Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Customizing Time Management with MyTimeDesign

by Andre · 3 Comments

Time ManagementAs I’ve probably said too many times, I view time management as a subset of productivity rather than being synonymous with it. People seem to have a much harder time defining specifically what action step needs to be taken next to carry a project forward than defining when to start it or how long it will take — what precedes when.

For others, “time management” is a perfectly usable term for personal productivity. In a recent blog post, management consultant Francis Wade described his approach to the subject as “Time Management 2.0,” based on the Web 2.0 concept of web services being “shaped partially or entirely by the users.”

Francis’ goal has been to share a set of best practices that would enable users to roll their own time management systems. He’s distilled these best practices down to a few overarching principles that comprise a framework he refers to as MyTimeDesign, which I’ll abbreviate as MTD. His 2Time Management System blog has been advocating this personalized productivity approach for some time now (a free e-book on the principles is available from the links above).

Framework of the framework

Wade’s initiation with time management came during his engineering studies at Cornell University. After a few years of operations research at firms in the US, he moved to Kingston, Jamaica, and found that working on “Jamaica time” required more robust, less rigid approach than traditional time management systems.

I went in search of help… anyone who could tell me how to design a time management system that could work for ME in my new situation. When I couldn’t find anything but ” follow my example” books and seminars that said “copy me,” I went ahead and started building my own.

MyTimeDesign (full disclosure: I’m an affiliate) is a 3-month e-course delivered in 12 weekly lessons. The first six weeks comprise the “Essentials” and the latter six weeks make up the “Advanced” unit. I’ve summarized my take on each of the lessons, comparing MTD terminology to its rough equivalents in GTD, which will probably be more familiar to T4T readers (T4T . . . hmm, maybe I should roll my own system!). Each of the emailed lessons contains a link to download an audio version of the text.

Lesson 1: An Introduction. In MTD, the fundamental element that needs to be managed is a time demand, which is “anything that your mind decides is important, and deserves an expenditure of energy, time and effort.” In GTD this would be considered an open loop. Wade doesn’t seem to share David Allen’s fondness for techno-language. Depending on your disposition, that might make things less seductive more more accessible. But there are parallels throughout, such as the martial arts belt system for gauging one’s advancement in the program and peace of mind for mind like water. Nonetheless, there are philosophical differences between the two systems, which will become clear later.

Lesson 2: Capturing. There’s almost no difference between MTD and GTD in this regard. As you would expect, capturing a time demand means write it down. The only difference I could detect is a subtle one: GTD is pretty agnostic about what you use to capture things on — a junior legal pad, a Post-It, the back of an envelope — as long as it all goes in your in-basket. MTD recommends standardizing your “capture points” rather than using whatever happens to be available.

Lesson 3: Emptying and Tossing. I prefer these more graphic terms to what in GTD parlance is called processing, which doesn’t emphasize getting rid of the rough input after determining what to do with it. Emptying is processing — taking what you’ve captured, defining the task implicit in it, and entering it into your organizer. Wade recommends using electronic organizers, like MS Outlook, over less agile paper-based systems.Tossing is eliminating captured items that you’ve determined require no further action or attention.

Lesson 4: Storing and Acting Now. In MTD, emptying and storing have the same relationship that processing and organizing have in GTD. You take what you’ve captured and empty it into your storage system, which is calendar-based. This has more in common with time management canon than GTD (there are no context lists, for instance). Acting Now is immediately performing any task that takes under five minutes instead of storing it.

Lesson 5: Scheduling and Listing. As mentioned above, MTD is a calendar-based system, so it’s highly recommended that tasks be scheduled rather than placed on a time-agnostic action list. Listing has a subordinate, two-part role to play. Lists should be used for batched tasks (a meeting agenda, a series of phone calls) or for checklists (a shopping list, things to bring along when traveling). According to Wade, unscheduled to do lists don’t work, in part because “they don’t take into account the length of time that a time demand must occupy in order to be completed.  For professionals who must work with deadlines a to-do list is of little help in organizing future actions when time is of the essence.” This is a core belief in time management, which is why I don’t use the term. Moreover, the user of to do lists “often makes the mistake of combining the activities of Listing  and Capturing in the same place.”

Lesson 6: Changing Habits I. A recap and a plan of action for practicing the previous fundamentals. A Practice Tracking Template is provided for recording your progress with each habit according to the belt system. Wade offers some detailed advice for breaking these fundamentals down into actionable “micro-habits” to prevent the framework from becoming too abstract.

Lesson 7: Interrupting. You might think that this refers to preventing interruptions by firewalling your attention. He actually means the opposite. Since this is the first advanced lesson, interrupting is intended to prevent high-focus workers from getting carried away with their immersion in a task, whether it’s writing software or watching television. It’s not uncommon to inadvertently skip an important commitment by being “in the zone,” so set your alarm to delimit your “flow” before it becomes counterproductive.

Lesson 8: Switching and Warning. Switching doesn’t refer to a technique so much as the degree of mindfulness a person brings to moving on to the next task after completing the previous one. Since there’s usually a feeling of relief after completing a task, it’s tempting to become lackadaisical when choosing the next task to address. Warning refers to setting performance flags to indicate that one’s time management systems needs review and correction. For instance, if a paper capture point had more than a certain number of unemptied items, it would be time to work on emptying with more discipline.

Lesson 9: Reviewing and the Zero Inbox. MTD recommends two types of regular reviews: Content Reviews and System Reviews. Content Reviews are for tracking and updating time demands. Scheduled reviews are advocated, though there’s no “weekly review” per GTD; content reviews might take place once a day or several times a day. System Reviews are, as implied, reviews of the components that make up your particular implementation of the system: which organizer to use, how frequently Content Reviews should take place, productivity experiments to try, and so on. The Zero Inbox, of course, a pillar of any modern productivity system, and Wade offers his advice for keeping your inbox free of clutter.

Lesson 10: Tools and Dashboards. Wade takes a look at four storing solutions: PDAs, Outlook, a hybrid of the two, and paper planners. The hybrid solution is his preferred approach, and the lesson includes a short but informative video illustrating how to best configure Outlook for scheduling and listing.

Lesson 11: Changing Habits II: A recap of the advanced lessons, including a different Habit Tracker. Since time management almost necessarily has to be practiced on the job, remembering to apply the fundamentals regularly in the face of crises and interruptions can be difficult, so Wade offers some strategies and suggestions for staying on point. It should be pointed out that in addition to the lesson materials, the program includes a lifetime membership to an accompanying forum, where Wade answers student questions during the week.

Lesson 12: Pulling It All Together. This is a recap of the whole program, with a more comprehesive Tracking Template and further suggestions for implementing and customizing the system. As mentioned, MTD is intended to be a framework for designing your own system, not simply a replacement for an established one like GTD or FranklinCovey Time Management.

Some final thoughts

I’d recommend MyTimeDesign for anyone who finds GTD problematic or too complex. MTD makes no distinction between projects and individual actions. Most tasks are put into one area — the calendar — as opposed to organizing action lists by physical contexts. Like other time management systems, you don’t have to spend a full weekend setting up the system (for the uninitiated: GTD requires collecting anything in your home or office that has your attention and “processing” it into your system while you’re setting it up). It advocates digital storage over paper-based filing. Like Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done, MTD appeals to those who are sympathetic to GTD, but prefer a more simplified approach.

I personally prefer a system that captures and tracks everything — from what’s in your existing environment (what get processed during that weekend GTD setup) to physical paperwork. My biggest disagreement with MTD is the calendar-based approach to organizing tasks that aren’t time-dependent except in length.

Scheduling, in my experience, is most practical when it’s used for coordinating your activities with other people: either blocking out time to make yourself available to others, or blocking out time to make yourself unavailable to others. I find that when people schedule untimed activities, they pace them to fill the time allotted, or allot more time than necessary as slack. One time management system, Mission Control, advocates slating 50-100 percent more time than deemed necessary to complete a task. There’s also a cascading effect when two or more blocked-out tasks fall behind schedule.

Having said that, I realize that the vast majority of people out there use calendars rather than lists as their primary organizing tool (compare the number of calendar pages in a Day Runner to the number of pages for to do lists), so MTD is certainly one of the more accessible systems to get started with.

You can learn more about the program or sign up at Francis’ MyTimeDesign page.

(Photo credit: justin<3sasha)

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Tags: GTD · Productivity


  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Oct 20, 2008 at 11:58 am

    “Having said that, I realize that the vast majority of people out there use calendars rather than lists as their primary organizing tool” – it’s good to know that I’m not the only rebel. :)

  • Francis WadeNo Gravatar // Oct 21, 2008 at 6:46 am

    Andre — your summary was impeccable!

    I actually learned a few things from reading it myself — it’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone else describe MyTimeDesign and my mind immediately went to all the things I’d like to improve within it!

    However, I think I am satisfied when anyone creates their own time management system, and relates to MyTimeDesign as a possible aid, but hardly the be-all-and-end-all.

    When I travel the time management websites I see more people taking charge of their systems. I like it when, instead of trying to follow someone else’s system, they move their focus back to themselves and their own needs, trusting in their ability to put together a sound design that works.

    Thanks Andre — (And I am in awe at your great writing!)

  • Paul RasmussenNo Gravatar // Nov 22, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    For actual time management, I find that outlook + a blackberry works the best, outlook is a single tool that can manage all of your workload in the one single place, all of your scheduling, tasks, and information in one place. When it is sync’ed with a blackberry you can have all of your information available to you when you are mobile as well, with the advantage of effective mobile email. For more on using outlook as a management tool see my blog,