Forget About “Simple” Solutions

I recently wrote an article for the Jamaica Gleaner which echoed the following quote:

It seems to echo the message in a book I haven’t read yet: Meltdown – Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It.

The fact is, most people’s system for managing time demands is home-grown, complex and invisible. Personal mis-diagnosis is therefore the order of the day.

Our work here at 2Time Labs is inspired, in part, by helping people find better solutions to the unwanted time-based productivity symptoms they experience in life. In that vein, this article argues that there is no such thing as “basic” time management training.

By the time a learner enters the classroom, cracks open an ebook, or listens to a podcast, their methods are already complex. Nothing “basic” can help.

Click here to access the article.

Recent Research and the Zeigarnik Effect

Recently, the link between overwhelm and the Zeigarnik Effect (explained in my book) has become more apparent. There are tantalizing signs of its importance in recent research, which I plan to highlight as it emerges.

There are few writers or researchers who are connecting these dots, due in part to the way the studies are being conducted – for the benefit of academic research, rather than everyday application.

How to Escape the Zeigarnik Effect

Have you ever found yourself unable to fall asleep during a trying time at work? Or distracted in the middle of a conversation or meeting by thoughts about other stuff you still need to do?

If so, you may be a victim of the Zeigarnik Effect. Its exotic name comes from the Russian researcher who discovered it in the 1920’s while observing the behavior of waiters in a restaurant. Their ability to recall pending orders, but not the ones they had just delivered, caught her attention.

The disparity relates to the effect which bears her last name. It’s the nagging feeling you get once you mentally create a “time demand”: an internal, individual commitment to complete an action in the future. Your subconscious, which stores each one for later retrieval, does more than sit back and wait for you to act. Instead, it begins to ping your conscious mind with a stream of reminders.

If this were to take place on rare occasions, it would be a cute phenomenon. However, if you are someone who is ambitious, you may find the reminders increasing until you start to experience a sense of overwhelm. After all, her research states that the way to get rid of the Zeigarnik Effect is to complete the task. For busy people, it’s impossible – they create hundreds. Like everyone else, they can only finish one at a time.

So, is there an escape? Fortunately, there is, according to recent research conducted at Baylor University.

Dr. Michael Scullin and his team compared two bedtime behaviors in laboratory experiments. Before falling asleep, one group of subjects wrote their to-do list for the next few days. The other recorded the tasks they accomplished during that day. The result? This small change in technique helped the first group fall asleep faster by over 9 minutes. Why did this happen?

To understand the underlying reason, we must visit the University of Florida. Drs. Roy Baumeister and Ed Masicapmo added to Zeigarnik’s research, showing that the effect disappears when a person has a trusted system in place to manage time demands. This makes intuitive sense. There’s no need for your subconscious mind to interfere if it believes that all your tasks are being properly managed.

How does this apply to falling asleep faster? Well, offloading your tasks to a written to-do list is one way to assure your subconscious that you are on top of all your commitments. In other words, it trusts a piece of paper more than your ability to remember. Satisfied, it leaves you alone, allowing you to doze off.

But what if you possess a high IQ, genius-level memory? Can’t that be used? The answer is short but elegant – “Sure… if you happen to be a kid.” While I doubt that any readers of this column are under 12 years old, we should understand why they are an exception. The fact is, they only have a few time demands to recall. Plus, they have teachers, parents, friends, and siblings reminding them what to do.

It’s only later, when they get older, that problems occur. But they aren’t caused by age which is not a factor until their retirement years. Instead, long before then, the challenge is to find a method to cope with the relentless swell in time demands our generation faces.

What else can be used beside paper? Digital devices also work. In addition, some people offload their tasks to other folks, like their children. “Remind me to pick up your cake tomorrow, Junior.”

But the only approach which succeeds in the long term isn’t a single technique or tool but a mindset of continuous improvement, plus specific knowledge of how humans use such tools. Start by getting committed to implementing ongoing upgrades. Then, understand that your choices need to follow a pattern.

While researching the latest edition of my book I found that improvements happen in serial fashion, but they all start with an attempt to use mental reminders. When that technique fails, we graduate to better skills one step at a time, following this sequence.

Level 1 – Memory

Level 2 – Paper Lists of Tasks

Level 3 – Simple Digital Apps

Level 4 – Complex Task Management Apps

Level 5 – Digital Calendars of all Tasks

Level 6 – Administrative Assistants / Autoscheduling Programs

As you look over this list, identify your current level. With this knowledge, you can prepare yourself for the next upgrade – the one that will help you stay abreast of your dreams and aspirations.

However, be aware: the Zeigarnik Effect shows up at any level. It’s a fantastic warning mechanism which lets you know when a change is overdue. Unlike your friends, colleagues and even your conscious mind, it can’t be fooled. It will do its job, preventing you from falling asleep quickly until you wake up to its incessant, nagging call for greater personal productivity.

Why You Must Boost Your Temporal Intelligence Quotient

This article was written for the Jamaica Gleaner, but it shares some of the research I have been doing on what it takes to boost productivity in entire countries. In particular, I have focused on developing countries which can’t simply take prescriptions from other countries and apply them blindly.

 

We may laugh along with our leaders about our personal productivity and constant overwhelm, but those who have worked in developed countries know that top organizations take time seriously. It’s no coincidence. Corporate success relies on individuals who execute brilliantly, never run late and don’t forget to do their tasks.

But here in Jamaica, we are perplexed. We want the crime-free, growth opportunities that occur in a strong economy built on high-performing companies. Yet, when pressured, we continually excuse the fact that we are individually slack. For example, almost no-one complained when every meeting of the 2017 Jamaican Parliament started late.

Instead, tardiness is met with a joke. The brave few who insist on timeliness are sidelined as “anal” as boards, teams, and cabinets, tolerate behaviors that keep us mediocre. When this vibe is amplified across society, contributing to mayhem and murder, we scratch our heads: “What’s wrong with THOSE people?”

Nothing.

They are simply echoing low standards we all indulge in, even when we know we’d have to give them up if we ever migrated to a developed country.

Imagin – a Jamaican?

A few years ago at a U.S. Conference, I listened in agony as the top organizer explained why they needed to check my credentials twice before inviting me to speak. “We just had to ask”, she shared, “is he for real? Who would imagine that someone in Jamaica knows something about time management?”

Unfortunately, we have collectively earned this suspicion. Our economy hasn’t grown since the 1960’s – a case study for stagnation, resistant even to above-average outside investment. In terms of our macro-productivity, we fight to stay a step above last place among countries in the hemisphere.

But the conference organizer was no economist. She was talking about the lack of “micro-productivity” visitors see upon landing…”Jamaica Time.” It’s why they book two different taxis from their hotel to the airport, “just in case.”

We can rescue our reputation with a focus on a locally defined Temporal Intelligence Quotient (TemQ). It would help us understand the extremes: the Bolt-like performance seen in the world’s best companies versus our sloppy, everyday mediocrity. It could also provide us with universal targets to aim for, whether we happen to be an individual workman, CEO or Supreme Court judge.

For example, our Prime Minister could declare an “Arrive on Time Week.” Such a challenge would push us to discover and practice industrial engineering techniques needed everywhere in our economy to meet Vision 2030 and the productivity problems it describes.

Until then, how can your company use TemQ right away? Here are three suggestions.

Step 1 – Establish Time Usage Outcomes

Professionals with high TemQ set clear intentions for each hour of the day. A high percentage of their plans are effective, which means that they:

– use mobile, digital planning tools.

– create a daily schedule which includes travel and recovery times.

– insert buffer periods for interruptions and other unexpected events.

– track their time usage to effect improvements.

By contrast, individuals with low TemQ are hapless creatures of random impulses and miscues. They are often seen as a very busy but produce little of value as they bounce from one fascinating, “shiny object” to another.

Step 2 – Highlight Errors in Task Execution

As a professional climbs the corporate ladder and adds more to-dos, their productivity is challenged in new ways. Each increase brings them closer to a recurrence of old symptoms they thought they had overcome, such as forgetting important commitments, seeing tasks too long or missing due dates.

The person with low TemQ won’t even notice these mild issues until they turn into crises. However, their counterparts remain eternally vigilant and see these early signs of trouble.

Step 3 – Develop Meta-Skills

High TemQ individuals don’t panic when such unwanted symptoms pop up. Instead, they realize that they need an upgrade and go about diagnosing their habits, practices, and apps in a systematic way. In other words, they demonstrate the meta-skills needed to build added capacity – the only approach which keeps up with a continuously increasing workload.

Unfortunately, low TemQ professionals get stuck and never improve, slipping into a mindset which partly explains our stagnant productivity. After all, if we aren’t actively expanding our individual TemQ, why should our companies thrive and our economy grow?

Ecuadoreans had a similar challenge, estimating that lateness costs them 4.3% of their GDP. In response, they launched a national tardiness campaign.

The good news is that, unlike our Intelligence Quotient (IQ), we can all easily begin to improve our TemQ with practical improvements. There’s no reason for us to continue joking about a matter which has sharp life-or-death consequences. It’s time to invest, on a personal level, in the productive Jamaica we want to become.

 

 

How New Managers Prevent Email Overwhelm

This article was originally printed in the Jamaica Gleaner as one of my columns.

When the excitement of a promotion wears off, newly elevated managers sometimes struggle. Often, they blame their new responsibilities, but this limited view dooms them to failure. Instead, success comes from expanding specific skills which were once suitable but are now inadequate.

Email is a case in point. All of a sudden, as a newly promoted manager, you need to stay late or work on weekends just to keep up with a mountain of discussion threads. When you don’t stay on top of them all, your competence and readiness are quietly questioned.

Given the fact that email takes up 20% of the average manager’s day, the sad truth is that you weren’t trained to analyse your email practices with a view to making improvements. Today, the prevailing notion is that you can learn just as fast as Millennials. They change apps faster than they change their clothing.

However, even these twenty-somethings struggle when they experience a boom in email volume. Like everyone else, they blame their circumstances, a grave mistake.

It leads companies to launch projects to cut the number of messages people are receiving. Unfortunately, this rarely makes a difference as two recent, counter-intuitive studies explain: overwhelm isn’t caused by the number of messages we receive.

The first research, by Mary Czerwinski and her team at Microsoft show that the more time you spend checking messages, the less productive and more stressed you feel. Some firms have noticed this effect, leading them to curtail email in favour of other channels such as Instant Messaging or Whatsapp.

The second study shows why these efforts are in vain.

A paper by Victoria Bellotti and her XEROX research colleagues shows that it’s not the volume of email that makes us anxious and ineffective, but the number of unresolved tasks that are buried in these messages.  For example, if you routinely receive 1000 messages per day and a high percentage are newsletters or spam which require no action on your part, your peace of mind isn’t affected. On the other hand, if you receive five high-impact emails per day which spur 30 new tasks, you are more likely to feel pressured.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the Zeigarnik Effect: the mental weight of these incomplete tasks. You can’t complete them all at once – that would be impossible to do as a newly promoted manager. Instead, you must manage them effectively, thereby relieving your subconscious mind of its role as Reminder-in-Chief, disrupting sleep, conversations, and quiet moments of prayer or meditation.

How do you take care of these unwanted disruptions, keep your peace of mind and avoid overwhelm in your new position?

1. Handle email in an all-out sprint

In this paradigm, you must think of email differently. Instead of fitting it in between meetings or other activities at your leisure, do the opposite. Schedule two or three times each day to get through your Inbox as fast as possible in standalone, focused efforts. These sprints need total concentration. Execute them ruthlessly, punting protracted responses until later – you are in “emptying mode”, not “execution mode”.

This is also no space for distractions. Cut them all out and ignore the smartphone. Treat this time slot as the single most important recurring activity you perform each day that should only be interrupted if there’s a bonafide emergency.

2. Get your own training

Unfortunately, few Human Resource departments are bastions of high tech efficiency. Most have little to do with employee productivity in its modern sense and therefore don’t offer new managers the kind of training required to manage email overwhelm.

On your own, cobble together the fresh skills you need, using a combination of resources such my past columns.

3. Manage other people’s deliverables as your own

Complicated email threads involving several people, plus weeks of going back and forth, reveal that you are totally dependent on others to do their part. Unfortunately, some of them can’t be trusted.

While most new managers continue to store email in their Inbox, highlighting important ones for later, you shouldn’t. Eventually, you will be buried by unresolved tasks which require a follow-up, but get lost in these threads.

Instead, you must strip out these tasks and manage them elsewhere. This usually means picking up a task management software and learning the self-taught behaviours required to make them work.

The good news is that if you follow these prescriptions, your subconscious mind may reward you. Its endless pinging should stop and overwhelm will disappear.

But be vigilant: your next promotion may cause you to revisit all your methods just to maintain your peace of mind. Consider it to be the price of success in the modern workplace.

Here is the link to the original article.

Novices and Experts – the Learning Difference

In the second edition of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, I emphasize the fact that adult learners require an androgogical vs. pedagogical approach.

In other words, adult learners of time-based productivity have self-taught themselves some key skills by the time they exit their teens. Therefore, they enter a new learning environment with different levels of expertise.

In this article, When do Novices Become Experts?, David Didau argues that Novices behave very differently from Experts, especially as they react to Cognitive Overload. His message is right in line with the thinking here at 2Time Labs and it shows in the chart he shares comparing the two levels of skills for most behaviors.

But he also makes the point that Experts see patterns where Novices don’t, leading the latter to engage in hit-or-miss problem-solving.

In the Special Report – Superpowers You Need to Survive Improvement Fatigue – I examine one such example through the lens of three experts. Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House and Roger Federer know what to do when others flounder to detect the need for change, know what changes to implement and make small changes which add up over time. These are critical skills in time-based productivity because, as I mentioned before, every adult already possesses some hard-earned skills.

Their move from Novice to the next level doesn’t require a wholesale revamp… just a focus on the 5% of behaviors which are necessary for improvement.

But the Didau article says even more.

If you try to instruct the Expert in the same way as the novice, you end up actually “increas[ing] cognitive load for experts.” In other words, you make things worse.

Novices need:  “detailed, direct instructional support…preferably in integrated or dual-modality formats”

Experts need:  “minimally guided problem-solving tasks…provide cognitively optimal instructional methods

Most folks, who lie between the extremes, need a progressive blend which helps them transition to greater expertise.

This is a great affirmation of the direction we advocate!

A New Kind of Podcast

I am working on something interesting that may be of interest to anyone with a deep interest in the nuances of time-based productivity.

It’s a podcast based on recordings of conversations with experts visiting 2Time Labs.

The idea is simple. Periodically, innovators, authors, and thought leaders contact me with questions that simply don’t have simplistic answers. Looking for an outside perspective, they bring problems they are trying to solve on their own to 2Time Labs with a view to forging a breakthrough.

Sometimes we are successful, producing a result that surprises us both – a case of serendipity. However, sometimes we also beat our heads against a wall…nice conversation, no result.

During a recent conversation of this nature, it struck me that listeners to my podcast may enjoy hearing some of the discussion we have. It might provide an interesting peek into the inside workings of people in this field who are innovating at the cutting edge. Even when we fail, the conversations are rich.

So far, I have conducted three such recordings and the results are fantastic.

Luckily, I picked some really smart people to start with who have deep knowledge. The conversations, which have been directed towards a single goal in each case, pulls from broad knowledge and experience in the area of time-based productivity.

It’s a far cry from the usual podcast in this genre – an interview with an author who wants to sell some stuff like books or training. As a frequent listener, I have found this format to be a bit stale as the conversation veers into predictable territory – softball questions intended to sell the product. Rarely does anything new happen, or does either person say anything that is brand new.

These new podcasts are intended to produce something new and unpredictable each time… edited down to the most interesting moments.

Hopefully, these will be launched sometime in the March December time-frame. Stay tuned.

Sleep and the Zeigarnik Effect

An interesting result: writing your time demands down before going to bed at night cuts down the time it takes to fall asleep. Furthermore, the longer the list the better.

As you may know, the Zeigarnik Effect has to do with that nagging feeling which occurs after you create a time demand. Our subconscious pings our conscious mind with reminders when it believes we might forget them. This leads to feelings of overwhelm.

We have known for some time from studies by Masicampo and Blaumeister that these unwanted nagging reminders go away when time demands are well managed. However, this research shows that making a to-do list before bedtime shortens the time it takes to fall asleep.

By contrast, writing down a list of completed actions has the opposite effect i.e. it takes longer.

I’m in the process of pushing out the paperback version of the second edition of Perfect Time-Based productivity and had to stop what I was doing when I came across this article. I found the original academic paper, read it and slipped in a new paragraph.

If you ever have trouble falling asleep, this one is for you.