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Time Perspective

Business thinking about Time Management needs updating.

Did you know that we all have a preference for the way we think about time? It’s called our Time Perspective, the concept’s been around for 25 years, with tons of top-quality cross cultural and longitudinal research. People who are Future (F) orientated make sacrifices now, that they think will benefit them in the long-term. They have career plans, pension plans, insurance plans. They’re about plans. Present Hedonists (PH) get distracted by immediate gratification. They’re good at being in the moment, and live for today, who knows what tomorrow will bring? Present Fatalists (PF) feel they have little control over their destiny, someone else is in charge of their life plan. Past Positives (PP) have a rosy, nostalgic picture of the past, the good old days. Past Negatives (PN) are, well, negative about their past, and the past in general.

“Every picture tells a story”

These 5 perspectives explain how we go about our daily lives, and how we make our choices about time use throughout the day. They’re fundamental to how we use our time at work, but also to how we do our work. Let’s have a look at the diagram above. How will this character behave at work?

They’re high PH. Reactive, present, personable. Combined with Low F – not so good at making plans or being proactive. Easily distracted by something interesting that grabs their attention, so maybe not a good finisher. Low PF – they believe they’re responsible for their destiny, won’t blame things on “the management” and will manage their own development. Medium PP and low PN – they won’t have much time for the people who remember how Project X went wrong in June 1987, or who like to reminisce about when we were a start-up working out of a garage.

“You’re failing to connect the Past, Present and Future”

Why does this matter? Next time you’re driving through a change management project, and you meet resistance, it just may be because people aren’t buying the future you’re selling. You’re failing to connect the Future with the Past and the Present, and not everyone wants to live there anyway.

“Time Management and Productivity used to be the same thing”

Psychologists have been studying Time ever since psychology became a science, yet what they have discovered mostly stays in the academic world. Business  thinking about time is still rooted in Frederick Taylor’s time and motion studies, where efficiency and productivity are still the declared goals. This worked in the 19th and early 20th century, when factory output was, literally, what counted. Time Management and Productivity used to be the same thing.

Today, most people are adding value by using their knowledge, rather than being part of an industrial process, yet we still use the same words to talk about output. This leaves no room for measuring modern concepts like innovation, problem-solving, creativity, strategic thinking, collaboration and team-working.

People who use their brains for a living, which is most of us, need a better framework for managing their time and measuring their effectiveness than working faster, harder, or longer. That’s not Working any more.

If you would like to find out more about your own Time Perspective, please leave a comment below.


Time Poor? Pack it in.

When you’re time poor, it’s easy to think that you’re being more efficient if you pack as much as possible into those 1440 minutes in a day. Working at 100% capacity has to be efficient, right?

Here’s how stressed people with no time try to make more:

Speeding Up

  • Speak faster. Miss things out.
  • Skip lessons learned briefings
  • Cancel “soft” meetings like 1:1s and reviews

Replacing a long-duration activity with a short one

  • Email instead of phoning or meeting face to face
  • Skimp on background information



Wall to wall scheduling

  • Leaving no gaps between activities
  • Not leaving enough time for any one  activity
  • Scheduling “free time” 
  • Racing from one thing to another

Time and Space are inseparable concepts, ask any physicist. So are No Time and No Space.

Oh, and there’s a fifth one. Looking for quick-fix tips, tricks and apps about time management, hoping they will make you time rich. They’re the Ponzi schemes of the time management industry. You’ll spend your time trying them out, but waste most of it, because only a few will ever work for you.

Do you recognise these behaviours in yourself or members of your team?

Covey's 4 Quadrants

A way to prioritise, if you have time

How do you prioritise when everything seems to fall into the Urgent or Important quadrants of Stephen R Covey’s  model?

I always assume that people have seen this model before, and know how it works. I guess you can think of it as a sorting-hat for tasks. If the tasks are in the top two quadrants, they’re important, and that’s where you should spend most of your time. The bottom two quadrants are for tasks that are not important, but it’s very easy to spend a lot of time there.

This is Whack-a-Mole prioritising

If you’ve ever spent your day being busy, but not feeling like you’ve made any progress on your goals, you’ve been hanging out in the Urgent zone. You’ve been working to meet deadlines and reacting to the thing in front of you – the Boss, a phone call, an email – stuff that didn’t even make it onto your To-Do List for today. This is Whack-a-Mole prioritising.

The truth is, not everything is Urgent, we just don’t get time to stop and think “which box does this really fit in?” – all the moles have to be whacked urgently. No one stops to find out where they’re coming from in the first place. No one stops to think whether we’re in the business of whacking moles either.

Much as I like Covey’s model, in my opinion it doesn’t deal with the systemic problems that teams face – of managers saying stuff in the top right quadrant is strategically important, but their behaviour doesn’t back it up. People thinking that they need to reply to an email in a nanosecond, otherwise they’re not on the ball. Colleagues making demands and causing interruptions that cascade into a wasted day.

So how do you prioritise, when everything seems urgent?


Work Life Balance - how are you doing?

Work Life Balance

I’ve always had a problem with the concept or work life balance. It’s a logical contradiction, because Life is a class which has the sub-categories of work, rest and play and all the other things that fit into a life. Yep, people call me a pedant sometimes.

Nevertheless it’s a hot topic, and has been ever since we started making the distinction between work and life. Interestingly, this seems to have started in the ’70s when the number of women in the workplace was increasing rapidly. Apparently, before that, men didn’t notice there was a distinction, or care if there was one!

There are still many people today (men and women), who aren’t bothered by that distinction. And if it doesn’t bother you, I guess your work-life balance is …err… balanced. As long as your friends and family accept that as well.

Uh huh, just let me finish this important email

So that leaves the rest of us, who feel a conflict, some of the time. I experience it as tug-of-war for my attention, and it happens in real-time, as a choice. My epiphany came 13 years ago, when I realised that my two kids, who were 5 and 7, only needed one thing from me. My attention – now. Not the “uh huh, just let me finish this important email” kind of attention, but a fully present human being, during the time I was with them. For my part, I realised that time was not unlimited, was irretrievable, and that days quickly turn into years. Now they’re 17 and 19 and we’ve had some really, really  good times together. I have to admit that, now, I’m on the receiving end of “uh huh, let me just finish this really important Facebook status update/Twitter “, but I don’t need their attention, so that’s OK with me. I guess.

Eventually, if you add the slices together, you’ve got yourself a life

The other time demands that hit us in work and in life are a series of micro-decisions and choices about what we’re going put our attention, for that particular slice of time. Eventually, if you add the slices together, you’ve got yourself a life. which you either live consciously, by actually making a decision, and asking “is this the best use of my time?”. Or not.

Otherwise you’re just passing the time.


I’ve been lucky enough to work in some high performing teams, and to have led a few as well. Looking back, my impression is that these were relatively rare events, and they’ve become more rare over the years. Maybe because it’s the privilege of the young, and needs that energy – but that’s not how it feels. I certainly wish it happened more, and that I had a reliable recipe for it. More of that later.

The Red Arrows (pictured above) practice for 6 months every year to do those death-defying stunts automatically, knowing that they can depend on their team mates to be in the right place, at the right time, without supervision. Three members of the team are replaced every year, but even after 3 years, when all nine of the starting team have gone, they’re still the Red Arrows, and they’re still a high performing team. The Royal Air Force seem to have a dependable recipe for success.

In this presentation Dan Pink identifies Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose as the three preconditions for better personal performance – I reckon the same is true for team performance. You can get more work out of people – and they will give it willingly – by attending to those 3 needs. No need to give them more money, as long as you pay them enough so that money isn’t an issue.

I don’t have a recipe, but here are a some common qualities that I can name in the best teams I’ve been involved with

  • Spending non-work time together (not necessarily BFFs)
  • A common, agreed and simple purpose
  • Leaving their ego at the door
  • Eager to learn from each other
  • Self-directed
  • Willing to give their discretionary time and energy

When did you last work in a team that was a well-oiled machine?

What makes a high-performing team? Is it chemistry? Can it be learnt?


Better Decisions

You can’t learn from the experience if it kills you

The first time I suggested we carry out a pre-mortem to improve decision-making in the future, the sales director nearly had a fit. We had finally won a very prestigious contract after 18 months. Now here I was, trying to get people to imagine it had gone horribly wrong. Right after he’d done his rousing Henry V speech. Why was I trying to screw things up?

A year in the future, the project has failed miserably, catastrophically.

First of all, what the hell is a pre-mortem? It’s a term coined by Gary Klein in his book  “The Power of Intuition: How to use your gut feelings to make better decisions at work”. Klein has studied decision-making for thirty years, with the military, first responders, emergency medics – people involved in potentially life or death situations. A pre-mortem is held right at the start of a project. At the project kick-off meeting, the project team has to look into a crystal ball. A year in the future, the project has failed miserably, catastrophically. Their job, in three minutes,  is to each come up with ten reasons why it failed.

You can see why the sales director was pissed-off. He wanted them to sing reasons to be cheerful, not group-hallucinate about the whole thing going titsup.

If you’re not looking, unforeseen events are always going to be unforeseeable

We’ve all seen and felt the infectious over-optimism at the start of a project. No one wants anything to go wrong, so there’s a tacit refusal to face awkward truths. No one wants to be the one to point out the flaws in the plan, so instead the Project Manager copies and pastes the risk register from the last project and everyone’s happy. Until things start going wrong and everyone starts talking about perfect storms and black swans. If you’re not looking, unforeseen events are always going to be unforeseeable.

If you give people permission to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable, corporately you have a robust framework for making better decisions. You don’t need to pretend that the future will be the same as the past, plus 10% contingency. A pre-mortem encourages innovative thinking and problem solving.

There’s no need to wait for the patient to die before learning from the experience.


Here are six techniques I used to coach marathon runners to get from the start line to the finish line, that you can use to move your list from “To Do” to “Done”

  1. Understand your big goal.
  2. Check your motivation.
  3. Give yourself a series of timed check points.
  4. Make some progress.
  5. Use visual cues.
  6. Incorporate rituals.

1. Understand your big goal.

Our big goal is to run 42k in a target time. To get there we need to meet some process goals (like training regularly) and some outcome goals (like hitting 10k at your pace time). Only things which move us to the big goal make it onto the list, anything else is irrelevant. Look at your To Do list and double-check that it relates to the big goal. How do “check email” and “attend weekly meeting” relate to your big goal?

2. Check your motivation.

Why are you doing this? How does it directly relate to you, and who you are? What turns “ought” into “have to”, or a duty into a necessity, for you. If you’re mostly extrinsically motivated, you’ll need some recognition from other people – make sure you get some. Intrinsically motivated people are more interested in mastering a subject, and having control over how they achieve this. Use this motivation to errr.. motivate yourself. Seriously, it’s easy to forget what’s driving you sometimes, don’t get bogged down in the minute to minute, day-to-day stuff, remember why you’re here and use it as a touchstone.

3. Give yourself a series of timed check points

The big goal might be to run 42km in 3 hours 40 minutes, but you need some check points along the way. You need them to check progress according to your time plan, and also to give yourself a pat on the back as you hit these mini goals. It’s important to review how far you’ve come, not just how far you have to go. Don’t actually try patting yourself on the back while you’re running, you’ll probably fall over.

4. Make some progress

Sometimes you just have to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. You’ve hit a wall and run out of mental tricks to motivate yourself. As Winston Churchill once said, “if you’re going through Hell, keep going”. Take a step, then another step. Walk when you get to a drinks station, but don’t stop. Do something, anything, however small, that advances you. Adjust the timing , but keep the momentum, and don’t stop. It takes sooo much effort to get going again.

5. Use visual cues

We looked at a map and turned it into an itinerary. “At 2 hours I’m running past the Berlin Opera house”. “My support group will be cheering me on at 13 miles, I can see my wife waving a banner.”

To Do list - personal kanban

My to do list is a personal Kanban – tasks move through from Backlog to Done

Here’s my visual system for work. It’s called a personal kanban – it’s ridiculously simple. Open tasks sit underneath each heading – I’ve removed them here, because you wouldn’t be able to read my writing so you can’t see my top-secret plans . I’ve found Apps and NagWare like Outlook tasks don’t work for me, because they’re static and a “Done” task just disappears. With this, one task moves from the Backlog column, through Doing, to Done. It feels more dynamic and lets me know what I’ve achieved, as well as what’s to do, which motivates me more. There are never more than five yellow sticky notes under the “Doing” sticky note.

6. Incorporate rituals

If you can make anything a habit, you don’t have to think about it. Marathoners will wear the same running shoes and use the same energy drinks or gels. They also run through the same check list before a long run or a race. Some runners have mantras that they will use to get into the right state.  They choose what to incorporate into their rituals. Some serving suggestions for you:

  • Make a review of your To Do list the night before,
  • Rehearse the first 5 minutes when you brush your teeth.
  • Remind yourself of your bigger goal before you start the day
  • Get one of the items on your list done before you dive into your email.
  • When you have your first coffee or tea, use that time to reflect on progress to date.

Feel free to make your own up, and let me know how you did.




Time Management - the Future

When I was 17, my friend wanted to be a pharmacist. His future wasn’t a dream, or even an ambition, it was more like a fact that hadn’t happened yet. Like an airline pilot planning a flight to Hawaii. He knew where it was, how to get there and how long it would take. I’m not sure why, pharmacy didn’t run in the family or anything, but that was definitely what he saw himself doing. He had a very clear picture of his future destination, which was real and immediate, not out there in the distance.

Mark’s now a very successful research chemist (in pharmacy), he’s exactly where he thought he would be, nearly forty years ago. I guess he’s had different aspirations along the way as well, but he’s achieved his lifetime career goal.

I admire Mark for his focus and vision (notice the visual words we use in English to talk about the Future). He’s very Future orientated.

Our time  perspectives drive how we all manage our time in the macro sense – managing our life time. They’re the dynamo that drives time management behaviour in the micro sense as well – how we manage our days and hours. Can we keep our eyes on the final destination, or are we more prone to deal with what’s appears right in front of us? This affects how and what we instinctively prioritise, regardless of what we think we should be doing, or what’s theoretically number one on our to-do list.

Mark’s goal  may have been way out in the future, but it had two essential qualities. Firstly, it was connected to the present by his sense of purpose. He was highly motivated in the here and now to work towards it. Secondly, the goal was more than just a vision, it was a fully realised thing that he could touch, smell, taste and hear, as well as see. When those two qualities are present, the destination is a real place, worth going to, worth spending time getting there.

So, if you can make your goal real for yourself and other people, and if you can connect it to your inner motivations, you will be propelled towards it, and it will get more real as you draw closer.

Let us know if that’s interesting to you.









No one interrupts a sprinter at work

No work interruptions 

Are work interruptions what work is today? I was coaching someone recently who was having a problem with “disjointedness”. Every time she started a piece of work – usually one that she needed a good run at, her work was interrupted by the usual suspects: Email. Phone calls. Colleagues. It’s how we work today. Work is a series of interruptions to what we’re supposed to be doing.

The solution was absurdly simple. I’ll come to that in a moment.

I did some digging into what effect these diversions have, and was gobsmacked by what I read in this paper – Fragmented Work, which also features in a more user friendly New York Times article here. Both were written in 2005, and I’m guessing things have only got worse in the last 8 years, but here’s what they saw in 1,000 hours of observing Homo Cubiculus.

Average time until interrupted – 11 minutes

Time to restart the task – 25 minutes

Time to get back to where you where – 8 minutes

This is staggering. 11 minutes of productive work. Then 33 minutes on hold. Then THREE minutes (because it took you 8 minutes to get back to where you were) of productive work before you get interrupted again. Rinse and repeat from 9 to 5.  Sisyphus was in a similar line of work. It’s no wonder we feel disjointed.

It gets worse. It’s only a theory, but it feels true to me, that there are two types of schedule: Managing and Making. Managers work in one hour blocks of time, it’s seldom that they need to spend a whole day at one task. Makers, on the other hand, need to get immersed on their work to get in flow. Makers write computer code, they draft contracts, they put bid documents together – they do stuff that takes more than an hour at a stretch to complete. An interruption to a Maker can ruin their whole day.

This is serious shit. It doesn’t even include the self-imposed diversions, or the myth of multi-tasking, to which the same “restart” rules apply. It doesn’t take account of a person’s Time Perspective either. Present Hedonists are renowned for their ability to be diverted from a goal by pretty much any temptation put in front of them, even before cats and You Tube double-teamed them.

How does the coaching story end?

We agreed she try a “sprint” of 45 minutes, free of any distraction, using a desk toy (a stress ball, appropriately enough) to signal to her colleagues that she shouldn’t be interrupted. Email notifications off. Phones diverted to voice mail. Work for 45 minutes, then stop and reflect for a few minutes at the end, to note where the external diversions came from, and what to adjust next time. Anyone can be unavailable for 45 minutes without the business collapsing.

What she found was that colleagues in the immediate vicinity got the signal and cooperated. It was harder to put off more senior people, because their status seems to give them priority. Everyone was sceptical that it would work at all. These are all interesting observations. They tell us how a culture will tend to hold habits in place, however much an individual worker wants to change, and that Time Management is a systemic problem, rather than one person’s.

But look at the benefits:

  1. She stops the disjointedness and has more control  over her work. So she’s happier.
  2. Productivity for that 45 minute sprint went up by 75%.
  3. Doing this twice a day, five days a week, effectively gives her company an extra working day. Everyone’s happy.

Please tell me why isn’t everybody doing this? It’s embarrassingly simple. Why can’t everyone just concentrate for 45 minutes on one task, without interruptions?









Past, Present, Future

Time Perspectives

The Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory that we use in our Time Intelligence Report has two distinct flavours of the Past, Positive and Negative.

As concepts they’re self-explanatory. Is your past something you look back on fondly, or do you have bad memories of growing up? The surprising part is how powerfully having a positive past can affect your outlook in the present and the future.

Being positive about your past is a predictor of resilience and optimism. Martin Seligman, the principal founder of Positive Psychology discovered that an optimistic explanatory style was key to persistence. Believing that things will turn out well, despite setbacks, predicts success at school, in college and in work. In his book “Learned Optimism“, Seligman tells how he and his team successfully predicted US election results (primary and presidential) purely by analysing candidates’ speeches. The more they spoke of hope for the future, the more optimistic they were, the better chance they had of being elected.

Past positive people will get nostalgic about the good old days. They will surround themselves with photographs and souvenirs to prompt these good memories, and are the repositories of family stories and anecdotes. It’s possible to strengthen the positive links your past by keeping a gratitude diary, or just bringing to mind some good things that have happened, at the end of each day.

It’s common these days to assume that a tendency to think about the past is inevitably a bad thing – anyone “stuck in the past” will slow down our progress towards the future. They won’t be of any use looking backwards wearing their rose-tinted spectacles. The surprising truth is that those are the people you need when things start to go wrong on your project. Their roots go deep and they will suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, then bounce back.

Next time we’ll have a look at Past Negative.