainly helped in stopping myself from doing them.  I find that I have to be very awake and aware at those moments when I feel the “Blackberry Itch” and take a short breath to ask myself whether or not this is a good moment to check for new messages.

For example, in the last paragraph, I wondered if an interesting prospect who contacted me yesterday has replied to my pithy response.  I felt the Itch coming on… I could have stopped myself from writing in mid-sentence to check… breaking my flow state.

But, I noticed it and let it pass, as I have at other times when someone is talking to me, I’m in a meeting, I’m driving someplace or I’m in the shower!  (BTW, there’s a special water-proof bag they are selling for those who can’t wait…)

All in all I can make the following judgment: as a “time demand management device” my BB upgrade has been a successful one, and I’m yet to play my first game. This might be due to the fact that I have used up all the memory on other essential apps, so there might not be any games on my BB until I effect an upgrade.  There is something to be said for keeping it lean and mean!

How Good Can a Paper System Be?

I received an interesting email from a reader of 2Time site who felt a bit put off at my comments about paper systems.

She mentioned that in my video on “Permanently Fixing the Weekly Review” I said (in passing) that paper systems are from the 1950’s.  Well, of course, all paper systems are from the pre-1990s, because that’s just about all we had back then to work with!

But I have never addressed the main point she’s inquiring into — can a paper-based system be every bit as good as one that’s electronic?  Her last question was the most pointed:

If we truly believe in the “know the basics and make it your own” philosophy, then we must allow people to use the tools that speak to who they are. There cannot be a wrong way.

I humbly agree!  In fact, I do all my manual capturing on paper.  I also use a Palm PDA – they sit beside each other in a portable wallet that I carry everywhere.

However, using the 11 Habits as a tool for analyzing a time management system that uses only paper reveals that there is a limit to the number of time demands that can be handled using only paper.  Let’s look at each of the fundamentals and see why a paper system prevents a user from reaching the higher belts in some disciplines, and why.

(As you read this, bear in mind that the 2Time belt system is just something I made up… it’s not written in stone anyplace.  If you’d like to see a short summary of each of the fundamentals, simply do a search on this blog for the relevant keywords in bold and you’ll find my very first definitions.)

Capturing:  At the moment I prefer to use paper because it has the following characteristics…

  • it’s cheap
  • requires no charging
  • it can get wet or hot
  • it’s quick to use – I can write faster than I can type, or have my handwriting recognized

On the other hand, it also offers no backup capabilities, which actually helps me because it leads me to Empty more frequently.

When it comes to automatic capture points, however, those that are electronic win hands-down.  For example, at some point soon, letters and bills will be replaced by email entirely.

In the future, I fully expect that tools like LiveScribe will become easier to use, and that we’ll have paper and electronic combinations that give us some of the benefits of both media.

In 2Time terms, it’s possible to become a Green Belt in Capturing using either paper or electronic tools.

Emptying:  I think it’s equally easy to empty a paper capture point as it is to empty an electronic capture point.  However, there is something that feels good about  crossing an item off my pad that deleting doesn’t quite match.

Apart from that, most professionals’ time demands arrive via email and having a paper capture point alongside an electronic email Inbox is a little cumbersome as one needs to move between two different media.

But these are minor differences.  The act of Emptying can be mastered if only paper tools are used, so there is little difference between the two.

Tossing:  There are only some minor differences between Tossing using paper or electronic tools.  Green Belts are achievable regardless of the medium.

Acting Now:  Once again, there are very minor differences between the two media in this particular fundamental.

Storing:  The discipline/fundamental of storing is defined as indexing information that’s needed in the future so that it’s easy to find at the precise moment of need.  This is one fundamental that paper proves to be a limiting factor.

Important information that most professionals need in the future include:

  • contact information
  • saved messages
  • saved files
  • passwords
  • due dates

The problem with using a paper storage system is that it’s

  • bulky
  • liable to damage from extreme wet, heat, pilferage, hurricanes, tsunami’s, earthquakes, cyclones, vermin, etc.
  • costly to the bottom line and to the environment
  • difficult to make backups

In 2Time terms, it’s not possible to progress to the Green Belt stage without using electronic tools.  To put it another way, someone who uses electronic tools can effectively executive this fundamental for a greater number of items.

For example, trying to store passwords is a problem for anyone who has a great number of them, and tries to manage them using paper only.  Once they upgrade to an electronic storage system with automatic backups, and master the new habits needed, they become more effective.

Scheduling: This fundamental is one that clearly separates paper from electronic users in terms of the number of scheduled items they are able to manage.

A quick glance at the detailed posts on Scheduling reveals that it’s not possible to manage a complex, dynamic schedule on paper.    Again, this is strictly a matter of volume.

Users that want to manage a great number of time demands have greater success using a complete and dynamic schedule, alongside short lists.  This isn’t a problem at White and Yellow belts, where the number of time demands is low.  However, as the number increases, and it becomes harder to handle a mental schedule, then the techniques at Orange and Green Belt levels become necessary.

A dynamic schedule, by the way, is one that can be changed on the fly, when needed.  The power of portable electronic PDA’s and smartphones is that a schedule can be carried and accessed quickly.  Laptops aren’t quite as accessible, of course.

An electronic schedule can also be duplicated and synchronized in real time across multiple platforms, which makes it easy to recover from a catastrophic event.

Listing: The problems with paper-based Scheduling are similar to those of paper-based Listing.  With electronic lists come the safety of having good backups, easy updates from any geographic location plus platform synchronization.

At the White and Yellow Belt levels, where Listing is a prominent activity, using paper lists is risky because of the lack of backups.

Interrupting, Switching, Warning and Reviewing:  These Advanced fundamentals are tool independent — they don’t have much to do with using paper or something electronic.

As I performed the above analysis for the first time for this article, I realized that I should reinforce some of the important ideas behind Time Management 2.0, to explain why I created a system that requires electronic tools at the higher Belts.

  1. No-one needs to be at any particular Belt in time management.  My only recommendation is professionals should choose the Belt that fits their “style,” and allows them to manage their chosen volume of daily time demands.
  2. White Belts are not inferior or superior to Green Belts, any more than a huge pipe is better than a small pipe.  They are simply designed for different purposes.  At the same time, choosing the wrong pipe cam lead to chaos.  When it comes to a particular skill in any fundamentals, it’s important that the selection be made carefully, and in keeping with key metrics like “the number of emails I receive each day.”

There is a common belief that a time management system should be tool-neutral.  I think that a modern system includes one’s “choice” of:

  • habits
  • gadgets
  • software

Each person assembles a system that matches their life needs, and as such, the choice of gadget (which might range from a Franklin Planner to an Android) is very important.  I certainly am dealing with this issue as I plan my next upgrade to a Blackberry, as it will make some habits harder to execute, and others easier, simply because of its design.

Bottom Line:  as we upgrade and tinker with our time management systems we are free to use what we will, but there are “hard” consequences to our choices that we must account for, and simply can’t ignore.

P.S. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.  The great thing about writing a blog is that I’m not stuck with what I created even last week!

Solving Some Nagging Issues with A Simulation Study

There are some time management issues that I have raised in my blog, and in my videos, that I believe can be answered using a digital simulation.

This diagnostic tool, which is taught in schools of operations research, is one that can be used to answer some of the specific conclusions I have drawn about time management systems.  (I just happen to have a Masters in the field, but the last time I designed a simulation was… let’s just say it was a long time ago!)

I have been looking at different programmes that can be used, and haven’t found a cost-effective tool that can be used to do some simple modelling.  Most of them are built for elaborate factory layouts and the like, but I’m looking to answer some simple questions such as:

  •  how much time can be saved using more scheduling and less listing?  At what number of time demands does it make sense to make the switch? (In 2Time it involves an upgrade from Yellow Belt Scheduling to Orange Belt Scheduling)
  • what’s the impact of a lot of email that’s stored in capture points for too long e.g. an email Inbox?  At what point does email volume require an upgrade in skills?
  • what happens when Acting Now is abused and we spend too much time pursuing certain time demands, disrupting our Emptying?
  • when work is interrupted by unwanted distractions, what’s the cost to a professional’s productivity?
  • what’s the impact of having instant access to email?

If you happen to know of any “lite” simulation tools floating around, please let me know!

There are lots of claims floating around about which time management techniques are better than others, and this is one way to make some general claims about which approaches are indeed an improvement, especially when the number of time demands increases, and new tools like smartphones become available.

I realize that at the end of the day everyone must use a personalized system that fits their habit pattern,  but that’s not to say that specific information about the habits we choose don’t have consequences. They do, and the more information we have about them, the better we can manage our own systems.

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Never Trust Your Time Management System!

I read an interesting post over at the GTD Help blog, and come up with some different conclusions that are perhaps directly opposed to those in the post below.

Here is the link to the post from the GTD Help blog

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Do you REALLY trust your system?As I continue to grow in my use of GTD®, I’m discovering just how important the trust factor with your system can be.  David Allen says that you need to really trust your system for it to work.  You can say you trust it all you want, but that’s irrelevant.  When it comes down to it, a trusted system works and a semi-trusted system doesn’t.

So what does it mean to really trust your system?  I have a few thoughts.

Trust it like a Christian should trust God
You may or may not believe in God, but the point still works.  Andy Stanley gave a great analogy for how a Christian should trust in God.  He held up the stool he was sitting on and said to trust in it.  To trust in the stool means to sit ON it.  Not on the edge.  Not with your feet on the ground a little bit.  On it with your full weight.  You might be nervous at first, but over time you’ll learn to trust the stool completely.

Trust it like you should trust your spouse
If you’ve been married, you can understand this.  Saying you trust your spouse is one thing.  Really trusting your spouse is another.  For a marriage to really work, you need to completely trust in your spouse.

GTD is the same way
If you don’t really trust the system, then you can never have a “mind like water”.  I’ve found that as I’ve learned the system works and I can trust it, anything I put into it is instantly out of my head.  Getting the junk out of your head is the key to focusing on the task at hand, and GTD is a great way to get it done.  Whether you use software, a website, your PDA or just pen and paper, make sure you use a system that you can trust completely.

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Here are my thoughts…

1. Distrust Your System!!!

A time management system should never be trusted to produce the same results over time.  Many things change — technology advances from year to year, people undergo life changes such as promotions, having children, getting married etc.  The time management system you developed and used last year might not work this year given a change in jobs.

We need to be vigilant for the times when our systems need to be overhauled, and always be on the lookout for upgrade possibilities.  (If you have ever met someone who designed a time management system in the 1950’s and is still using it, you’ll understand what I mean.)

2.  Make Sure It’s a System You Can Upgrade

I’d say it’s better to make sure that your system has an upgrade path, otherwise be prepared to be stuck in something like Windows 95.  Thankfully, Microsoft tries (and sometimes succeeds) in putting out good upgrades, and it would be weird for them to announce that they have perfected Windows, and as a result no further upgrades will be required.

If your time management system cannot be upgraded, then you have a real problem.

3.  Understand that Your System is Fallible

While the idea of everyone following the same system in the same way is attractive to some, I imagine that most people aren’t interested in trusting any particular system to the point where they believe that it can’t be improved, or is somehow without shortcomings.

The fact is, time management systems are human creations that were invented to fulfill human needs that only exist in this world.  According to Einstein, time doesn’t even exist as an absolute phenomena, much less the systems that we put together made up of habits, practices and rituals in order to try to manage it.

(Turns out, we can’t really even do that…  See my post on the reasons why “time management” is a misnomer.)

A car is also a man-made system and its performance has little to do with how much we trust, or semi-trust it.

Time management systems are no different.

In a nutshell, it’s a vain person who thinks that his/her time management system is perfect.

 

Mission Control Productivity, FranklinCovey, GTD and Getting Things Done are registered trademarks of the David Allen Company (davidco.com.)  2Time is not affiliated with or endorsed by the David Allen Company, Mission Control Productivity or FranklinCovey.

Top 10 Ways to Use Your Down Time More Effectively

istock_000010092262xsmall.jpgBy Emily Thomas

If you feel pretty confident with your time management skills, you may already use to-do lists, calendars, goal-tracking charts and alerts or alarms to keep you focused and driven during your work or school day.

But what about your down time?

If you leave your productivity skills at the door as soon as you check out of the office each day, you’re not maximizing your personal time. And while staying productive after hours when you’re supposed to be relaxing may seem counterintuitive, there are ways that you can use your down time more effectively without giving up the fun.
1.    Watch the clock. One of the easiest ways to manage time, especially if you’re not worried about deadlines, is to keep track of what time it is. You’ll be less likely to spend hours in front of the TV if you’re aware of the time that’s slipping away.
2.    Stick to a regular sleeping schedule. Avoid oversleeping and napping when you don’t really need it by sticking to a regular sleeping schedule, even on weekends. You can sleep in an extra hour or so, but don’t stay up all night and then sleep until lunchtime the next day if you want to use your time effectively.
3.    Multi-task. The next time you settle down to watch a movie, go down your to-do list and find a task that you can accomplish while sitting in front of the TV, like wrapping birthday presents, sending thank-you cards, or cooking dinner.
4.    Make the most of your commute. If you use public transportation or a van pool, use your commute to catch up on reading, e-mails or sleep.
5.    Stay plugged in. Just because you’re not at work doesn’t mean you have to turn into a vegetable. Staying plugged in to the world around you means that your creativity, memory and intellect or still operating, even if it’s just in the background.
6.    Visit friends. Being social keeps you “checked in” emotionally and mentally and helps you stay in a good mood, which also leads to better productivity.
7.    Eat right. Weekends usually mean that diets witness a little leniency, but remember to eat healthy so that you can keep your energy up.
8.    Dream. Daydreaming usually seems like a bad idea if you want to manage your time more effectively, but it encourages your mind to be creative and set new goals for yourself.
9.    Get a hobby. If you’re not fully satisfied with your job, get a hobby that stimulates your creativity and intellect, and could even turn into a second job or new career in the future.
10.    Exercise your brain. Help your body prevent cognitive decline by playing crossword puzzles, reading the newspaper and mixing things up.
This post was contributed by Emily Thomas, who writes about the best online universities. She welcomes your feedback at Emily.Thomas31@ yahoo.com

A New Goal for Time Management

In the delivery of my different time management programs, I have come to realize that professionals might need a new way to think about success.

The very old way of thinking used to be that it was all about getting more stuff done.

On this blog I have maintained that it has to do with peace of mind and productivity.

Now, I am starting to think that it really has more to do with closing the frustration gap between reality and expectations.

What this means is quite simple.  It arises when a professional has a picture in his mind of how well he should be managing his time, and then finds evidence that there is a mismatch between the two.  It’s a frequent feeling that people complain about all the time.

As an example, here are a few expectations that I have of myself and my time management system:

– my inbox should never have more than 5 items unless I am processing its contents

– I should not be late for any appointment, unless an emergency arises

– I should return all phone calls and emails that I deem to be important

– I should never fall into the habit of saying that “I need more time,” or “don’t have enough time”

These expectations are a few that are more or less in line with a full Orange Belt in time management, working towards a Green.

At the moment, I can say that my time management system delivers on these particular expectations, so I don’t have that feeling of frustration. This has not come easily, as I have been taking an intense look at my time management system for the past 3 years, taught courses and written articles and ebooks, all the while using my own example as a case study.

There are however, some Green Belt practices that I have no idea how to execute, and at least one of them  requires software that apparently has not been invented.  In this case, I don’t have the expectation of operating as a full Green Belt, simply because I can’t.

There are some, I know, who are completely satisfied with whatever belt they have, and given that most people operate at a White Belt level, most of them are not too effective, but have found a way to alter their expectations so that they are satisfied with lows levels of productivity.

In the 2Time approach to time management, I have taken the following approach:

1. to help professionals to change their expectations to realistic ones

2. to show professionals how to improve their skills so that they can accomplish their goals.

For example, a user who wished to “get everything done” learns early on that that goal is an impossible one.  Not even small children get everything done, simply because their mind is creating more stuff to do than a body can do in 24 hours.

As another example, a user who gets promoted to management based on solid performance in their prior job, may very quickly discover that  the bar has been raised, and that in order to keep the job, they need to raise their own expectations of themselves. However, they often find that that’s easier said than done, as they don’t know how to improve their time management skills to the point where they can operate as a manager.  At this point, many take a course of read a book in search of improvement techniques.

In both examples, the user takes positive action to reduce the gap, and take away the frustration.

What I like about this “gap” is that it’s entirely user-dependent, and unique to each person.

It’s also somewhat empirical,  as there are a certain number of times in the day when a user experiences the gap, and the frustration from having it unfilled.  They either have a thought or utter a statement that reveals their true feelings.

Hopefully, this new way of thinking about the goal of time management systems might add a new dimension that captures the feeling that people want to have about themselves, and what they have created to get by each day.

I’d love to  hear what you think of this particular line of reasoning!

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