In the prior article in this series, I mentioned that each of us must create our own improvement plans to make time management improvements. The best time to do this is right after we have done a diagnosis, rather than in the middle of a store looking at a shiny new piece of equipment. The key to making a successful plan is not only to set customized goals, but also to make sure that they aren’t too big and aren’t too aggressive.
David Allen has it right—on a daily basis, it’s better to focus on small next actions than on huge goals that leave us paralyzed. With some big goals this is easy: they can easily be broken down into small, sequential steps. Other more nebulous goals can’t be pre-determined and must be reassessed at each point on the journey.
When we make the mistake of not using small steps, it’s partly because we are thinking like Superman rather than Clark Kent. The truth is, a productivity-improvement plan based on us being at our best 100% of the time is likely to fail. Most of the time we are kind of average, and our goals should reflect average effort in order to be realistic.
Changing Habits Over Time
This practice lines up perfectly with recent habit change research that tells us that we need to take small steps in order to be successful. Habit change, as I mentioned in my prior article, is tough. Mark Twain said it well: “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down-stairs one step at a time.”
In much the same way, the goals that we set need to be conservative. It’s better to space them out over time, thus reducing the risk of failure. When it comes to changing our productivity habits, this is no time to be setting up stretch goals that need extraordinary effort. Instead, conservative goals and small steps build confidence and momentum. Unfortunately, most time management books and programs simply ignore these lessons, leaving it to the learner to wing it on their own.
This is exactly what most learners do—right at the end of a book or a program, the ideas seem easy to understand, and effortless to implement.
If all this sounds like a recipe for failure, it should: it’s better to bring some reality to our individual change effort by making a schedule of changes over time. We can construct a Gantt chart of personal changes that shows the practices we want to implement, and when. Once the chart has been made, the individual items to work on can be transferred to our personal calendars, or embedded in electronic reminders of different kinds.
Given the fact that time management and productivity systems are built on foundations of human habits, practices and rituals, rather than technology, we need to be savvy in managing our expectations. The savviest professionals work on themselves skillfully, by manipulating their habits to make consistent improvements. They don’t chase after the latest trend and can’t be found rushing out to join the line at the Apple store when a new release is announced.
It’s not rocket science, but you’ll have to ignore the authors who keep telling you how easy it is to change a personal habit, and how it can be done overnight. It’s snake oil. Don’t buy it.