productivity training

Books, Management Thinking, Productivity

Time According to Drucker’s Watch

qtq80-KJjZNvI just finished reading The Essential Drucker. If you don’t know who Peter Drucker was, you probably should, because he was a leading thinker on organizations and management. He also coined the term knowledge worker more than fifty years ago. He wrote about how the advent of the knowledge worker would change the nature of executive and managerial work, along with the structure of organizations. Drucker – Wikipedia

I find all of his writing instructive. The Effective Executive (for example) is a 50-year-old treatise on the job of an executive in the modern corporation and one of the handful of nonfiction books that I reread occasionally.

Essential includes a chapter titled “Know Your Time,” which describes practices for time management. While decades old, it is particularly useful. In this post, I’ll summarize the main points.


Time is a unique resource. It is completely perishable. In the “accomplishment” process, there is no substitute for time as an input. It takes an instant to have the “aha” solution to a problem, but it takes time to get to the point of understanding the problem well enough to have the “aha”.

We are terrible judges of how we have used time in the past. Invariably, we need a time log, an audit, to tell us how we have spent our time over the last few weeks or months.

The time demands

Much of what we spend time on is unproductive, even if it is work. Our organizations require communication, which is rarely done efficiently. We must build relationships with each other, which cannot be done in an urgent manner.

However, knowledge work requires large chunks of time. Creating a presentation from scratch needs a fairly large chunk to get started, then editing can be done in smaller time increments. Strategic thinking and problem solving need large chunks. Getting work done through other people, the primary task of an executive, requires chunks. Any deep work, by definition, needs sizable chunks.

Time diagnosis

While we have been recording time for manual work since the start of the 20th century, we do not normally record time for knowledge work. But time is more important for the knowledge worker than it is for the manual worker. It is simply easier to record for manual workers.

So, effective knowledge workers track their time. The details of the method are not important, but the act of recording time is the first essential step in analyzing how we use it. Time tracking needs to be done for fairly long periods, weeks or a month, in order to account for daily and weekly variation. And our time drifts toward trivia, so tracking needs to be done routinely, at least a couple of times per year. Once we have recorded our time use, we analyze it for three areas of time use:

  1. Identify and eliminate things that don’t need to be done at all. There are probably more of these things than your memory will let you see. Some thought is usually required as our default is to be lazy and simply declare that things “have to be done”. It is fairly easy to test the assumption – stop doing it for a while and see if anyone notices.
  2. Identify and assign things that could be done by others. This is not exactly delegation, but a complete giving over of authority to another person. Again, we have to be tough on ourselves here as the lazy way out is to default to “I have to do it”. Perhaps the task needs to be tweaked or better automated before we completely hand it off.
  3. Identify and eliminate things that we do that waste others’ time. The only way to do this is to ask the honest question of our peers and direct reports. As leaders, when we ask for reports and status meetings, we must be ruthless with ourselves about the need for them. Again, our default is the enemy here. People likely need less oversight than we think and will ask for it if we don’t offer.

Pruning the time wasters

Having dealt with the things we have individual authority over, we now turn to those things that are organizational in nature. Organizational misalignment and poor structure waste everyone’s time, but primarily the time of leadership. Now we analyze our time record for four areas of concern:

  1. Identify the “routine crises”. These represent a lack of system or a lack of foresight. After the second occurrence of a crisis, we should assume that it will become routine if we don’t do something systemic to prevent it. Budget cycles, seasonal sales, release cycles, and recurring external events, such as employee turnover may trigger these broken processes that need to be fixed. Well-designed work and organizations should normally lack drama.
  2. Over-staffing wastes time. In an overstaffed organization people collide with each other too often. This results in jurisdictional disputes, politics, and other signs that people are in each others’ way. Knowledge workers need to be able to do their work with a minimum of explaining to others and asking permission. If the leadership of the organization spends more than a small fraction, say 10%, of their time on these kinds of issues, overstaffing may be the cause.
  3. Poor organization shows up in excess meetings. Meetings are caused by a need to exchange information. In a perfect world, everyone would know what they need to know to get their job done. However, we live in an imperfect world. Nevertheless, good meeting discipline requires severely limiting the number of meetings. I would add that some meetings may be caused by having hired staff that are unequal to their task and consistently require the help or advice of others to get anything done.
  4. Poor distribution of information wastes time. Routine calls for information and “bystanding” in meetings to see if there’s “something I need to know” can be eliminated by setting up proper distribution channels and creating meeting discipline.

Solutions to these seven kinds of problems may be obvious once they are noticed. Or they may require a long, disciplined effort. But the result of this work is useful for the entire organization, especially in terms of time recovered.

Consolidating discretionary time

The key to consolidation is to move things around to create the needed chunks of time. The problem is that this is a perpetual need. Non-discretionary time expands; new meetings are called; new crises pop up. Therefore, effective knowledge workers need to be consistently vigilant over their schedules.

Finally, it is difficult to know when knowledge work tasks, done during the chunks of discretionary time, are finished. We all have perfectionist tendencies and overdo. If we create 10 hours of discretionary time per week, but use it poorly, we are really no better off. Think in terms of deadlines for discretionary projects. Time box efforts and stick to the time allotted. Understand what is the minimum effective product and move on when it has been achieved.

I would add that attention management is a requisite skill in time management. If we can’t stay focused on tasks we set ourselves during discretionary time, we are not using it well. After, perhaps, decades of fragmented attention use, our ability to focus intently for periods of time may be weak. Don’t forget to defend your attention when entering into periods of discretionary time.

Time is more scarce than any other commodity. So it should be used more carefully than any other. The first step is a time audit.

Question: Have you ever audited your time? If so, let us know one key insight you gleaned. If not, perhaps now would be a good time to start. If you do, come back and share your insights.

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Getting Knowledge Work to Done
May 6, 2017
6 Reasons Planning Is a Pain (and Why You Should Do It Anyway)
November 9, 2016
Were You Trained as a Knowledge Worker?
October 1, 2016
GTD, Management Thinking, Self Improvement

6 Reasons Planning Is a Pain (and Why You Should Do It Anyway)

qtq80-WsNgkaSmart, capable people often struggle with one crucial aspect of knowledge work: planning. In my experience, clients resist planning for a number of reasons. Here are some of the most common.

Planning causes mental pain, at least at first. Planning is taxing work. If you haven’t done it recently or it’s not a habit, it will literally cause pain when you do it. My university students helped me define this pain; it is the feeling of frustration. “It’s too hard.” “I’m just not good at this.” So, we give up too easily, avoiding the frustration of learning how to plan and developing the habit of planning.

Planning takes time. On average, your weekly planning will take 45 minutes or so. That’s for a routine week. If your upcoming week is challenging, planning may take twice that long. Daily planning will take 10-15 minutes. As with many activities, it feels easier to just jump in and start work. Doing so makes us feel that we are, at least, making progress. So we skip planning and just get started.

Planning is deep work. Some people think that planning is merely running over their to-do list. But real planning is the difficult exercise of estimating how long tasks will take and a thoughtful look at our tasks versus our constraints. It forces us to clearly define our commitments and deliverables. Most of us prefer to avoid this deep work, so we substitute a shallow, watered down version. We leave our commitments murky and don’t clarify through planning.

Planning forces us to say “No”. We don’t like to say no to others. Good planning shows conflicting commitments and when our capacity is full. Thus, planning forces us to make choices that likely result in difficult conversations. This brings us face to face with our priorities, which may not be clear. It is much easier, in the short run, to play hero and worry about the consequences later, so we don’t plan.

Planning shows hard truths. When you plan, you realize your limitations and understand your constraints. This is much more challenging than just believing everything will work out. Over time, planning also shows you how long it actually takes to get your tasks accomplished. This can challenge your mental image of how good you are at some of your tasks. These challenges are uncomfortable; we avoid planning so we don’t have to face them.

Planning is inexact. Even the most experienced planners and project managers cannot predict the future. Things happen. Key resources take a sick day. A supplier’s truck breaks down. In addition, we are predictably bad estimators, typically underestimating both the time it takes to do something and how much discretionary time we will have in a given day or week. Our plans don’t work out, so we abandon planning.

So, we resist planning because it is painful, time-consuming deep work, that doesn’t work perfectly and forces us to confront an uncomfortable reality. But I would like to show two essential parameters that planning produces: The first is time boxes that show us how much time we can allocate to any given task. The second is milestones, which show where we should be on a multi-step project. Clarity on these two parameters is our responsibility in managing our schedule and tasks.

Time boxes force us to deliver even when the level of quality is unclear. We can be perfectionists and let deadlines slip chasing perfection. Remember that the quality of knowledge work is notoriously difficult to define. Challenge yourself to work hard for the duration, but, when the time is up, ship the result. It is probably at least good enough. Time boxes help give us the courage to “just ship it” on the deadline.

But, even if it is not good enough, you probably don’t know how to fix it. My experience as a writer shows this challenge. I invariably think part X is bad while part Y is good. However, my reviewers and editors think the opposite. So, rather than continuing to perfect part X, I should have been working on part Y. The same holds true for much of our work: presentations, reports, and communication. The parts we think need additional work are actually OK, but we overlook parts that need shoring up. So, instead of exceeding our time boxes and blowing our schedule by chasing our view of perfection, we should set shorter time boxes and use the additional time to get feedback on what needs attention.

In addition, using time boxes gives good historical data on how long a task actually takes. Working on a deliverable in short spurts is inefficient and makes it difficult to tell how much work we actually did. We need to know how long the task took last time in order to guess better how long it will take this time. Disciplined work during time boxes shows us that.

Milestones are advance warning signs that a project may not turn out well. Milestones give us time to renegotiate our commitments while our stakeholders still have time to adjust. In my experience as a project manager, people are usually reasonable when they know of a problem in advance. They are less reasonable when they find out today that we don’t have something they expected to get yesterday. Some of our work is speculative; we guess, in advance, how long a task will take. Sometimes those guesses are wrong. Maybe our stakeholders can do without a piece of the work. Maybe we misunderstood their deadline. Maybe they’re happier with a blue one on time than a green one that is late. But, we only find out by having the conversation. Milestones help us do that earlier.

Planning is challenging and can be painful. But, good planning produces time boxes and milestones. These parameters help us face reality, rather than living in an imaginary, but happy, world of false bravado and superheros who can overcome any constraint. They parameters help us keep our time under control and give us the best chance to make our stakeholders happy. Planning is imperfect, but, when it comes to executing our work, an imperfect view of reality beats a 20/20 view of a fantasy every time. So, overcome the pain and challenges and plan your work.

Question: What is your biggest pain point when keeping on track with your daily and weekly planning sessions? How much does it interfere with creating the habit?

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Related posts
Getting Knowledge Work to Done
May 6, 2017
Time According to Drucker’s Watch
November 19, 2016
Were You Trained as a Knowledge Worker?
October 1, 2016

How Productivity Training Is Being Done Poorly – A Pair of Articles

In a pair of posts on HBR, Maura Thomas discusses problems with training on time management and personal productivity. She finds that training people only to prioritize incoming tasks results in scattered attention and, overall, lower productivity. Instead, she advocates training for attention management. I agree, based on my experiences with clients, and sincerely hope this sounds familiar to those of you who consistently read my blog.

She finds here that productivity skills training should, but doesn’t normally, center around three components:

  1. Clarifying role-level priorities rather than task-level priorities (look for an upcoming blog post on roles vs. tasks)
  2. Training for attention management instead of “time” management
  3. Implementing a comprehensive workflow management system (and here)

She also notes here that, when adopting a new productivity system, people often start well, but fail to change their habits in the long term. She finds three underlying causes of this failure:

  1. Her clients are convinced that some old habits are necessary, despite the overall inefficiency of the old system. New habits, like single-tasking vs. multitasking, are logical and make sense, but our old habits and beliefs are hard to change.
  2. The local environment doesn’t support the necessary changes. We resist making the environmental changes necessary to support the new habit, primarily because we don’t understand the power of the environment on our behaviors. (Note: Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit is helpful to address this and the previous bullet.)
  3. They overthink the new system, making it too complex. Since the system is too complex and difficult, they revert to old (easier) habits under stress.

The core idea is that changing habits and workflow systems is hard work. We have to use our best tactics: small, incremental changes over time, remembering to make time for the overhead of using the new habit/system, and patience with ourselves when we mess up and fall back to the old system. David Allen says that it takes at least two months of diligent effort to achieve the “clarity” that results from application of GTD.

So, we have two issues:

We need to focus on the right things – roles and attention. I hope you see that focus in my posts.

We need perseverance and accountability for developing our new habits. The best way to do that is to get a coach or an accountability partner. If you’d like to discuss coaching, contact me. Otherwise, talk with some people who have your same desire to improve. Share this site with them. Start getting together at least once a week. Discuss how you’re each doing on adopting your new habits. Share your story in the comments.

Question: How have you been trained, or have trained yourself, in time management and personal productivity?

Leave a comment
Related posts
Time According to Drucker’s Watch
November 19, 2016
6 Reasons Planning Is a Pain (and Why You Should Do It Anyway)
November 9, 2016
Summary of “Learning to Learn” (HBR)
July 22, 2016
Books, Productivity

Deep Work by Cal Newport

qtq80-VjzbQmI have followed Cal Newport for several years now. He earned a Ph.D. in computer science at MIT and is now a tenured professor at Georgetown. He was doing his doctoral work at the same time I was and seemed to have good advice on how to go about earning a degree without going completely insane. He has since published a pair of great books: So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. I’ll post on So Good later, but my thinking about attention management is closely tied to his notion of deep work, so I wanted to cover the topic and the book for my readers’ reference.

Deep Work explains one way in which work is changing. With the rise of knowledge work, Newport sees a division of labor among knowledge workers. Much of knowledge work is what he calls shallow work. Shallow work is the administrative side of knowledge work, including managing email and other communication, organizing, editing, and non-directed surfing on the internet.

In contrast, deep work is the work knowledge workers produce when they are at their best. This is the demanding problem solving, strategizing, proving-new-things kind of work that produces value. It is valuable in the economy because it is hard to replicate and to the worker because it improves the worker’s skills. Deep work occurs in relatively isolated extended chunks of time. We work to get our heads around the entire problem, chapter, or situation and, when we finally do, make progress on the really difficult part of our work. It is the kind of work that, if interrupted, takes a significant amount of time to restart because we have to regain the mental state that was lost due to the interruption.

Newport argues that, in order to produce value, we need to spend more time in deep work.

The problem is that social and technological forces move us toward shallow work. Three prevailing, but questionable, ideas push us toward shallow work: We can multitask and still produce our best work (we can’t). We have to be available for communication at all times (probably not). Social sites and most of the internet produce valuable information (they don’t usually). Newport acknowledges that exceptions exist, but generally argues that these three ideas are not true. Finally, he notes another force toward shallow work – our brains favor shallow work because it is cognitively easier, requiring less mental effort and concentration.

Newport argues that deep work is valuable, increasingly rare, and more meaningful than shallow work.

The value of deep work is based on two of its properties: it allows us to quickly master hard things and it allows us to produce more output of higher quality. It is increasingly important to do these things as we face cognitive computing and the automation of manual and some craft work.

The rarity of deep work is based on cultural arguments. 1) Workplaces are trending toward open offices, instant messaging use, and increased insistence on social media presence, each of which hampers deep work efforts. 2) Particularly in large organizations, it is difficult to directly measure the contribution of deep work; this supports the cult of busyness, in which visible, but shallow, contributions are often rewarded. 3) The cult of the internet believes that something is irrelevant if it is not visible.

In support of the meaningfulness of deep work, Newport makes three different arguments, backed by research.

  1. Neurology – Managing our attention through engaging in deep work keeps us focused away from the traps (e.g. the comparison trap) that tend to make us discontent.
  2. Psychology – Our minds prefer to be engaged in deep work; we like to be challenged and get bored quickly with routine tasks and what currently passes for leisure.
  3. Philosophy – Deep work promotes a sense of craftsmanship (the technical version is elegance) which endows our work with meaning far beyond simply earning money.

Newport finds that, in order to engage in deep work, we need to be in relatively distraction free environments. He cites many examples of authors, academics, and scientists who produced world-changing work, in part, because they removed themselves from distraction rich environments. In part 2, Newport lays out four rules that help us determine what is deep work in our context and help us focus on it. This is the point where my work connects to his – attention management. Much of part 2 relates to thinking on this site.

Rule 1 covers methods of entering into deep work periods. We need to defend our attention while we are trying to work deeply.

Rule 2 shows ways that we can improve our deep work stamina. We need to train ourselves to focus and concentrate, particularly since if we have been engaging in shallow work for years.

Rule 3 is about our communication tools. We need to be more selective about what we engage with on the internet through recognizing that not all tools are of equal value.

Rule 4 considers removing shallow work. We need to identify shallow work in our lives and work to eliminate it; Newport gives a couple dozen tips and practices to try in our work lives.

The book concludes with a short description of how development and application of deep work principles have fueled Newport’s quite successful academic career to date. That evidence alone should be sufficient motivation to bring some deep work into our lives.

Cal continues to elaborate on these ideas on his blog. In addition, Brett McKay interviewed Cal on the Art of Manliness podcast, here.

Related posts
Getting Knowledge Work to Done
May 6, 2017
Time According to Drucker’s Watch
November 19, 2016
6 Reasons Planning Is a Pain (and Why You Should Do It Anyway)
November 9, 2016