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To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.
The professional athlete doesn’t get distracted by top ten tips on blogs or bits of advice floating around in tweets or pics. Instead, he relies on a nuanced analysis of his strengths and weaknesses in order to improve his performance. He knows that with new understanding, improvements become easier.
As a productive professional, you are no different.
This book is for you.
Perfect Time-Based Productivity is all about bringing a lasting peace of mind to your life, regardless of how busy you become. But first, you need to be at peace with this book. Let’s take a look at some of the questions you may be asking.
Why do I need this?
Because you are frustrated…trying to improve your productivity but can’t.
And no, motivation isn’t the problem. You are willing to do whatever it takes… that hasn’t changed. In fact, it’s stronger than ever before because you remember moments when you adopted a brand new idea and actually saw it work.
However, the quality of the advice you are seeing nowadays just hasn’t kept up with your needs, or even the times.
Some of it still advocates one-size-fits-all answers – simply follow a given set of practices. Today, you know better. People are all different, requiring personal solutions. Plus, they don’t stay the same from one month to the next. You certainly don’t.
Other advice is trivial, telling you stuff you already know. Prior knowledge tells you it’s just copied and pasted from other places… without proper attribution…devoid of any scientific basis.
The rest is overblown, making promises to “double” and “triple” your productivity in ways that cannot be measured. “Instantly.”
There’s one thing they all have in common: a disregard for you. They ignore the improvements you have made over the years, ever since you picked up your first planner, downloaded a task manager, or read a time management book.
I’ll show you how I faced my own frustration, and how to surpass yours.
The payoff? A strong dose of sweet, fresh inspiration.
Where do these ideas come from? Can I trust you?
Follow me as I break down common time management concepts into their smallest parts. Then, we’ll apply scientific research based on thousands of subjects to each one. Finally, you’ll have a new understanding to use in your daily life. This isn’t a new technique, but this book may be the first in the niche to use it.
Can I benefit if I’m a novice (or maybe an expert)?
I’ll show you that both novices and experts have forgotten how much they know about “time management.” When you discover the self-taught wisdom embedded in your daily practices you may be shocked.
Perfect Time-Based Productivity uncovers this knowledge in a practical way via the ETaPS method which stands for Evaluate, Target, Plan and Support.
E: You’ll develop a unique, in-depth understanding of the “system” you use right now. Using the forms in the book, it will be assessed against world-class standards.
Ta: At the end of each evaluation, you will move immediately into setting new target behaviors.
P: Complex behaviors change slowly. I’ll show you how to make a plan of gradual change for multiple habits and practices that spans months, or years.
S: We humans tend to under-estimate how many layers of support we need to change our behaviors. You’ll learn how to set them up, so you increase the odds of success.
Everyone who follows the book’s approach will complete all four ETaPS steps over a dozen times in all. It’s true whether they are just starting their improvement journey, or have been on it so long they are teaching these techniques to other people. We all need a way to face the future.
Will I become overwhelmed?
Each day, we are exposed to a vast array of suggested tips, tricks and shortcuts which each promise improvements. Trying to run each one down is a mistake.
Instead, we’ll take an inside-out approach.
Starting with the forms completed in the ETaPS process, I’ll show you how to search the world for the precise behaviors and tools you need. Together, they allow you to produce a simple plan of improvement.
Figure FAQ – 1
Your evaluation is performed based on your new understanding of each time management concept, using a number of forms. You’ll start making improvements immediately.
Is this time management?
You may already know or suspect that time itself cannot be managed. It’s a topic I addressed in a special report entitled “Can Time Be Managed? – An inquiry into the foundations of time-based productivity.” However, when anyone says, “I need to improve my time management!” they aren’t acting crazy. Instead, they are referring to particular, well-defined symptoms they are trying to alleviate.
To address the issue, I’ll share the science behind a new concept: a “time demand.” It’s a psychological object uncovered in my research: a kind of self-generated task. As you apply this concept you’ll be able to craft more precise improvements which succeed, and actually make sense.
What academic field is this from?
Most popular “time management” books are written from the author’s personal anecdotes. Perfect Time-Based Productivity is a rarity because it relies heavily on the collective wisdom of brain scientists, psychologists, industrial engineers, management theorists and adult learning experts.
The fact is, this field is multidisciplinary in nature, and so are the journals cited in the references and Lab Notes. This explains why so few books dive into the basic building blocks, regardless of where they might be found: it takes a lot of time and effort to do so.
How can this book promise “perfect” productivity?
To repeat the words of Churchill, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”
In this context, perfection does not equate to rigidity. Or finality.
Mark Twain once said: “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” In the pages to come, you will learn how to relentlessly tweak and change your practices, apps and devices to fit your life. This kind of perfection is tough, because most knowledge workers who don’t simply follow orders face changing circumstances. They do the work of more than one person. Plus, they are all subject to two big forces: 1) technology change and 2) an increase in the demands on their time. Everyone, at all levels, needs a “perfect” way to approach the future that looks like a dynamic balancing act.
How can I face the future effectively?
In addition to the “simple plan of improvement” mentioned earlier, you will develop unique competencies as you follow the process laid out in this book.
Expect to practice three skills as you read each chapter, self-reflect and complete the forms.
Superpower #1 – An uncanny ability to detect early warning signs of trouble in your time management system.
Superpower #2 – A brilliant capacity to diagnose root causes of unwanted symptoms.
Superpower #3 – An extraordinary facility to upgrade your system at will, using the ETaPS approach.
As you can see, these are skills for a lifetime.
Why the need for a second edition?
Within a few weeks of releasing the first edition in 2014, I read a post by Dr. Melanie Wilson describing a program called SkedPal. I was convinced to revisit the software’s website and give it a try. Now, three years later, I have made huge changes to my workflow using this new app, following the ETaPs method.
SkedPal’s use of narrow Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cloud computing is compelling. In fact, I do work for the company as a consultant.
In this edition, I share the transition I made and my conviction that we all need to be open to such improvements. Unfortunately, in my case it only came after I rejected SkedPal on my first visit to the website, months before Melanie’s article woke me up.
Where can I get the forms?
You can download the forms used in this book right away: http://perfect.mytimedesign.com/13-forms/ However, this page is static and does not keep up with the most recent improvements. To stay current, sign up at my website for ongoing updates – http://perfect.mytimedesign.com.
This is a book about you, and for you… but only if you happen to be someone who really wants to improve: to get better at what we usually call “time management.”
You’re not alone – I’m a member of this group, and so are many others. Do you have big dreams of all the things you could do if only you had more time? Your aspirations call you to further accomplishments, but you find yourself constrained. Perhaps you’re frustrated by what you want to do but somehow can’t achieve. It appears as if time won’t allow you to reach your productive potential.
I imagine that if you’ve picked up this book, you are past the point of wishing for more than 24 hours in a day. Now, you are ready to make the most of the time you have. That’s simple enough to say. Quite another thing to do.
It’s just not that easy. Most people who pick up a book like this have gotten to the limit of their own ideas. Perhaps you have too, and you’re actively looking for fresh solutions.
The only problem is that the solutions which are widely and easily available… well, to be frank, they suck. According to the conventional wisdom there are three stock answers: 1) search out tips and tricks, 2) copy someone else’s unique blend of habits, practices and rituals or 3) buy a new app or gadget. Sadly, these answers don’t work today as well as they did in the past. Here’s why.
Even though many tips and tricks flying around are interesting, they can easily become a distraction from our goal of making the most of each day. We know that Michael Jordan didn’t become a basketball great by Googling listicles on random websites. (A “listicle” is an article built around a list of “bite-sized” tips e.g. “The Top Ten Ways to Become a Great Basketball Player”). Perhaps you also suspect that people don’t become efficient, accomplished achievers in your profession this way either.
But how about copying or mimicking the behaviors of someone we respect? Is there a productivity blogger, guru or trainer somewhere who has figured out the ultimate pattern of habits, rituals and routines that fits everyone?
As I suggested in the FAQ, you are probably past the point of buying into the existence of a one-size-fits-all prescription. There just cannot be a single set of behaviors everyone should follow which can meet each person’s specific needs. If you agreed with the message of my first book, Bill’s Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure, you know that rigid solutions don’t work.
At this point, most modern professionals are using gadgets. These modern devices are small miracles, but even the guy who lines up outside the Apple Store for three days for the latest iPhone struggles. The connection between individual productivity and the size, speed or cost of the fanciest smartphone, tablet, watch or laptop is dubious at best.
In addition to these confusing decisions you must make there’s one thing you know for sure: more stuff comes at you each day, along with the same expectation to stay on top of it al. It chews up more of your free time and demands greater portions of your attention. Instead of helping, new technology has become a superb delivery mechanism for more.
200 incoming message a day? Some call it “progress.”
However, even with these gadgets in our pockets, apps on our home screens and a knowledge of recommended tips and behaviors, our productivity hasn’t budged. The truth is, most of us are stuck at pre-fancy-tech levels.
To make things worse, we don’t know why. Neither did I back in 2006.
Constant Spring, Kingston, Jamaica. 2006.
Another waste of my time. I shook my head and lifted my fingers from the keyboard.
Once again, I found myself blogging about the hours I had just blown at an inefficient local company or government agency. My mind searched for an answer: What could I have done differently?
I recognized that I was now on a distracting detour. A few minutes earlier, I had opened up a new post on my blog with a clear intent: to add another entry about bureaucracy in Jamaica.
But now, I had stopped typing as my head whirled with more questions. Should I have arrived earlier? Was leaving and coming back a better strategy? How could I have been more prepared? Did they make me late, or did I make myself late? Or was it just “life in the tropics”?
I hated wasting my time, silently complaining: There are too many damned days like this. I moved my mouse to save the post and reviewed the prior 20 posts. This blog, which was supposed to be all about my transition, now had eight entries on productivity and time management. This stuff is way off topic.
But I wasn’t sure if I should be surprised. Born in Massachusetts, USA to Jamaican parents, my life had involved moving back and forth between both countries several times: 18 years in Jamaica were followed by 21 years in the US where I ended up in Florida.
Now, I lived in Kingston, where a chaotic business environment brought one surprise after another. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Index I was moving from a country ranked third to one ranked 86th out of 144 countries in terms of its productivity. I should expect some things to be different with an 83-point difference in ranking, I reasoned.
But obviously, I had a different problem from the one I anticipated. Even though I had taught productivity and time management programs in the USA and other countries, I had stopped several years ago when I got bored. The topic had gotten stale. Or, more accurately, I had gotten stale and moved on to other interests, believing that I couldn’t become more productive. If I was already using the best techniques, what more could there be to learn?
The environment in Jamaica came as a shock. It was unreliable. Hectic. I found myself running late. Forgetting to do stuff. Dealing with organizations that weren’t stable. Trusting people who were, apparently, incompetent. Watching the wonderful laid-back environment that tourists love so much turn into an awful laid-back environment where I couldn’t get anything done was frustrating.
For example, at first, I laughed at and refused to engage in the local practice of calling ahead to “confirm” a meeting. After a few mishaps, I realized its practical value; a way to remind the other person they had a meeting in the first place. This tactic ensured you weren’t going to be the only one at the meeting. I had never done that before.
Humbled (and a bit humiliated), I didn’t know what to do to cope with my failures. After all, I used to be the expert in the front of the classroom, not the novice without a clue. Someone, somewhere must have solved this problem already, I reasoned, so I opened a new browser window.
Googling away, I searched for terms like “developing country time management,” “extreme time management” and even “war zone time management.” Hadn’t someone figured out how to be productive in an unpredictable environment?
Maybe by the time you read these pages, such a book exists. But back then – nothing. Nada. Zilch. Just more of the same tired prescriptions I used to teach others by saying things like:
“Follow these exact practices. They work for me, and they’ll work for you.”
“You need the discipline to use these habits – find it, somehow.”
“There can be no deviation from this method – if you do, you have no right to expect success.”
Now, I felt a pang of guilt. My own mother had taken my productivity program years before and afterwards admitted: “I don’t need this stuff. It’s too much for me, son, I’m retired.”
Later on, I’d tell people, “When your own mother tells you that your baby is ugly, it’s probably time to listen!” In that moment, however, I changed the subject, because everything I knew to say to rebut her objection sounded stupid. “Maybe that’s why I am no longer leading these programs,” I muttered.
Closing the search results, I went back to writing my post on time-wasting bureaucrats, but now, my anger had dissipated. They wouldn’t be fired, so why write about them?
I leaned back in my chair, staring at the ceiling. What could I do to get better when I already thought I was doing quite well?
Two pictures once again swirled into my mind. And also, a fact I had realized some time ago. They had all been buzzing around in my thoughts for a few months, but had never landed.
First, I saw a rubric, just like the ones I had used one during a short stint in a white-collar sweatshop. A forgettable gig, I spent a few weeks working for a company in Florida which had won a contract with The State of California to score its ninth-grade standardized tests. Located a few miles from where I lived in Fort Lauderdale, I figured I had nothing to lose, so I applied and got the job, probably because I held the required Master’s Degree.
It turned out to be little more than a drudge. I sat in an air-conditioned office staring at my monitor all day, accompanied by a few hundred other graders. For four hours in the morning, then four more hours in the afternoon we marked English papers of fourteen-year-olds.
“It’s what management consultants do when business is slow,” I joked to myself.
But during my single hour of training, the trainers repeated a word I had never paid attention to before: “rubric.” When I got home, I had to look it up.
Today, Wikipedia reports that a scoring rubric is a document which represents a “standard of performance.” Our job was to grade each student against a predetermined scale developed by experts. Our managers hammered home the mantra: “Just follow the rubric!” They were serious, I discovered. Apparently, the software we used tracked our use of the rubric, and those who didn’t follow it were soon asked to leave.
The second picture I saw floating near the rubric was something like a rubric: a “competency matrix.” A friend introduced me to the tool in his corporate training which tracked a person’s skills, from low and high, in several dimensions of performance.
Thirdly, I realized that the majority of Jamaicans had never attended a time management class of any kind. Not that this is a special case – it’s true for most working adults around the world. But in Jamaica, it led to a deep gap between their skills and those of North Americans. It probably explained the 83-point gap I reported earlier.
As the two pictures and the thought bounced around, I said to myself, “I need a ladder of skills – one that touches the ground. The real ground.” At the bottom would be weak skills, and at the top, world-class skills.
Now, I leaned forward, staring at my imaginary ladder. I could see someone moving from one level of skill to the next, probably because they could see the next step clearly.
In addition, I knew from triathlon swim training that it was essential to focus on one skill at a time when making improvements. Terry Laughlin, the Total Immersion swim instructor, made that clear in his books and videos, which I loved.
But then, a doubt entered: “How does that help me?” I paused and imagined that I could find space on this ladder I needed to climb – a way to get better. I just needed to add some rungs at the top.
With that vague answer in mind, I clicked to close my rant and opened a brand-new post. Out came my first ladder, on the topic of “Capturing.” It was written right in the middle of my blog on moving back to Jamaica, where it didn’t belong. “Capturing,” I wrote, is our way of “writing down new tasks.”
I started by listing the weakest behaviors at the bottom, and the strongest ones I could imagine at the top. Then, I filled in the gaps, coming up with four steps in all. As I described each level, I had to be honest: “I’m not at the very top.”
The diagram below is a re-creation of the original ladder, which is long lost.
When I completed the diagram, I sat back. This looked different. I had never seen a ladder of productivity skills like this one. My current skills put me somewhere between the middle and the very top.
It wasn’t hard to understand why: some of my new-found productivity problems existed because I had never bothered to perfect the skill of Capturing. When I didn’t Capture reliably, I left myself open to nasty surprises.
Fortunately, there were people I had worked alongside who had reached the top rung, but I had never seen the need to follow their example. They were way too “OCD” for my laid-back Jamaican taste. Now, I could see why I needed to be just like them.
I flipped open a couple of productivity books and websites, thinking that I’d only succeeded in reinventing the wheel. All I found confirmed my first impression: I hadn’t seen anything like this before. Sure, there were similar descriptions of the behavior, but no rubric.
For example, one author had perfected the art of “Capturing” with a digital voice-recorder rather than paper and pen. He would play it back each evening before going to bed, putting tasks in different places. Like others, he seemed satisfied to tell readers that only a single rung of practices existed: the one he happened to be describing. He barely mentioned the possibility of other rungs, or even future, improved practices that might be invented. Other authors went a step further, insisting that the rung they used was the only correct one to follow, under all circumstances.
“Finally, something new that I can use to get better,” I said. “Just because I can’t find other ladders doesn’t mean I shouldn’t use it.”
It was a start.
Eventually, over the next few months, posts on productivity started taking over my blog, and I had to start a new website. “After all,” I reasoned, “I’m just fooling around. Once I run out of ideas, I’ll stop. Or maybe others might come along and use them. Just a few months at most, and then that will be it.” I was wrong. It’s now 2017 and I haven’t stopped.
Maybe you’re like me. You realize you’re stuck but don’t know why. I didn’t know how to get myself moving, even though the unwanted symptoms seemed clear enough. In this way, I was just like millions of professionals who want to improve their time-based productivity but don’t know how.
My move from Hollywood to Kingston is probably one you will never make. But you may also be facing a similar, perplexing life change that has brought on new commitments. Now, you may be experiencing the symptoms of a life change – information overload, email overwhelm, time stress, a feeling of being out of balance, or a sense of always being in a rush. Perhaps it extends to missing deadlines and seeing commitments fall through the cracks.
Why aren’t there easy-to-find solutions to these problems?
It’s because simplistic solutions are sometimes not the right answer to complex problems.
A Band-Aid is no substitute for open-heart surgery – and it’s not the Band-Aid’s fault, either. The heart is too complex.
At the same time, the uninformed may see a YouTube video of a valve replacement surgery and observe that it starts with fewer than 10 cuts of a scalpel. Given the fact that it takes more than 10 cuts to eat a 16 oz. Porterhouse steak, they’d mistakenly conclude that open-heart surgery is easier.
Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Bypass surgery requires years of training to determine the handful of incisions needed to complete the procedure effectively. It’s the reason why neither Band-Aids nor your steak eating skills could ever get the job done.
In the chapters to come, I’ll introduce you to another complex system: the everyday combination of habits, practices and rituals you use to manage your time. But it’s not just about some cool insights. One thing I learned from reading swim coach Terry Laughlin’s books is that while you’re sitting down to read its pages, you aren’t getting better. You start getting better only after you close the book, make your way to the pool with a superb improvement plan and jump in the water to implement it.
By the end of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, you’ll also have in your possession a superb, Leonardoesque plan for improvement: simple, but sophisticated. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said, “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my right arm for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” You won’t need to make such sacrifices.
In Part One, you’ll get the background knowledge you need to make this journey to crafting a simple plan successfully. The research I’ll share might confirm some of your suspicions – you’ll learn that time management doesn’t exist, because time cannot be managed. Instead, you’ll realize that all these years you have been managing something called a “time demand”: an internal, individual commitment to complete an action in the future.
You’ll also uncover an astounding fact: you started creating time demands as a pre-teen, just after you were taught the concept of time. This lesson sparked an awesome period of growth that changed the course of your life. During the ensuing years, you also began to craft personal methods for managing time demands, laying the foundation for every success you have experienced as an adult.
But there’s more. Today, you can’t escape the human need to create time demands and keep them alive: you need them to achieve your goals, aspirations and dreams.
Furthermore, your discovery of time demands will help you understand why some gurus, academics and trainers have been so confused. They haven’t built their work on the essential but cross-disciplinary research that you have access to in these pages.
To help prevent unpleasant flashbacks to your days in college, I’ll link you to my Lab Notes, which are included at the end of this book. There, you can delve into the plain, ordinary logic I used to arrive at these and other conclusions. (Where I used intuition in the absence of hard evidence, I’ll let you know.)
You may even may want to visit the materials listed in the References, which include the sources most relevant to this book. The 2Time Labs Library also includes references to more than one hundred additional papers. (See http://bit.ly/WLy6EY.) By the end of Part One, you will be ready to make actual upgrades.
In Part Two, I’ll take you through an actual improvement cycle in which you can start making real-time changes. We’ll recover your teenage power to innovate in this area. Slowing down the effective but forgotten process you used as an adolescent, you’ll do an in-depth assessment of your current methods in seven core skills: Capturing, Emptying, Tossing, Acting Now, Storing, Scheduling and Listing.
This is not just an intellectual exercise. Once you understand each concept, you will start doing an immediate evaluation which kicks off the ETaPS cycle. When you complete the seventh assessment, I’ll show you how to bring these plans together into a single Master Plan that’s feasible yet inviting, even though it may span several months or years.
While your plan at the end will be simple, it will be based on a sophisticated understanding of human behavior, plus the results of your assessment. Your new self-knowledge will be the primary driver: so prepare yourself to discover the complexity of your daily actions.
Unfortunately, this complexity translates into an uneven collection of strengths and weaknesses. This, you’ll find, is typical: for most of us, it’s the product of a teenage mind working on its own without help or guidance. Rube Goldberg meets MacGyver.
An accurate self-evaluation will also let you take some important shortcuts on your path of improvement. You’ll find yourself conserving time and energy as you focus on the handful of improvement activities that make the biggest difference, rather than trying to do too much at once. Your skill at defining a feasible Master Plan is key.
A few people take a break after the completion of this preliminary plan because the next section requires a change of gears. Part Three looks at advanced topics that help you implement it. In these chapters, you’ll start with a deep dive into “the flow state.” Then, I offer four advanced skills (Interrupting, Switching, Reviewing and Warning) for inclusion in your Master Plan.
The last three chapters are meant to prepare you for real-world challenges. As professionals, we are bombarded with new productivity ideas, can’t find the software and hardware tools we really need and face obstacles to being effective in the workplace. You’ll learn how to navigate these issues.
As I mentioned in the FAQ, along our entire journey, we’ll have a lot of help from researchers in multiple fields. As professionals, it’s important we work with facts rather than anecdotes, balancing science with intriguing stories. Bringing findings from different fields together in one place is the only way to gain the insight needed to create a powerful Master Plan that’s straightforward but comprehensive. It’s the “simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
As important as your Master Plan and current profile are, you should finish this book with much more than a plan on paper. My ultimate goal is to give you a clean start in developing your time-based productivity skills. With it, you can fix problems, alleviate unwanted symptoms, and achieve unforeseen peace of mind. You can also use it to prepare yourself for a future that’s likely to bring more time demands than ever before through new 24-hour-a-day technology that can never, ever be turned off.
In the FAQ I called them superpowers.
What I want for you is a new beginning: some solutions to hard problems that give you a way to reboot your improvement efforts with a fresh set of insights and new-found energy. More than a mere method: a new mindset.
It’s just what I longed for after running into problems in Kingston, in 2006: a way to begin again.