Why Your System Doesn't Work... For You... If It Doesn't

[DrGern is in reality one John McCarthy, with a Ph.D. in Social/Personality Psychology. Besides writing a book on The Psychology of Time Management, he is also a technology policy analyst for New York State Legislature and a student success coach through CampusCoach.com. --DJ]

One of the most important realizations I've had as a father is how different human beings can be. Sure, my training as a psychologist gave me the theoretical and practical underpinnings for that concept, and, frankly, my wife seems to be my polar opposite in terms of effortless effectiveness, a Superman to my Clark Kent. But until you become responsible for molding another person's behavior, you don't realize how incredible it is to have one method work for one person and be counterproductive for the next.

Human beings are different. The situations they find themselves in are different. The behaviors that work in one situation for one person, may not for the next. These elements of your personality and situation interact with the time management system you use to make it more or less effective, so they become an important part in deciding what to use and how.

Your Personality

There are two sides of your personality that need to be dealt with when setting up a time management system, who you are and how you relate to the world. Who you are is about what you should be doing with your life. Some people are artists, some accountants, and some police officers. If you've discovered who you are, count yourself lucky. Many people are too afraid to find out who they are or may have been told they are someone else and they believed it.

Your system needs to help you become who you are, by providing you with a space to explore the clues you give yourself. Steven Covey's method for this is through the prioritization of values and roles, and through the creation of a mission statement. As far as I've seen, his is the best mainstream method that integrates this activity into a time management system, and the more you carry around and use your system to explore, the better.

The other aspect of your personality I'll refer to as temperament, because it relates to how you interact with the world.

Perhaps some of the most relevant temperament research on how people use their time has been done on Time Perspective (TP). What this research shows is how different we can be with how we actually think about the full plate in front of us. The lucky among us think of the future and what will be if we just perform the right steps. Less lucky are those that think only of the present, either pessimistically or with an eye directed only at our pleasure.

This, again, is where your time management system needs to kick in. For those especially who have less of a future focus, that focus needs to be put in place as a scaffold. What your system needs to do is make you more able to fake that perspective if you don't have it. When you force yourself to act as a productive person does, planning the time in front of you and seeing the accomplishments you are capable of and acting on them, a funny thing happens. You start to become productive yourself.

The Situation

There is an interesting, almost universal human trait that is termed the Fundamental Attribution Error by psychologists. When we describe why we behaved a certain way in a certain situation we lay the blame on the characteristics of the situation. I was driving fast, because I was late. On the other hand, when we describe someone else's rapid driving, we tend to blame his or her disposition as an irresponsible lunatic.

What is important here is that you recognize the power the situation has on your behavior, even when it appears not to be asserting any strong pressure. Your planning system, on this side of the equation, is your attempt to control the pressures of your situation on your behavior. To paraphrase David Allen, your system needs to match the complexity needs of your life.

For example, a student's schedule during the week changes very little. A class schedule combined with a monthly view calendar for important deadlines is often adequate. However, an executive with a barrage of meetings and a laundry list of unrelated tasks is more likely to need a detailed daily calendar with a context specific task list.

When a mismatch occurs, you have problems. A detailed, daily view calendar for someone with few scheduled events will cause the person to lose interest in checking it. There's no reward in the constant reminder that you have nowhere specific to be today. As a result, you'll stop checking it a few days before something important happens, and you'll miss it. A monthly view calendar for someone with six appointments a day is obviously also a problem in that it becomes difficult to manage. Tools that are difficult to use are not used well.

What We All Have in Common

But why is that? Why is it so important to have a tool that so compatible with your situation? The reason comes from a very simple point about human cognition. We are lazy when it comes to thinking. The less we have to think, the more shortcuts we can use to survive, the more likely we are to survive. Survival is good.

Aside from the crazed lunatics, or as some call them, morning people, out there, most people instinctively attempt to conserve energy, both mental and physical, for the occasional sabre-tooth tiger attack which so rarely occurs anymore. If it did, those of us waiting for it would be much more likely to survive, although we'd still have full in-boxes.

Accepting the idea that we prefer to keep our mental gas tank as full as possible by thinking well under the speed limit, how do we rev the engine of personal productivity? The answer comes from the sabre-tooth tiger attack.

Sabre-Tooth Tigers?

When a sabre-tooth tiger attacks you, a part of your brain thinks, "It would probably be an advisable course of action to vacate the immediate premises in favor of an area with a substantially decreased number of mammals with a direct inclination to consume my hind quarters." Don't listen to that part of your brain, because that would take too long. Instead, listen to the part that says, "RUN!"

Urgent situations affect us in a particular way that non-urgent situations do not. In essence, they capture our attention automatically, and they hold it until they are resolved in one way or another. Attention, mark my words, is the key to all productivity.

Some examples:

  • In driver's ed., you are told not to focus on the white line (by the side of the road), because that will cause you to drift.

  • When swinging a golf club, you'll have a much better shot if you keep your eyes on the ball.

  • And, of course, if someone is talking to you, and you don't listen, you won't know what they said.

To put it even more simply, we can only accomplish what we work on, and we can only work on what we pay attention to.

Can We Wrap This Up? I've Got Some Spreadsheets to Deal With

What this all boils down to is one question. Does your system create a context dependent productivity scaffold that funnels your attention to actions that are derived from an inviting white board where you can explore where you want your future to go?

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So true

I agree that it's very easy to follow what others do or do what an expert advises without considering if it's the right thing to do.

In my case, it took me many years of getting lost in micro-planning before I realised that I was planning rather than doing. It wasn't much use for me to have a intricate system that told me that I'd missed all my deadlines because I was too busy fiddling with the intricate system. The planning was just too much fun and doing the job I was paid to do wasn't as much fun.

So now I'm a "planner-lite". Everything about my system is as minimalistic as possible. Items are recorded once in a weekly to-do list in my little moleskine diary, while appointments are a print-out from my office Outlook account.

I don't use GTD (or in my case 'spend the day getting nothing done' but making a lot of lists, then colour coding the lists, then rewriting the lists on better paper, then....). Even though I would like to use GTD at times.

For me it is certainly a case of personality first, planning style second.