This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 3: Organizing, subscribe and buy here
Many knowledge professionals are inundated with work, family and personal stuff that appears to fly into their lives as an unwelcome storm of obligations, requiring outputs of time, effort and attention. “Getting on top of everything” has now become a rare goal: most of us just want to avoid drowning, stay alive and avoid egregious errors like forgetting the kids at the playground.
Several gurus offer solutions to deal with the modern-day blizzard of “stuff” flying at us: precise habits, practices, and rituals that need to be followed in order to make their prescriptions work. It’s the only way, they say, to cope.
We respond with hope. If they are right, then maybe we can:
- stop being stressed by email
- radically decrease information overload
- get our boss to give up her overwhelming demands
- stop our kids from making us feel guilty when we don’t do everything we promised
- give up fewer opportunities
- have more time to do the things we want to do
Unfortunately, it’s hard to follow someone else’s script. The more details they provide, the harder it is to change our current habit pattern to fit the pattern they custom-developed for their own needs, goals, idiosyncrasies, and tastes… let alone their comfort with technology.
As learners who are keen to improve, our options appear to be limited. We are stuck either trying to follow these instructions completely, ignore them entirely, or do what most do: we wing it. The “experts” would tell us that it’s a bit like writing our own prescription and that taking either more or less than the recommended dosage will only make a mess of things.
But we don’t seem to care; for most of us, success is not defined by how closely we copy or mimic another person’s habit pattern. Instead, it’s measured by how well we manage the “stuff” we have to deal with each day. Not generic stuff, but the specific blend of obligations, information, and requests that we need to process daily. How can a guru help us when they don’t know what we have to do each day?
During my research at 2Time Labs, I’ve come to believe that the key is to help learners understand what patterns they are currently using, so they can make their own improvements at a pace of their choosing. It’s an approach inspired by the latest thinking in “andragogy” – the study of the principles of adult learning.
Key to this understanding is gaining a fresh, new appreciation of what’s in the “stuff” that’s flying at us each day. We have discovered from our research and training that’s there’s some benefit to be gained from shifting to a deeper definition: “time demands.”
A Time Demand is an individual commitment to complete an action in the future.
While it seems simple enough to understand, here’s what happens when you use the definition rigorously in your everyday thinking.
1. You Assume Ownership
Embedded in the definition is an assumption: you are responsible for the creation of each and every time demand. While you may not be responsible for every event that triggers the creation of a new time demand (such as the warning of an impending snowstorm,) you do own the next few seconds: the moment of creation.
For example, when you hear the warning, you may decide to drive yourself to Home Depot in order to buy a new shovel; you may decide to invite Mom to come spend the snow storm at your place; or you may book a flight to Negril, Jamaica. These are very different time demands arising from the very same trigger.
After some practice, you’ll begin to see that your mind is an automatic, time demand creating a machine that operates even when you are asleep. As you get used to its mechanisms, something interesting happens: any feelings you have of being a victim start to disappear.
This can be a good thing because time demands are an inescapable and permanent fact of life for all functioning adults. Taking responsibility for their very existence is a powerful start.
After some practice, you’ll begin to see that your mind is an automatic, time demand creating a machine that operates even when you are asleep.
2. Tracking Time Demands Becomes All-Important
Each time demand is discrete. Once you see this clearly, a new resolve develops. Each one represents something important, or you wouldn’t have created it in the first place. Therefore, keeping it alive becomes a clear goal. A time demand, although intangible, is like a newborn baby of the mind.
Of course, you can always decide to complete, kill, store, schedule or list a time demand, but these are options that become possible only if you keep it alive long enough to make an informed decision. In order to keep it alive, you must jump in right at the moment of conception and perform an act of translation, transforming the time demand from a notion in the mind into something that’s either written down, digitized or recorded.
Research conducted by Madame Ziegarnick in the 1920s, recently updated by Baumeister and Masicampo, has shown that once time demands are completed, or tracked reliably, they disappear.
3. Every Guru Becomes a Useful Case Study
In my training, I like to paint the picture of time demands flowing through one’s life like widgets in a factory. When someone shares with us the particular methods they use to manage time demands, they give us an opportunity to see one well-thought-out example at work. It’s also true that some have gone overboard and claimed that their method is the “Holy Grail” that will provide the ideal solution for anyone. Such claims should be ignored.
Often, they have developed special tweaks that are worth experimenting with to see how they would work for us. The key is engaged each idea on its own merits without buying into “one-size-fits-all” thinking. The onus remains on us as learners and owners of our individual system to manage our personal improvement effort.
4. Email Doesn’t Appear to be So Awful
There is any number of email clients, apps, and add-ons that promise to help us manage email better. Unfortunately, they often miss the boat. There’s nothing wrong with getting 100 or 1000 email messages, voicemails or pieces of mail per day.
They all represent requests from others for us to create new time demands; they are potential time demand triggers. There are days when I have read through and processed 50 emails without creating a single new time demand. It’s not to say that the messages were worthless – messages can still have intrinsic value even if they don’t resu; in the creation of new time demands. For example, they may have been interesting, humorous, reports of complete time demands or updates on project progress.
In other words, the problem with email isn’t simply the volume of messages received; the challenge is to determine the number of time demands that are triggered.
Imagine for a moment that your doctor has given you only a few days to live after an accident. It’s likely that the 200 emails sitting in your inbox would, all of a sudden, be forgotten. In other words, all the potential triggers that seemed so real only a few days ago would now become irrelevant. Once your commitment to process them is withdrawn, potential triggers cease to exist and the headache that these messages represented goes away forever.
When you open your email inbox, you are in fact hunting for new triggers that would lead to new time demands. Realizing that you are the one hunting and converting can help you to regain a sense of control, deciding when, how fast and in what manner you want to create new time demands. The ball is always in your court.
Once you become aware of your mind’s role in creating them, you notice that your brain doesn’t care how many hours you have in a day.
5. You Become Open to Different Methods
In a number of chat rooms, there’s a raging debate about whether it’s better to use a schedule or a list to manage the completion of tasks. It’s easy to side-step the debate when you know a thing or two about time demands.
Earlier, I mentioned that time demands are an inescapable part of life for functioning adults. Once you become aware of your mind’s role in creating them, you notice that your brain doesn’t care how many hours you have in a day. It happily allows the creation of more time demands that you can complete in a single lifetime, let alone by next week Thursday.
Some people believe that they should be able to complete all the time demands they have created, which can be very stressful. Others believe they should try and constrain the mind’s tendency to create time demands, limiting it to creating only those time demands that can realistically be completed. Some people treat the creation of a new time demand as a signal to drop whatever they are doing now in order to complete the new item immediately.
A better alternative is to allow the mind to run free, creating as many time demands as it wants. As discussed in Issue 1 of this magazine, your job is to collect them in a safe place for later assessment by whatever means you find to be reliable. Many options exist for this task, and no single solution is the “right” answer.
During the assessment that follows the creation of a time demand, one of the key decisions that must be made is how whether it should be deferred for future completion. Some people advocate the use of lists for this purpose, while others argue that calendars are better.
Who is right? Neither is universally better or worse. They both happen to work well in different contexts.
For example, my recent podcast with Mark Horstman confirmed my hunch that top college students and CEOs are among the most time-starved people on the planet. They require a calendar. Most of us who don’t have such a high number of scheduled commitments probably don’t need to schedule our time in 15-minute increments the way President Bush did. We probably don’t have to schedule reminders to eat the way that some college students do.
At some time the future, someone will come up with a brand new method altogether, perhaps involving new technology. We need to be open to the difference it might make in our lives and always be looking for new solutions that represent improved ways of managing time demands.
In my book, Bill’s Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure, the protagonist’s life changes once he’s able to stand back and recognize time demands for the first time. For Bill, this realization represents a shift from the feeling of being a “victim”, with too much stuff to do, to a feeling that everything you have to do represents a valid commitment.
This realization can give us back the control we so desperately want to get ahead and stay ahead for as long as we want.