Chapter 4 – Perfect Time-Based Productivity

Chapter 4 (draft)




Chapter 4 – What’s Happening Beneath the Surface?

(In which we learn that there is something happening behind the scenes of our productivity system that we don’t fully understand.)


“When I get into the car each morning, that’s when it starts. I start replying to email because stuff has already started coming at me. I try to do use the stops in traffic, when it’s less dangerous. The rest of the day is hectic – I respond to a email, letters, text messages – everything flying at me from all angles. It’s always crazy – I can never get home before 7:30 PM. I have to find a way to see my family earlier each day.”


I sat taking notes quietly as my new prospective client explained his dilemma. As a well-paid consultant in a major firm, he was highly trained and very successful. He regularly outworked others around him, which explained his quick rise up the ranks. “I’m being buried by all the stuff I have to do,” he continued.


As I explored the issue further with him in subsequent sessions, I discovered that he defined his job by his ability to dispatch a multitude of different items. There was no other way to be successful in his position – he was convinced of that fact. Therefore, all he could do was catch some things and duck others. A few would hit him while he wasn’t looking but “That’s the best I can do” he sighed, “because there’s no way I can keep up with it all.”


He isn’t alone – many people think of themselves as waking up to face a solid wall of stuff  that flies at them each day, like snowflakes. Their job is to somehow make the most of an impossible situation, trying not to get buried or frozen in the process. It’s all a survival game in which the winner is the one who can stay alive, and not burn out.


A New Definition


In my 2 day, live NewHabits programs, I also started by describing time management as a survival game, starring us, the intrepid professionals, as we fought against the evil forces giving us too much stuff to do each day.


All we could do was struggle to overcome.


Only after the pilot that I realized the importance and centrality of an idea I had created in passing that I mentioned earlier in this book: a “time demand.”


I started using the term then, never meaning it be permanent. To be truthful, I only intended to term to be a placeholder, thinking that one day I’d find the research that would reveal it’s true name. I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t found the right definition.


But I noticed that students were using the term in the class, and started asking more questions about the nature of time demands. I was forced by their curiosity to come up with some answers.


Luckily, I had some ready clues from my formal training in Operations Research and Industrial Engineering, plus years spent doing process improvement and reengineering projects. As they kept pushing me to places I didn’t intend to go, I used some of what I learned from working in factories. One key lesson was that in every process, there was some object being transformed in some way by the actions undertaken by different agents. (Long before the smartphone era, we called these objects “widgets.”)


That might some complicated… but it’s like baking a cake. Objects like flour, water, sugar, salt and other ingredients are transformed by the baker (the agent) by sifting, kneading and baking them into something new and delicious.


Another comparison can be made with the automobile factories I studied in school in which metal, glass, rubber and other parts were the raw materials (i.e. the objects) that were transformed by different machines to produce a car. These machines performed actions like welding, melting, pressing, cooling and assembling.


Of course, in real life, my program participants weren’t dealing with flour and metal. They had email, notes on paper, instant messages, postcards, phone calls… it was an endless and growing list but there seemed to be little in common between these elements of “stuff” that made up the day of the average professional.


So, I decided that the phrase “time demand” would be my temporary word for this thing that was present in each piece of stuff a human had to deal with every day.


It only took me five years to place the definition on a slide where all my students could read it plainly in class:

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


Better late than never; even though I felt unnerved at seeing the words on the screen for the first time, believing that I must be doing something wrong… and someone would show me the research I had missed.


The Source of Demand


To relieve my nerves at being told by someone that “You made up something that already existed!” before sharing the definition I looked as hard as I knew how for the “right word” for several years. In my mind, it had to be around the corner and when I discovered it I could replace my placeholder with the longed for correction.


Some of the first dead-ends I ran into were looking at other people who used the same phrase. Ardent fans of Peter Drucker would recognize the phase “time demand” from his 1967 foundation book, The Effective Executive. In the chapter entitled “Know Thy Time” he has a sub-chapter heading entitled “The Time Demands on the Executive.”


Brigitte Claessens, the Dutch researcher mentioned earlier, also uses the term in the paper I mentioned – Time management: Logic, effectiveness and challenges.” She says: “Modern society places a variety of temporal demands on people’s activities.”


By the time I discovered these references, which are both made in a matter of fact way without much further elaboration, I had already defined it in the opposite way, almost. A time demand was NOT something someone placed on you according to my definition: it was the kind of demand you place on yourself. As such, it always comes from inside you, the individual, and never from outside.


This notion puts me at odds with the popular usage of the term, an idea you’ll have to keep in mind for the duration of this book in order to reduce any confusion.


While I was able to find the aforementioned close matches in wording, I also discovered that there were similar concepts used by researchers. My discovery of each one was a thrill… “Here we are, finally!” I thought to myself.



Digging Into the Academic Research


During the last few years, out of view of the general public, there’s been an explosion of research in a term I introduced in the second chapter: prospective memory. As I mentioned briefly, unlike retrospective memory, which has to do the past, prospective memory is based on the future. It includes, for example, your plans for next weekend.


Initially, I reasoned: “Prospective memory is my answer.”


According to Gilles Einstein, a foremost expert in this area from Furman University, prior to 1990 there was almost no-one studying the topic of prospective memory. However, by 2008 he notes that there were almost 160 papers published. While this growth is a good thing, it reflects the fact that there is much that is not understood about this kind of memory.


Thankfully for us in the world of time-based productivity, it’s becoming a hot field, perhaps driven by the challenge of information overload accelerated by mobile technology. As Einstein says, “If you think about it even minimally, our lives are replete with prospective memory demands.” In this speech entitled “Remembering to Perform Actions in the Future” he goes on to list a number of everyday items ranging from taking his vitamins in the morning, to remembering to meet his wife “at an agreed upon time and location” – simple actions that many find challenging.


He highlights the importance of this research: “Prospective memory failures can also have very serious consequences” giving the example of older adults who sometimes have a problem remembering to take three, four or five medications daily.


“So far, this is sounding a lot like a time demand!” I thought to myself.


It’s no surprise that his work, and that of many other psychologists, focuses on the ways in which people remember. He has worked with other researchers like Mark McDaniel to define ways that we can set up automatic cues or reminders to prompt ourselves to take actions in the future.


For example, my smartphone is set to ring at 3:15 AM each morning (when I’m writing a book.) All I need do is keep it charged in order to be automatically reminded with a loud sound and a buzz.


This, of course, is the kind of cue we all set for ourselves, and have used for centuries.


Knowing that prospective memory exists, and that cues can make a difference is something we all know, but further research by popular psychologist Peter Gollwitzer of NYU goes a step further. He’s known for coining the term “implementation intention” which has been featured in articles he’s written in the pages of Psychology Today and Harvard Business Review, plus books on entrepreneurship and marketing.


To understand its full meaning, however, we need to start with another term used by psychologists: a “goal intention.” It’s just as it sounds. When we create a goal it’s a high level intention to accomplish a particular result. Gollwitzer took a step down, defining an implementation intention as a conditional statement that describes the when, what and where a particular action needs to take place in order to complete a particular goal. It is usually constructed with a conditional component: if _______ then ______. For example, you could form an implementation intention that “if my mother calls me today, then I’ll thank her for the mangoes she sent us yesterday.”


In my case, an implementation intention might be “If my alarm goes off at 3:15 AM then I’ll get up and write another chapter of the book in my office.”


Gollwitzer’s major contribution has been to show that implementation intentions which are properly constructed are far more likely to be executed than ordinary intentions. In an oft-cited study, women who specified when and where they’d perform a breast self-examination were more likely to fulfill their intention than those who did not: by 100% to 53%.


At this point in my journey I began to think that maybe I should use the term “implementation intention” or “prospective memory” in my training and writing – replacing time demands with something sounding way more lofty. (By comparison, the term time demands still sounds quite mundane to my ears.)


Gollwitzer’s work has been highly touted, with good reason. We’ll return to it several times in this book from different angles.


The latest research by some UK scientists goes a step further, to define two kinds of implementation intentions. At Cambridge-based team led by Abigail Sellen devised a study that required their subjects to wear and press electric buttons. They were able to separate intentions which are driven by events, and others which are driven by time.


The example I cited earlier including my mother and the mangoes is one that’s event driven. On the other hand, one that’s time driven would be stated as: “I’ll call my mother today at 4 PM to thank her for the mangoes she sent us yesterday.”


The example of my alarm going off at 3:15 AM is actually event driven, because I’m not the one watching the clock. Take away the clock and the task of waking up on time becomes an implementation intention driven by time.


You probably have already determined that one of these things is not like the other… It probably comes as no surprise… event-driven implementation intentions are way more likely to be executed than those that are time-driven.


These insights represent the state of the art – the cutting edge thinking – with respect to how we form goals and intentions, remember and act on them in the future. Along with hundreds of other papers, they form a substantial body of academic research.


However, I have a hunch based on working with professionals to improve their productivity that as useful as these ideas might be, they won’t make their way into the workplace.


The Problem of Studying Memory Use


Most professionals are not the least interested in doing more remembering. We already feel as if we are taxed to the hilt with the stuff we have to recall quickly and the prospect of learning how to use even more memory does little to inspire.


But this reality runs counter to what we are taught, and it will take time to undo the impression that memory is all-important.


Today, we reinforce this message in countless ways. Little kids who memorize the names of scores of dinosaurs earn a smile and a pat on the head. In school, the use of memory is essential to pass exams and quizzes as we reinforce the notion that brighter kids have better memories. As children, we sharpen our powers of recall and it becomes a success formula: just witness the way we fete winners of jeopardy, the television-based trivia game.


As we age, however, two things happen. The first is that we have a lot more to remember as we take on marriages, kids, jobs, promotions, marathons, friends, relatives, hobbies, etc. It gets harder to manage the sheer volume of items in prospective and retrospective memory. Unfortunately, the practice of using memory to manage time demands simply doesn’t scale, a fact that applies to many of the fundamentals of time-based productivity, as we’ll discover later in detail.


The second thing that happens is our capacity to access both kinds of memory starts to fade after age 30, as I mentioned – a disconcerting fact that’s well-established by researchers.


In fact, instead of trying to expand our memory, as professionals we have already outsourced the job of storing and retrieving additional information to paper, PDA’s, smartphones, tablets, computers and now, the cloud. This is a trend that’s irreversible.


Unfortunately, many academics in psychology are still focusing on the use of memory, following the profession’s traditional point of focus. Their interest has not been on the individual’s  productivity first and foremost; in fact, no field has demonstrated a wide interest in the topic, which is why we must jump from one field to another to discover how we manage time demands. Also, academics haven’t turned their attention in great numbers to the way technology is being used to expand individual productivity. We’ll discuss some of the exceptions in later chapters.


It’s clear that the research on prospective memory and implementation intentions is interesting, informative and important. But neither of these terms (nor any I could find) are close to being the “widget” of time management. They are all terms meant to act as a kind of shorthand for academics, not for practical everyday use by ordinary, everyday people who are still thinking and talking in terms of “stuff.”


All is not lost, however. As we’ll see in the next section the work that’s been done can be used to  deepen our understanding of time demands: it just doesn’t offer the replacement I was looking for to my placeholder term.


Incidentally, this is the point where all time management programs start – as solutions to problems of insufficient memory. While academics have continued to look at memory, professionals have moved on to the use of diaries, calendars, smartphones, wearable technology – anything that can be used to expand the individual’s access to greater amounts of information, including time demands.


This trend, as I said, is irreversible.


Discovering Time Demands


So, in spite of an extensive search, I wasn’t able to discover a better concept or term than that of a “time demand” – the term became cemented into place by default. Here’s a refresher:


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


In my last book, Bill’s Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure, the point when time demands are discovered by the protagonist is a major turning point in the story… the moment when everything stops, pauses and starts heading in a new, fruitful direction.


Why is it important to him?


Bill is like many participants in my programs who has realized that time cannot be managed and views anyone with suspicion who believes that it can. The discovery of time demands turns his life around, in much the same way that the energy in each workshop shifts.


Instead, when people distinguish a time demand, a psychological object, for the first time, it opens doors in their minds as they recognize an activity they have done every day since they were adolescents: manage time demands.

Over the years, my research in different fields, plus the hundreds who have been exposed to these ideas in training programs have provided a clearer picture of the nature of Time Demands. Apparently, they share the following properties.


Time demands:


– have an inescapable quality. Fully functioning adults must use them to fulfill their goal intentions.

– are discrete. They exist as separate entities.

– are created at a particular moment in time, and vanish upon completion at a future moment in time. Therefore, they have a particular, finite life-span.

– disappear once the described action is taken. In the 1930’s, Bluma Ziegarnik – a Russian researcher – showed that incomplete time demands continue to interrupt our thoughts until they are completed, while those that are complete have almost no effect.

– are objects that we want to keep alive because they come from our most important commitments. We care about getting them done or they simply wouldn’t exist.

– lead us to employ a vast array of different tools to keep them from being lost, such as prospective memory, paper and electronic equipment, as well as other professionals like  administrative assistants.

– are a human being’s way of solving the problem of getting stuff done later. When we realize that we need to complete an action but can’t do it immediately, we create a time demand in an instant.

– are created in response to a trigger: either external or internal. Examples of external triggers include a television show, a conversation, a meeting or something we read online. An internal trigger might be an idea, insight or a new goal that we commit ourselves to meeting. These triggers, which always take place before the time demand is created, are themselves sometimes confused for time demands.

– cannot be forced upon someone by an outside force. No-one can enter our minds and program time demands. There is no situation or event that can automatically and instantly force the birth of a time demand.

– are defined in the mind; therefore they are psychological entities. They often include important information like when, where and how an action is to completed.

– are individually created. While groups of people may pool time demands to create projects, they start off being owned by one person at a time.

– are not a topic that’s explicitly taught, but we do observe other people using them. The vast majority are unaware of the definition.

– enter a dormant state until they are acted on in the future. When they are activated by a reminder or cue, then the prescribed action takes place.

– disappear from the conscious mind when they are well managed. Instead, time demands are handed over to the subconscious mind (Baumeister and Masicampo.)


Many of these details remain to be scientifically proven in full, but I have found hints in different fields that support most, at least in part.


What’s clear is that time demands are limited in many ways by our mind, our biology and by the laws of physics. It’s also obvious that functioning adults use the creation of time demands as a critical way of getting work done. A corollary might be that someone who doesn’t use time demands isn’t being effective.


What happens to a time demand after it’s created? In the next chapter, we’ll look at the actions we take to manage time demands on a daily basis, a process we must understand in order to make improvements skillfully. Like surgeons who understand the complexity of the human body, when we have specific knowledge it allows us to take significant shortcuts and make the most of interventions we undertake. By the end of this book, the plan you create to improve your time-based productivity will be simple, but maximally effective.


Unfortunately, it’s true in many areas of human knowledge: you need to know an awful lot in order to simplify your choices and select the one that makes the biggest difference.


My research has shown that there are two possible ways of looking at time demands. Both models are useful, albeit for different purposes. Let’s take a look at them closely and see why, for the purposes of this book, we’re going to use the Simple Model to explain what happens to time demands after you create them.


The Simple Model


Let’s pretend that a time demand is an object that can be moved from one place to another after its born. Therefore, it could sit in your schedule in the form of an appointment, in an email message that calls for you to create a project or as an item on your bucket list – the stuff you want to do before you “kick the bucket.”


In this way of looking at your world, time demands can be found in many places – wherever you happen to store them for later use.


Also, you can move them around at will, if you’d like, changing their individual locations whenever it suits your purposes.


This happens to be the model I use in my public training programs – it’s easy to think of a time demand as a kind of building-block, or atom, which can be used to build some of the bigger accomplishments we care about such as projects, careers and marriages.


In the rest of this book, as I mentioned, we’ll use this model primarily. Unfortunately, like many analogies, it represents an oversimplification.


It’s one that’s a bit like the first model of the atom we learn as teenagers. When our teacher puts up a picture of protons, and neutrons at the center surrounded by a an orbit of electrons we nod in recognition – it looks a lot like the Solar System and some essential truths are immediately grasped.


As we learn about Quantum Physics in subsequent years, however, we see that this model is quite limited and the analogy, like many teaching models, is flawed.


A similar reality applies here – the “time-demand-as-an-object” analogy is also imperfect.


The Advanced Model – New Research


The Simple Model is flawed because the fact is, a time demand isn’t an object that can leave its source. It’s obvious: psychological objects such as time demands, promises or motivation, according to theorist Kurt Danziger, don’t exist in nature, only in “the world of psychological investigation.”


Earlier I mentioned that the Simple Model is easy to understand, but something gets lost whenever analogies are created: some of the essential nature of the original is usually left out. As professionals who rely on evidence, we need to be careful that we don’t make mistakes as we make the transition because it can hinder our understanding, planning and implementation. This leads us to waste time, for example, by trying to make improvements that will never work, or undertake shortcuts that expend lots of time and effort without showing any results.


With that warning in mind, let’s see what the Advanced Model can help us see about the way we create time demands.


As I mentioned, time demands are born as psychological objects and never leave the mind.

It’s as if our mind creates mental bookmarks for each one.


In terms of brain science, the way prospective memory is stored is not deeply understood by researchers. It appears that the brain stores information in separate places, after a particular stimulus is detected by our senses. The hippocampus and frontal cortex both seem to play a role in deciding which information gets stored or not.


I’d venture to say that time demands occupy both long term and short term memory, but there are many more that fall in the latter category. To retain memories, the brain fires impulses along nerve cells and across synapses using a blend of electric impulses and neurotransmitters. Pathways that are used more often become strengthened over time.  Therefore, with each addition, the brain rewires itself, growing and shrinking connections in a phenomena called brain plasticity.


How this activity plays out in storing and retrieving conscious and sub-conscious memory is unknown. While much is left to be discovered in terms of our brain science, we know that it’s likely that a time demand is more likely to be stored as a mini-network of neural elements rather than a single piece of information found in one physical location. Two researchers from the Berlin School of Mind and Brain showed that several regions in the rostral or anterior prefrontal cortex encode time demands, and different processes are used depending on the task load on the brain.


As I also mentioned before, a time demand has a lifetime. During its life, it undergoes a number of state changes, much in the same way that a fruit grows and matures as it responds to the presence of sunlight, water, fertilizer, wind, pests and diseases. Both the creation of a fruit and a time demand take place in response to some external or internal trigger.


What is the information a time demand includes?


Let’s start with a single trigger, such as a short trip to the refrigerator which reveals that the milk is finished. Without much effort, you create a time demand in the moment that would end with the possession of a fresh gallon of milk. Your mind also might assign a number of other important attributes such as:


– the action: purchase a gallon of milk

– conditions of satisfaction: skim milk, not whole. A preferred brand versus the other one that went bad the last time it was purchased.

– a duration: take 20 minutes.

– a likely time: between 5:30 PM and 7:00 PM, before the store runs out of milk.


You may take a further step to write down this information on a list. How much you write down depends on a number of factors we’ll explore later but the fact that it’s written down represents a major transformation.


The time demand now has a representation of itself in the external world. The piece of paper it’s written on can also be used as a cue, if it’s stuck to the front of a fridge – where we hope we won’t lose track of it.


After a day or two, imagine that the note is removed and discarded after one of the following events has happened:


1. The owner has decided not to pursue the time demand. An extra box of milk is discovered in the refrigerator.


2. The owner has executed the time demand, which causes it to vanish. Its completion may spur the creation of new time demands such as the purchase of Oreo cookies that go so well with milk.


3. The owner has blocked out some time on his/her calendar to complete the time demand. The time-slot from 6:00-7:00 PM this week Wednesday is chosen as a fine time to complete the task of picking up the milk.


4. The owner has added the task to his/her ToDo list.


5. The owner sees an advertisement on television for the milk he needs to purchase. Apparently, there’s a new kind of skim milk from the same company that has a dose of growth hormone said to make humans taller. The owner, who happens to be 5 feet and 2 inches in height decides to buy this new variety, which can only be recognized by identifying it’s scientific name on the list of ingredients. The owner scrambles to write down the name so that it can be used to purchase this new miracle beverage.


6. The owner has unintentionally neglected the time demand. After a while it ceases to exist, as the entire family loses its appetite for milk after finally vegan. At some point in the future, a similar time demand might be formed: to purchase a gallon of almond milk.


As each of these real world actions take place, the status of the time demand transforms. Our subconscious mind tracks this status, informing our conscious mind in some way. The exact mechanism is unknown and much more research is required.


Once a time demand is created in the mind it appears there’s also some internal energy and attention we continuously apply to keep it alive, track its existence (alive or dead) and update its status based on external events. Of course, it’s possible that it can just disappear forever, never to be remembered. Time demands fall through the cracks all the time: some are never retrieved.


Your ability to manage time demands so this never happens is important, as is your ability to complete time demands in order to hit deadlines. Having a system of habits, practices and rituals that are sufficiently organized to handle the volume of time demands you create each day is also essential. Beyond these however, lies the powerful capacity to respond to an increase in time demands by permanently changing your methods.


People with low skills have difficulty in all these dimensions. We’ll contrast their behaviors with those who exhibit best-in-class standards in future chapters.


The Advanced Model creates a more accurate picture of reality by accounting for true nature of time demands. However, it’s a relatively new concept here at 2Time Labs – our classroom experience consists of using the Simple Model, which is why we’ll use it for the rest of this book (apart from a few mentions intended to shed light on a new concept.)


————— Sidebar—————-


There’s a fantastic body of research on a different psychological object – promises – being undertaken by Jan Bergstra and Mark Burgess. They have pioneered the use of a mathematical vocabulary to investigate the way we make commitments to other people. Their thinking is freely available in their “Book of Promises” which exists in the form of an unpublished manuscript entitled “Micro-Promises: A Theory of Promises.” This section on the Advanced Model was inspired by reading their book.





Beyond Time Demands


Fortunately, most of what we do each day isn’t driven by time demands at all, according to recent research. In the breast-self examination study mentioned before, there were a number of women who didn’t form implementation intentions, but still carried out the exam. They already had created this particular habit before the study started.


Apparently, habitual behavior plays a major role in determining what exactly we do each day. A study by researchers at Duke University showed that 40% of our activity each day is repetitive, taking place with a kind of effortless, unconscious automaticity.


Earlier I mentioned that some energy and attention is required to keep a time demand alive after it’s born. Habits, by contrast, require little energy, or none at all. Instead, the action is sourced from a different place altogether: our neuromuscular memory, which includes our limbic system. This is a topic we’ll look at when we explore the chapter on consciously and mindfully forming our own habits – with a skill we’ll call “Habiting.”


In the next chapter, I’ll introduce you to the actions we as human beings use to manage time demands. As you may imagine, our ability to fulfill our commitments relies entirely on these actions, which makes the next few chapters vital.



Remember and Share


Time cannot be managed. This is confusing but also freeing!


If time management is impossible, what should replace it?


True / False? Time management should be replaced by self management.


True / False? Time management should be replaced by priority management.


True / False? Time management should be replaced by management of your actions?


True / False? Time management should be replaced by energy management?


True / False? Time management should be replaced by attention management?


The actions we take every day come from time demands or habits – nothing else.


You can’t improve your time-based productivity skills without understanding the underlying theory.


A time demand is an individual commitment to complete an action in the future. It’s also a psychological object.


Time-based productivity is about the management of a psychological object using engineering principles to achieve personal and business results.