I mentioned after I completed the Daily Momentum Planner that I figured out how to write this post. Life intervened and I lost the muse. I’m currently in the process of reconstructing the train of thought and managing by time management systems, but it’s going to be rather rough.
The hardest thing about articulating the ideas in this post is identifying whether I’m talking merely about software time and task management systems, or time and task management systems at large. I think that the same functions and principles are features both of software time and task management systems and of larger time and task management systems like the Seven Habits and Getting Things Done. I’ll not worry too much about it right now, but let me know whether you think I need to separate the discussion between the two.
I’m also going to conflate time management systems and task management systems and just call them time management systems. Feel free to poke holes in these gaping wounds, but think more about the functions and principles, as those are the meat of this post.
What I realized after I completed the Daily Momentum Planner is that time management systems have three distinct but interrelated functions. Those functions make…
The Time Loop:
- Planning: Time management systems should help you plan how to use your time according to the tasks, projects, and goals that you need or want to complete.
- Execution: Time management systems should help you execute the items you have planned.
- Evaluation: Time management systems should help you evaluate how you spent your time so that you can become more effective at planning and executing future tasks.
Each of the three functions feeds into the others, thus making it a loop. I know that these three are obvious facets of time management systems, but I’ve found, through using a lot of different systems, that many of them miss at least one of the pieces, especially the evaluative component.
My own tools fail to provide a cohesive system, as well. For instance, the Daily Productivity Heatmap is a decent tool for planning, but it really doesn’t help you execute what you need to get done or evaluate what you did. It’s merely a planning tool.
The Daily Momentum Planner helps with planning and execution, but not with evaluation. To use it, you’d have to refer to some other way of tracking everything you need to get done.
As long as one component of the system is missing, there will be some latent inefficiencies. Aside from the basic functions of time management systems, there are principles that make those systems better.
The Principles of Time Management Systems
- Simplicity: This principle refers to ease of use. A system that has a high learning curve or requires a lot of upkeep makes the system itself something else that requires work. The goal of time management systems is to help you complete the stuff you want or need to do, not create more stuff for you to do. A system that is easy to use and learn has a far better chance at actually being implemented – which is an enabler for effectiveness.
- Usefulness: A time management system should produce information that is both actionable and useful. This is where a popular new system fails for me, as it produces interesting information that’s neither really useful nor actionable – i.e., it doesn’t feed information that allows me to plan and execute what I need to get done.
- Aesthetically pleasing: What does a time management system’s being aesthetically pleasing have to do with its effectiveness? People are more likely to use things that are aesthetically pleasing. Sure, the system may work and be ugly or clunky, but the more aesthetically pleasing it is, the more likely it is to be adopted.
- Connectedness: I couldn’t find a catchy way to articulate this principle (not that aesthetically pleasing is catchy, either). Basically, the time management system should show how tasks, projects, and goals are connected to each other. A common flaw is that the system just produces a bare list of things to do, without showing what those things relate to. The more a time management system can connect the “in the trenches” things we need to do with the higher-level tasks, the better perspective (and hence motivation and focus) we’ll have when it comes time to do those tasks.
- Cohesiveness: I’ve already mentioned this above, but the system should be a cohesive system. For example, marking that you completed a task on a given project should propagate throughout the system. Having to refer to another document, program, or item to update that project creates productivity seepage.
These principles are components of each of the different functions. So, for instance, you could evaluate a system on the planning dimension by assessing its simplicity, usefulness, beauty, connectedness, or cohesiveness.
The trick, of course, is balancing these different principles. A beautiful and simple system has a lot going for it, but we often find that those two principles are in tension with usefulness – we want a lot of useful information as an output, while also wanting the process of getting that information to be as simple as possible and wanting that information to be pretty. It’s a very difficult balance.
Looking at the Daily Momentum Planner through the functions and principles of time management, you can see its weakness: the Daily Momentum Planner focuses on the daily plan of action. It’s not very cohesive outside of the daily view. For a standalone tool, it does alright, which is probably why it hasn’t been nearly as popular as the Daily Productivity Heatmap, which is an evaluative tool that can fit into any other system.
What I’d like to do is create software based on of some of these ideas – something that integrates all of this based upon these functions and principles. However, I’ve been most productive using paper-based products; for the longest time, I eschewed computer time management systems for Dave Seah’s paper-based products. I think the reason they’re generally more effective is because they’re simple and they help you focus on your tasks without fiddling with the computer. Yes, I’m a fiddler. But the main frustration I’ve found with these systems is their weakness on the evaluative piece. I want a chart, bar graph, or some other aesthetically pleasing representation of how I spent my time.
Look at the time management system you’re using. Does it help you plan, execute, or evaluate? Is it simple, useful, aesthetically pleasing, connected, and cohesive? Hopefully it’s not like mine, which is a scaffold of systems on top of systems. I’m tired of the upkeep, but no one system that I have looked at thus far gets the job done on its own.
Tony Wright says
I think that there’s a lot of progress to be made with time management system– the rub (as you point out) is that they are oftentimes pretty time consuming.
RescueTime is moving in the direction of being a more complete offering, but it’s a long road. Right now, we’re the time management equivalent of a cholesterol test– we can tell you you’re not quite healthy and we can let you know when you’re making progress… But we don’t have a ton to offer to get you fixed up!
Martice E Nicks Jr says
We find ourselves in the attention age bombarded by more and more distractions focusing our attention on what others want.
Our society has in a sense inflicted us all with ADD. Emails, cell phones, mail, billboards, advertisements, TV and radio commercials, friends, family, and co-workers all contribute to this condition.
Changing our own behavior is hard. Especially if everything around us is focused on selling us on what our priorities should be.
The reality is, getting control and staying in control of ones life is not easy or simple. It won’t matter much if your approach to becoming more productive is simple or complex the difficulty is always in the implementation.
To even entertain the thought that one productivity system will fit all is to demonstrate a lack of understanding of productivity. Case in point. The leader of a nation will need a productivity system more complex than the clerk behind the counter at 7-11 to be effective.
The approach I think you should take is a high level systems approach that outlines the strategy then progress into tactical implementation.
Whatever you develop I’m sure will be appreciated by someone.
Martice E Nicks Jr’s last blog post..Sales Productivity And The Tower of Babel
Charles Gilkey says
@ Martice: Brilliant insight and commentary! I think you’re dead on – it’s the implementation of these systems that’s difficult. Though the system needed by a leader and system needed by a clerk will be dramatically different by content, I think the principles will be roughly the same. The context of what’s being managed (i.e. things vs. people) will change, but the same questions will be asked. The trick will be making a system that’s comprehensive enough to capture the fundamentals yet malleable enough to handle wildly different contexts. Thanks for your encouragement and feedback, and I’ll look forward to more when as I create more tools.
Francis Wade says
Charles, I most agree with what you said at the very end…
I think that time management systems are presented to us _never_ fit the bill… apart from a handful of people.
Instead, I think that each professional needs to legitimize what they have been doing — using their own hybrid system — with some assistance and help.
I see your post as helping to shed some light on the systems we are using, and the degree to which they are working for us.
However, I go a step further and say that almost none of us are using someone else’s system, we are using our own, and the sooner we own that, the quicker we can do the design and repair work that’s needed to increase productivity and expand peace of mind.
OK, I’m off the soapbox…!
Francis Wade’s last blog post..Time Management and Cognitive Load Theory
Charles Gilkey says
@ Francis: I’m actually in total agreement with you about making your own system. After the fact, I realize that that’s what I’ve been up to with this post and A General Theory, since neither give you a specific system, but rather things to incorporate. The planners I’ve created have the same feature and will continue to do so. I see our work as helping people start from their own productivity positions and move forward from there. And feel free to stand on your soapbox here as much as you’d like. Why should I be the only one that gets to do so?
Francis Wade says
I happen to be in Trinidad leading a course I developed for Caribbean professionals, and we were talking about this today.
I like the term you used: “productivity positions” and our description of what our work is about.
I told my class that it was like teaching someone to cook, rather than merely giving him/her a fixed recipe.
Professionals need to have a way of designing their own systems that they can change as they grow and expand.
I remember talking with a friend who had retired, and he actually needed a time management system that worked in his new situation, and it wasn’t the one he was using before he left the corporate world.
He just needed to design something new, like anyone else who goes through a major life change and finds that their old system no longer fits.
Thanks for the OK to jump on the soapbox!
Francis Wades last blog post..Productivity and Choosing a New PDA
Interesting to know.
I’m just jumping around your site right now, reading things that are relevant to me right now (so far, the top contender is the one about Stop Lying and Get Creating… but I’m working on inspiring myself! Really! [ /lie ]) and so I don’t know if you ever did figure out a system for time tracking/management that you actually like.
I am commenting to mention an online time tracker that I found, which is giving me an awesomely simple way to SEE and GRAPH where my time has gone. It’s BubbleTimer.com, and it’s based off of one of Dave Seah’s paper-based systems (forgive me for not seeking the name of it, but you’d probably recognize it if you saw it).
Interestingly, the other place I heard of Heat Mapping was in the discussion at GetSatisfaction regarding BubbleTimer… there are big plans for even more analysis in the future of this product. There’s a very good chance I’m selfishly suggesting you check out this product so that you can put some of your valuable input into the discussion… 😉
@Qrystal: No, I never found a time tracking/management system that I ever liked – at least an electronic one. I’m writing about the system I use in the ebook I’m writing atm.
As far as Bubbletimer, yes, I’m quite aware of it – I’m an affiliate (one of the first) and I’ve spoken to Sean (the developer) about heatmapping stuff. I think Bubbletimer is probably the best I’ve seen thus far because it doesn’t try to get computers to do what they can’t, which is where RescueTime and Slife fall down. I should really write a review of Bubbletimer – I’ve been meaning to for a while.
Thanks for reminding me about this!
mr. friday says
Please furnish me with more theories of productivity for I need assistance urgently to complete my academic project. I am writing on productivity as it relates to management.