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Just in Time for 2013: An Evergreen Time Management System

Just in Time for 2013: An Evergreen Time Management System
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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

More by this author

Francis Wade

Author, Management Consultant

The New Lifehacking #7 – Why You Should Be Open to New Stuff, But Wary About Using It How To Manage A Post-College Productivity Dip Why You Need to Understand and Accept Your Productive Type A Tendencies The New LifeHacking #6 – Staying Away from Harmful Gadgets The New Lifehacking #5 – Tricking Yourself into Making the Changes You Need

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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