Archive | Time Management

Using “Small Moves” as Leading Indicators

In recent years, I’ve incorporated ideas from The Twelve Week Year (by Brian Moran) into my routines, and found them very  helpful.

My top takeaway from this book is the idea of setting quarterly goals rather than annual or monthly goals. When you set goals you intend to accomplish in 12 weeks, every week matters. It’s easier to stay focused on them and get them done. The 13th week of the quarter is used for reflection and planning.

The second crucial takeaway from this book is the idea of setting “leading” indicators.

When you set a goal, you also need to set metrics to tell whether you are on track for completing it. For example, I’m writing a book, and a standard metric would be pages written in a day, or chapters written in a month.

The problem with most metrics is that they are “lagging” indicators. They are backward looking. They tell you what happened in the past. If you don’t get the number of pages written in the time allotted, you know you failed. The poor performance on the metric just makes that explicit.

What is needed to keep on track is leading indicators. These are metrics that predict whether or not you will succeed.

So, for example, for working on the book, that might be hours spent during the week writing. If all that is needed to finish the book is to put in sufficient hours, then hours will predict your eventual success on the book.

If you get low scores on leading indicators, you know you haven’t been putting in the effort where it needs to go.

On the other hand, if you get high scores on your leading indicators, but you don’t actually accomplish the goals on schedule, it turns out that you don’t actually know what exactly is needed to achieve the goal.

For example, I learned that I need about twice as much time writing during the week to make the kind of progress on the book that I want to make (About 20 hours a week rather than 12.)

The trick is to figure out the leading indicators that in fact predict success. After having used the “12-week year” method for about six months, I can tell you that it’s not so easy. Time on task is not always a good leading indicator!

What’s helped me to set “leading indicators” better is the ideas from Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold. Her book is on habit change. Her thesis is that you should change habits by finding the small action to focus on that will make it easy to change a whole pattern. So, for example, to get more organized, she set up a routine of always putting the keys in exactly one place. That anchored many other small actions, making her whole day smoother. By focusing on crucial small actions, she was able to make significant changes in her routines.

I applied this idea to my productivity. My “lagging” indicator for productivity is the number of “pomodoros” (concentrated 25-minute segments) that I work each week.

Sometimes I do well, sometimes not so much. Looking it over, I decided that the biggest problem was that when I was tired or having trouble, my breaks would drag on too long. I would slip  down a slope of reading “one more page” in the newspaper, or watching “one more show” on TV, or reading “one more chapter” in a novel.

Since I am also trying to root out the duty premise, forcing myself to go back to work was not an option. At these moments, I was not willing to end the break. But I needed some way to change the dynamic of the break.

I came up with a simple change. Before I read any page of the newspaper, or watch any show, or read any chapter in a novel, I first read at least one paragraph of Ayn Rand. Then when I get to the end of the page or chapter or program, I need to read another paragraph of Ayn Rand to continue.

Reading Ayn Rand is also a break–but a more intellectually stimulating one.

If I’m tired, one paragraph is about all I’m good for, and I usually realize I need a nap, not a pleasure break. That’s a much more effective use of time.

Usually I read a lot more than one paragraph of Ayn Rand. Sometimes that becomes my entire break, and I go back to work. Sometimes I take the pleasure break when I finish, but it has a different quality. I’m more energized for it, and it’s always shorter. I never get into the vicious cycle of “not feeling like” getting back to work.

Now, my leading indicator for productivity is: do I read at least one paragraph of Ayn Rand before any of these three “break” activities? This turns out to be an excellent predictor of my actual work.

This particular intervention works for me, but it is idiosyncratic. It’s just an example a small concrete action I took to take to change a pattern.

The moral of the story is: if you are not achieving a goal on the time scale you have set, trace back to find the pattern of failure. See if you can find some small action to break that pattern. Then turn that new action into a metric–a leading indicator of whether you will achieve your goal on schedule.


July 11, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Admit You Have No Plan

In a one-on-one coaching call a few months ago, Roger (not his real name) reported that he was being pulled off course into doing unimportant work. I asked him if he was taking a few minutes to plan the day in the morning.

We had previously discussed how to plan the day in 10 minutes. First you identify the top 3 things you need to finish today. Then you look at your calendar and see how to fit them in. If they don’t fit in, you need to change your expectations or change your plan.

For example, this morning I realized I was tight on time for some urgent work, so I arranged to walk during a phone appointment to squeeze my exercise in, and I postponed a routine check-in with an assistant to a less busy day. I also gave up on getting a particular item done today.

When I asked Roger whether he was planning the day, he became thoughtful. He said he’d found planning the day very useful, but he hadn’t been doing it recently. Why not? Probably because his top priorities were not so clear. Likely, this made planning the day a little off-putting, so he was tempted to jump into clearing email or the like. Once distracted, he never got around to prioritizing and planning.

This is a great example of a difficulty holding context. As soon as we discussed the situation, Roger was convinced that planning the day would solve his problem. He was sure he could figure out his priorities if he tried. He just needed some way to make sure he remembered how important it was to do it. He needed to keep that value context activated.

Here’s a great way to do that: Mark off a part of the whiteboard near your desk for the plan for the day. Put the date at the top, and the plan below. On any day, as soon as you notice that the information is out of date, erase it, write the new date, and “No Plan.” Like this:

No Plan

Alan Lakein says, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” If you know how helpful daily planning is, seeing “No Plan” on that whiteboard puts you in instant conflict. It reminds  you that  you haven’t identified how to achieve your top priorities today.

Roger and I both implemented this idea. Here’s how my plan evolved Monday:

Monday - No Plan

Monday - No Plan

Notice I didn’t plan the day first thing. I prepared a Thinking Lab class instead. I know that when the muse is with me, it’s better to do concentrated thinking. If I look at my to-do list too early, I destroy the creative process.

Jumping into creative work sometimes led me to forget to plan my day. Now that my whiteboard says “No Plan,” it doesn’t.

As an aside, notice that on this day, my initial beliefs about my priorities were all wrong. When I took 10 minutes to plan the day, I figured out what they really were.

If you don’t plan the day as often as you wish, I highly recommend this strategy. You can buy a little 8×10″ whiteboard to prop up on your desk. It will give you a visual reminder of how important it is to plan your day.

The key that makes the whole thing work? When first you see it’s out of date, erase yesterday’s material, write today’s date, and admit you have no plan.

July 6, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Real Value of Small Steps

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The importance of taking small steps is well known. It’s the most likely advice you’ll get if you’re bogging down on something. “Try taking a small step.”

And yet, I have often found this advice unhelpful. I’m sure that is partly because I break down tasks into smaller steps all the time–almost automatically–so I don’t normally need to be reminded about this.

But when I have bogged down or gotten stuck–and did need some advice–smaller steps themselves rarely seemed to help.

For example, in the past I’ve tried to take a “smaller step” in writing and had it backfire. I recall one time I was having trouble getting my head around a chapter, so I decided to review some notes from previous days. Though this seemed like a very small step, somehow it was not a good next step, and my head was spinning after 15 minutes. I needed to take a nap to recover normal mental functioning after that allegedly “small step.”

Moreover, I’ve often found that small steps didn’t help me when the task was not motivating. When you resist doing some unpleasant task you think you “should” be doing, a small step is supposed to get you “over the hump” so you’ll do the unpleasant task. But I would see this as manipulative–which made me resist taking the small step!

In these kinds of cases, even if you carve out small steps, you wind up slogging forward, forcing yourself to pick up one foot after another. That is the kind of struggle and strain that I am opposed to on principle.

But on the other hand, there is something very important about taking small steps, and I think I finally understand the true reason why small steps can help you when work is bogging down–and why it didn’t help in those cases.

Small steps reinforce your freedom of choice–if you are only committing to the small step. Once you’ve taken it, you get to choose freely again whether you will continue or not. No harm, no foul if you don’t.

Here’s a simple example of what I mean. A male friend of mine doesn’t like to shave. But every day, when he confronts the choice to shave, and doesn’t want to, he asks himself if he’d be willing to just do a quick electric shave for 20 seconds so he doesn’t look unkempt. More than 99% of the time, he is willing to do that. Usually, at 20 seconds, he wants to spend a little more time finishing off his shave. But he knows he is free to stop, and perhaps 3% of the time, he does stop. In this way, he has a good shave almost every day, without ever forcing himself to do something he doesn’t want to do. Even though he doesn’t like shaving.

Here’s a more complicated example. I mentioned I had had some problems with writer’s block recently. I had deep resistance to writing newsletters. I dealt with it by giving myself total freedom of choice.

I realized that I couldn’t diagnose the problem unless I tried to write an article. I had 10 possible article topics, all of which I felt blocked on. I decided to pick one and start working on it, to help me understand the obstacle.

But because I was afraid I would force myself to write the article, I had to promise myself that I was only doing the work to figure out what the conflict was. I did not actually have to write the article.

Over two days, I spent 4 1/2 hours of concentrated time working on that article. Every time I felt strain, I switched from my writing notebook to my journal. And after figuring out the immediate problem, I didn’t want to go back to writing. So, I promised myself, again, that I was just doing this to understand the block. I did not have to finish the article.

With this method, I was able to work steadily, willingly, on something I was willing to do (figure out the source of the block) without doing what I was not willing to do (write the article). I did figure out the source of the block, and the next day I wrote an article on a completely different topic using what I’d learned. (I never did finish that test article, and probably never will.)

This advice complements the microresolution literature. (See Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold.) For example, I have recently made a microresolution that I will turn on an exercise DVD every morning. I am not making a commitment to exercise every morning, just turn on an exercise DVD, knowing that I can then choose freely to exercise or not. Likely, I will.

Small steps like these are the means of helping you retain your sense of ownership and control of the task when it is not going well. They permit you to choose freely to challenge conflict as you go, rather than force yourself through the conflict.

As a result, you can use small steps to do unpleasant tasks without feeling like you’re making yourself do them–and without manipulating yourself.

A small, small step in a good direction–with no commitment beyond it–can help you out of inertia. A small step loaded with good intentions for the future will not.

This is a deep change in perspective for me. For years, I have been looking for some method that will guarantee I follow through in the future on an intention I set now. But that is on a mistaken premise. That is taking habit as the model for action.

It is true that when an activity becomes highly automatized (habitual), you need only initiate the first step, and the later steps follow unthinkingly. This is how you can shower and dress in 11 minutes flat, or deal cards while carrying on a conversation, or mow the grass with the same route every time.

But most productive activities (such as writing) require significant volitional control. You cannot succeed on autopilot.

And volition only controls this moment. You can choose only now, so you can choose only your next step.

And when you acknowledge that–when you allow that you can stop shaving, or stop writing, or stop exercising should you so choose–you eliminate all of the artificial conflict created by “duties” and “shoulds” and “musts.” You replace them with a sense of freedom and control over your own actions.

That–the reaffirmation of your own agency–is the motivational value of small steps.


July 4, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Getting Distracted? Try a Time Log

Many time-management books recommend you do a detailed “time log” to find out how you really use your time. They recommend you keep a record of every activity, with 15-minute precision.

These have always struck me as a little compulsive, without much obvious benefit. I thought keeping track of my activity with that much detail would really bog me down. So, I’ve resisted doing them.

But a book I read (The One-Life Solution by Henry Cloud) persuaded me to try one for a few days. I didn’t learn too much new about where I spent my time. But much to my surprise, I learned that a time log can boost productivity.

For example, at the time I wrote in 2.5 hour blocks. Because I was being meticulous to note interruptions (to eat or play with the cats), I also noticed how far I was through my time block. One day I noticed I had only 30 minutes left, and I wasn’t close to finishing what I needed to do. Another time, I would have been caught by surprise and I probably would have messed up the day’s schedule. But because I was monitoring the time, I noticed the problem while it was brewing, so  I was able to do a few minutes of “thinking on paper” about how to best use the remaining 30 minutes. No problem! The day went as planned.

In another case, I noticed that I did a few 5-minute side activities in a row, when I was supposed to be starting a new task. I did a couple of minutes of “thinking on paper” about how to get started, and was able to dig into the new task with no more foot-dragging. The transition was quicker and easier than usual.

Just by doing a time log, I became more aware of distractions and floundering while they were occurring. When I notice a problem, I am motivated to fix it. So, doing a time log actually helped me be more productive.

Here’s how I did it (so it wasn’t too intrusive): I kept a pad of paper with me, and every time I changed activities I updated it. I wrote down the new time on a fresh line, and wrote in (or corrected) what I had been doing in the previous chunk of time.

I had to correct it sometimes, because I would write down what I intended to do. It turns out I didn’t always follow my intentions immediately. I would finish feeding the cats, and mark the time “8:30: Start writing,” but then I’d realize I needed to do one other chore before starting writing. That was eye-opening, too.

So, I do not recommend doing a time log to find out where you spend your time. Doing a time log changes how you spend your time.

Instead, I recommend doing a time log to help you monitor your time as a special review. Done only occasionally, this can help you find the holes in your productivity and renew your focus on getting things done.



September 10, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Align Strategic Decisions with Long-Term Priorities

Marcia Yudkin is a veritable sage who has taught me many things about marketing and writing. She’s given me permission to share this article from her “Marketing Minute” which concretizes the need to align strategic decisions with your long-term priorities. Mr. South does not see the implications of his choices.

In “The Millionaire Next Door,” Thomas Stanley and William
Danko contrast wastrel “Dr. South,” who spent more than 60
hours to get the best deal on a $65,000 Porsche, and frugal
“Dr. North,” who spent just a few hours six years ago to buy
a three-year-old Mercedes for $35,000. “Dr. North” spends
30 hours a month on his investments, compared to four hours
a month for “Dr. South.”

Although both men earn roughly the same as medical
specialists, the Norths have a net worth more than 18 times
that of the Souths. Such is the impact of strategic

In marketing, what do you spend your time and resources on?
Like “Dr. South,” are you researching and bargaining hard
on expenses that feed your ego and make you look impressive?
Or like “Dr. North,” do you focus more on your long-term

To be a quietly well-heeled “Dr. North” in marketing, make
sure you are serving customers who can and will stick with you,
and that you’re doing your utmost to keep them happy.

Marcia Yudkin is the author of 6 Steps to Free Publicity, Marketing for Introverts and many other books and ebooks. She helps entrepreneurs and business owners attract ideal clients, turn their knowledge into products and earn what they deserve. Sign up for her free weekly ezine, the Marketing Minute, at



July 16, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Avoiding Setbacks When You Add a Weekly Commitment

When you are on a program of continuous improvement, you are often adding  some new activity to your weekly schedule, or improving the existing one. But by continually raising the bar you create a hazard: the increased potential for failure!

Here are a few things that can help you add a weekly commitment without so many setbacks.

1) Before you add a new activity to your life, make sure it’s important enough to push out some other activity.

This is true even if you’re just adding 15 minutes a day for journaling (an excellent activity to add). It is rather hard to make 15 minutes consistently. You already have morning, noon, and evening routines, which are timed to get you to work or home or sleep on schedule. You will need to cut out something: maybe reading the paper, or maybe late-night TV or surfing the web, or maybe a leisurely meal.

If there is nothing you would remove to make space for the new activity, it’s better not to commit. The new activity is not important enough for you.

2) Plan it for a suitable time block.

All times are not created equal. You will have more energy at some times, less at others.

If you’re adding recreation—maybe you want to see more movies—you can probably schedule it for an evening when you’re less energetic. But if you’re trying to start a business on the side, you will need some high-energy time for it—most likely in the early morning, or in the morning on weekends. (Unless you’re a night-owl. Then you might choose go to the matinee, and work on your startup at night.)

3) Set a physical reminder so you don’t forget to follow through.

Routines have inertia. One activity triggers the next. You will need to make a special effort to break the routine. You can’t count on remembering, you need a physical reminder.

One way to do this is to set an alarm. For example, you can set an alarm to go off 30 minutes before your usual bedtime to remind you to plan the next day.

Another way to do this is to create a physical reminder. It could be a note. Or maybe you pack your gym bag and leave it at the foot of your bed the night before, so you remember your intention when you wake up the next morning.

Don’t assume you’ll remember to follow through. If you don’t take proactive steps to remember the new activity, you will forget. The routine run as usual.

4) Plan for contingencies.

Things will go wrong. They always do. The key to following through is to adapt the commitment rather than drop it. And it is much easier to adapt if you’ve thought through various scenarios in advance.

For example, suppose you are running late, and do not have an hour to go to the gym as planned. You have only half an hour. There are a dozen ways to adjust. You could exercise at  home with a video instead. You could cut back the workout at the gym. You could reschedule work so you have the full hour at the gym. The key to creating a new routine is to do something not nothing. Any form of exercise will help reinforce your intention to go to the gym.

Problems are inevitable when you are breaking routines. If you think ahead for what you’ll change, when you’ll change it, how you’ll remember, and what to do when things go wrong, you have a much better chance of success.


June 25, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Evening Review

To keep on track with a workload, you need to review your progress daily. I generally recommend taking 15 minutes in the morning to see what you got done, and what you need to do. However, there is a good case to be made to spend a little more time to review in the evening. I was inspired to do this after reading The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.

The evening is the perfect time to reflect on how the day went. Did you do what I intended to do? If so, what made that possible? If not, why not? How would I plan differently another day?

5-10 minutes of “thinking on paper” on these topics is very valuable, because it helps you figure out how to tinker with your schedule. It’s not always obvious how much time certain work will take. Nor is it obvious how much pleasure some recreational activity will bring. To arrange your days to run happily and productively, your need to review what works and what doesn’t.

This works better at night, when you can focus on looking back. In the morning, that can bog you down, just as you are trying to get geared up for the day. At night, it’s satisfying to take a few minutes to reflect. But there’s little risk of bogging down in reflection when you’re tired and ready to go to sleep!

As an added bonus, you get to sleep on it. So when you get to planning the next day, you have already percolated on any issues from the previous day, and a few ideas will probably have come up for what to do differently today. The bottom line: if you take a few minutes for an evening review, it takes less time the next day to get started, and less total time reviewing and planning. Who’da thunk it?



February 24, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Three Tips for Using Small Time Blocks for an Open-Ended Thinking Task

When you have a big question to think about, don’t wait until you have 2 or 3 hours free to tackle it. There just aren’t enough big blocks of time available to make that a practical strategy. Instead, learn how to Velcro together smaller blocks of  time–say 25 minutes or so–so that together they give you the effectiveness of a longer block.

The key to meshing small time blocks is making good transitions. Start and end your work block with procedures that ensure each bit of work will follow seamlessly from the previous. Then, together, they will add up to the open-ended thinking time you need. Here are the basic tips for making that happen:

1) Keep your notes in one place.

When you return to the issue, you need to look over the work you did last. Where is it? Don’t make this a hard question. Don’t even make it a question at all. Make it trivially easy to find the last work you did, by always keeping “thinking” work in one place.

I follow this advice by keeping all my handwritten notes in one thinking notebook, which is always within reach. The notes were made chronologically, so it’s easy to find past work. I tape loose notes right into the notebook. Other people use a single computer file for their everyday thinking.

Your system may be different, but make sure it’s so simple and easy-to-use that you never have to pause to ask the question, “where are my notes?”

2) Give yourself permission to warm up during the first three minutes

It takes a few minutes to get back into the context. You can’t hurry that process. If you try, you’ll just strain. So, know that you need to take a few minutes to re-read last-time’s notes to activate your mental circuits on this topic.

There are many ways to warm up your mental circuits. Read. Make a list. Do some “thinking on paper.” Once the engine is warmed up, you can put your brain in gear and start doing new work.

3) Take 30 seconds at the end to make notes in full sentences on what’s next

The alarm sounds. The phone rings. A person arrives at your desk. You need to be prepared for these eventualities. Chances are, you will sometimes need to interrupt your thinking before you’re ready to stop.

And that’s wrenching. You’ve just spent 10 minutes–or an hour– warming up your mental circuits and digging into the heart of the issue. If you just stop now, you will have to redo much of that effort to get back to the same place.

Don’t throw that work away! Hold up your hand with a “just wait” sign and take 30 seconds to write some notes to yourself. Sum up. What were you doing? What were you going to do next? What last idea do you want to record to explore next time? Write the answers out in full sentences so you can understand exactly what you meant when you come back later.

The 30 seconds you spend now will save 10 minutes or more when you come back today or tomorrow, by making it much easier (and less painful) to recover the mental context you interrupted.

Are you wishing you had uninterrupted time you don’t have? Take better advantage of the time do you have–by using these three tips.



January 15, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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