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Just in Time for 2013: An Evergreen Time Management System

Just in Time for 2013: An Evergreen Time Management System

It’s disappointing: you start the new year looking for some solid advice on improving your time management, but all that’s available is yet another list of top 10 tips. You feel let down because they offer little help in moving you towards the working professional’s ultimate destination—an evergreen time management system.

An evergreen system is one that never gets frozen in time. Its methods and tools are continually being evolved by its owner, and constantly being renewed. Here are a couple of reasons to keep your system fresh.

Reason #1 – our lives are dynamic. Things change at work; we get promoted, or selected to lead up a project, or our boss forces us to do the work of two people. At home, we get married, start an exercise program or need to take care of an aging parent. Somewhere in between, we start a part-time Masters degree.

As these commitments make their way into our lives, we find ourselves needing additional capacity… more time… more refined time management techniques to deal with a new level of demands. None of us wants our system to become the bottleneck that causes stuff to fall through the cracks, so we keep it evergreen just so that it can keep up.

Reason #2 – technology is expanding. Every other day we are presented with new choices of productivity tools that simply cannot be ignored. Case in point—there are quite a few professionals who swear that they’ll never use a smartphone, which has caused them to fall behind in developing the latest productivity skills. In the next five years, there will be a further explosion of new mobile products, apps and services, forcing us to make choices about if and when to use them.

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Most people are lazy: they go out and buy the latest gadget, and allow it to shape their time management habits e.g. texting while driving to “save time.” Keeping our system evergreen is the opposite—it means thinking about our system’s needs in an objective way so that we look for the tools we need before they even appear at Best Buy.

We need to learn how to tinker with our systems effectively to keep them evergreen—they don’t stay fresh by themselves.

Many time management gurus are like most auto mechanics, who aren’t interested in teaching you anything useful—they just want you to follow their instructions: “bring in your car.” Gurus often ask us to do the same:”just follow my instructions”. They generally don’t want us tinkering with our systems, doing our own thing, and departing from their advice.

We are on our own.

Fortunately, we can find our way to an evergreen system by coaching ourselves, and by using lessons from other familiar disciplines.

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1. From Professional Sports

“Andragogy” refers to the field of adult education. One of its key principles is that adults already have existing skills (unlike children) and that improvement efforts must build on the abilities that already exist. Top sports teams follow this principle, and start all new players off with an assessment of their skills.

In time management, you already have some good, or even great skills. You need to start with a skillful assessment of your strengths and weaknesses compared against best-in-class practices before deciding to follow a tip or purchase a gadget.

2. From the Martial Arts,

Not everyone who enters a dojo needs (or wants) a Third Degree Black Belt. Most will end up with a more modest achievement in keeping with their aspirations. In much the same way, you need to set goals for your time management system, using your knowledge of world-class standards. Don’t go over the top. Don’t follow someone else’s prescription. Instead, be modest, and set a time to achieve the next rung in the ladder, and then the next, in a way that inspires you rather than scaring you silly.

Making progress at your own pace is the only way to avoid the failure that so many experience from trying to implement too much, too quickly.

3. From Your Math Teacher

If your grade school teachers were any good, they taught you some pretty complex math skills in small, tiny steps. You barely noticed what was happening as they led you slowly, but steadily, through a range of skills.

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Research shows that an adult’s time management skills are just as complex as math skills. Changing them is much easier if you are able to break down the changes you want into small steps that appear to be easy to complete. This is self-coaching at its finest.

4. From Your Piano Instructor

It takes several years of consistent practice at increasing levels of difficulty to become a top-class piano player. You discovered this in perhaps your third or fourth lesson, leading you to re-evaluate your goal of soloing at Carnegie Hall. Fortunately, your instructor showed you how to spread out the small steps you needed to master over a period of several years. She had a plan for taking you all the way and it involved, as Malcolm Gladwell says in “Blink,” at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice.

One reason why recent graduates aren’t made into Vice Presidents immediately is that they don’t have the personal time management systems to accomplish very much, a fact which executives understand acutely, but rarely share. They must learn how to replace today’s time management habits with new ones, executing a plan that might take weeks, months and even years of practice.

5. From Your Attempts at Weight Loss

If you have ever tried to lose weight, you might appreciate how challenging it is to learn new habits, and unlearn old ones.

We humans have a difficult time changing habits, and researchers have labored to find a magic formula. So far, they tell us that we over-estimate our willpower, and need much more help than we think. This help must exist beyond the boundary of our memory and emotions, in the form of support groups, coaches, reminders, incentives, dis-incentives, plus more. The key is to build in layers of support that simply don’t allow failure when the urge to eat a sugary snack kicks in.

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While this might sound simple enough, the research also states that we need custom support systems, and can’t simply recycle the supports that a colleague used. This step takes self-knowledge, and very smart tactics.

If we take what we know from these areas in our lives, we can assemble evergreen time management systems that never go stale, and are powered by our innate love of learning. For many of us, tinkering effectively can be a big challenge, but also a lot of fun.

Featured photo credit:  a pen on a book point at a day is New year via Shutterstock

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Francis Wade

Author, Management Consultant

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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