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Should your iPad replace your Paper Planner?

Should your iPad replace your Paper Planner? For me the answer is no. An electronic beep will tell you when to leave for an appointment. An automated email message will remind you to buy your spouse a birthday card. No need to learn anything– just Google it. Don’t worry about friends; Facebook will provide them. You don’t even have to plan what to do next; incoming text messages, cell phone calls or text messages will give you your next assignment. Just focus on improving your reaction time for maximum efficiency.

Long ago we started outsourcing tasks. Years ago we started outsourcing our memories. No need to think anymore; we have technology – and the brains behind it – to do that for us. Oops, technology just corrected a spelling mistake for me. How nice.

It may seem inconvenient having to carry that iPhone, iPad or BlackBerry with you everywhere you go, including the bedroom and bathroom; but be patient. Before you know it the technology will be implanted in your brain for a nominal fee. And if you’re still young, you may live to have your brain uploaded to a computer. Continue reading Should your iPad replace your Paper Planner?

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A Guide to Holistic Time Management

Slowing Down the Speed of Life

We’re not that great at judging the passage of time since our concept of time is influenced by so many things, such as heat, activity, stress, and speed.

For example, according to the March, 2008 issue of Scientific American Mind, a person with a fever experiences a given period as being longer than someone without a fever. Also, when we are busy, jumping quickly from one job to another, time seems to pass more quickly. Continue reading A Guide to Holistic Time Management

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Holistic Time Management

The Best Things in Life are Free from Technology:
A case for holistic time management.

A heading of an article in the May 17, 2012 issue of the Toronto Star caught my attention – “Outsourcing Life.”

It’s true. We’re outsourcing all the enjoyable, time-consuming things that make us distinctively human – so we can free up time for the mundane, work-oriented drudgery that makes us robots to technology. Continue reading Holistic Time Management

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Goal-Directed Persistence

Goal-directed PersistenceGoal-directed persistence is another important executive function skill. It is the ability to have a goal and follow through until its completion. If you are strong in this skill, you have a good record of achieving goals that you set. You are steady, persistent and reliable, and seldom let setbacks or obstacles prevent you from completing a project on time.
But if you are controlled by your environment, and others, and have trouble focusing beyond the present moment, you are weak in this skill.
Setting goals, recording them in your planner, using the chunk method of taking small steps at a time, working towards deadlines, having plenty of breaks, will both help you to be productive in spite of this weak skill – as well as help you to strengthen it.

It’s important not to overwhelm yourself with too large a goal. Our short-term memory, discussed in an earlier blog, allows us to hold only a limited amount of any project in our mind at any one time. So it is important to break a large goal into smaller segments and work at these segments step by step.

For example if you want to organize your office, you would select one area, say a filing cabinet, and focus entirely on that, one drawer at a time. Setting a deadline of one drawer a day, and picking a specific time, say 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., will allow you to schedule each task as though it were a business meeting. When scheduling the time for each session, be sure to allow more time than you think it will take. And if it takes two or more sessions to finish the first drawer, don’t let that bother you. You can adjust the time allowance for the other drawers.

The important thing is to build the habit of spending a certain amount of time each day working on a specific goal-related task. You can then apply this habit to any goal, no matter how large, whether it is writing a book one chapter at a time, completing a self-study course one lesson at a time or becoming a super salesperson one sale at a time.

Usually, people who quit before reaching their goal either do not have sufficient motivation to continue or do not have a clear plan to follow. So you must be clear on both the benefits of achieving the goal and the steps you must take in order to get there. Motivation requires both a strong desire to possess what the goal promises, and a belief that the action they are taking will achieve the goal.

You will also encounter both internal and external distractions that could impede your progress. That’s why the other executive skills discussed in this blog series are important as well – such as response inhibition, sustained attention and emotional control. Internal distractions could include such things as stress and tiredness as well as self-interruptions. So it’s important to get adequate sleep, a healthy diet and plenty of exercise. These are especially important to strengthen your goal-directed persistence and other executive skills since we are more easily side-tracked and lack energy when we are tired, stressed or ill.

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Do You Have Time for Time Management?

Harold Taylor - time management expert

No time for time managementTime management and organization are usually treated as two separate skills, but they are so closely related I will discuss them both together.

Organization is the ability to arrange according to a system. If you are neat, detailed and orderly, generally have a place for everything, and have no trouble keeping track of everything, you have organization skills. But if you’re messy, continually lose or misplace things and have no system for filing or handling e-mail or organizing other information, you are likely weak in this skill.

Time management is the ability to estimate and allocate time effectively. You are good in the skills if you have little trouble meeting deadlines, have a good sense of time passage, and know the importance of time. You’re seldom late for meetings or appointments, set target dates, schedule your time and meet commitments. But if you’re always running late can’t account for where half your time went, have trouble estimating how long things will take, and fail to meet target dates, you are weak in this skill.

If a person is weak in these skills — or in any of the executive skills being discussed in this blog — they can actually strengthen the skills by adopting systems that partially compensate for these weaknesses.

In the case of time management and organization, I recommend the use of hardcopy planners and reverting to the old habit of writing things down and doing one thing at a time. This does not mean that you should abandon the use of technology, including the Internet, e-mail, iPhone’s or texting. But forgetfulness, lack of focus, distractions, impulsivity, procrastination and other time wasters are reduced considerably when you build structure into your day that is both visible and actionable.

With the average Canadian spending over 45 hours online each month, there’s not much time left to focus on what’s important. And research suggests that Internet use is having a negative impact on how we think and behave, affecting our ability to focus, store memory, and interact with others.

Over 30 years ago I developed the Taylor Planner as an ADD-friendly planner since it compensates for many of the weak executive skills identified by individuals diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.

The planner displays an entire week at a glance (7 days) in 15-minute increments from early morning until late evening. It contains a weekly “Action List” of things to be done and space each day to block off time to work on the important tasks. Working in chunks of time rather than marathon work sessions makes it easier to maintain focus and avoid distractions. You can see a copy of the planner at

Writing everything down, including things to do, appointments, morning, evening and weekend commitments, follow-ups and reminders makes it difficult to forget anything. There are sections for goals, important contacts, and assignments and due dates as well as plenty of space for personal notes, and other information.

Blocking off time to work on specific projects a little at a time avoids procrastination. Marking down the time you have to leave for an appointment prevents lateness. Notes in the daily “Follow-up” section remind you to check up on things asked for previously. You also have a permanent record of what you have accomplished.

There are daily follow-up sections for recording important dates and events you want to remember, such as birthdays, and reminders such as when to look in your follow-up file and where you put those theatre tickets.

The suggestions at the front of the planner include using colored self-adhesive labels to flag birthdays and other special events as well as yellow sticky notes for those urgent items you can’t afford to overlook.

Other suggestions include organizing your work area before you call it a day, placing the top priority (or a reminder of it) on your desk before you leave work, and always preparing for the next day, whether that includes putting out the clothes you have to wear or leaving your computer bag, ready to go, at the front door. Also, set alarms on your smartphone to signal when it’s time to stop working on a task or when it’s time to leave for an appointment.

The more you are reminded of things you have to do or times you have to leave or places you have to visit or errands you have run, the less you will have to be reminded – since new neural connections are being strengthened in the brain.

You could attend a time management course for assistance or hire a professional organizer initially to organize your home, work area desk, file system, and set up procedures or systems for e-mail, handling paperwork and so on. The important thing is to develop systems that will work for you and stick to them until they become second nature.

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How to Get the Important Things Done

If you’re trying to figure out how to get the important things done you may have to look at the brain. The Planning/prioritization executive function skill is the ability to determine what is important and what is not, and to create a road map or step by step plan to complete the chosen tasks. This involves making decisions as to where your focus should be directed and the best way to do the tasks or reach your goals. You must think clearly about each project, think through the various steps, and set target dates.

If you have trouble prioritizing and don’t know where to start or how to proceed, you are weak in this skill.

In the last blog I mentioned the importance of creating an environment that makes it easier to develop the executive skill of task initiation. This is true with all the skills, but especially so with the skill of planning prioritization.

You must decide what has to be done and record these things so you don’t forget to do them, determine which ones are more important, and then decide how, when and in what order they should be done. Actually doing them requires a skill of task initiation, which was discussed in last week’s blog.

You could start by making a “To do” list or checklist of tasks, activities and projects to be completed. Checklists are normally used for repetitive activities such as packing for trips, preparing for meetings or shopping for supplies. These become standing plans since they are used over and over again. To do lists change daily and are best recorded directly into your daily planner, either hard copy or electronic. The problem with separate single-sheet “To do” lists is that they are easily misplaced or overlooked — especially if you have a weak organization skills, which is next week’s topic.

When you see all your tasks listed you are more easily able to compare them and select those of greater importance. Ask yourself which ones would have the greatest impact on your personal and business goals, and ultimately your success in life. At this stage you could put check marks on those of greater importance. Then take the more important ones and actually schedule them into your planner as though they were school classes. Example, “9 AM-10:30 AM, write article.” These become blocks of time in your planner – commitments to meet with yourself at specific times to get the work done.

Those items of lesser importance can be left on your “To do” list and you can do them later if you still have time after completing the priorities.

Don’t be fooled by items that are urgent, but not important. If not getting them done will have little impact on your job or life, leave them on a “To do” list to die a natural death.

As you practice this technique, your planning/prioritization skills will strengthen, as well as many of the other executive skills such as time management and organization.

You can make planning and prioritization a habit if you schedule planning time in your planner every day. For example, set aside a half-hour or more every afternoon or evening to compare the priority of those tasks that you have already scheduled for the balance of the week to those that you have added to your “To do” list in the meantime. Make any necessary adjustments. Priorities do change; but if you are constantly reviewing them, you will be certain to get the important things done.

And habits require less energy and forethought.

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A new way of looking at procrastination

A new way of looking at procrastination is from the perspective of an executive function skill – task initiation. Task initiation is the ability to begin tasks without undo procrastination. If you have no problem digging right into a task at the scheduled time, seldom put things off, and have no trouble getting started with priorities at the beginning of each work day, you have string task initiation skills. But if you tend to procrastinate, are slow getting started, do a lot of preliminary stuff like read the paper, have a coffee, straighten your desk etc. then you are weak on task initiation.

Most people procrastinate occasionally. Weak task initiation skills are one of the major causes of poor time management. Piers Steel, a University of Calgary psychologist, after analyzing psychological literature, concluded that 95% of people admit that they sometimes procrastinate.

Telling other people about your goals and making commitments rather than simply intentions have been known to help. Also recording starting times – including blocks of time in which to do your priority tasks – is a good idea. Having all materials ready before you start so there’s no excuse to interrupt yourself and doing unpleasant tasks first are good ways to partially compensate for weak initiation skills.

Forming a habit of starting for early in the morning, having policies as to when you work on the various tasks and choosing a quiet location all might help.
But we tend to avoid unpleasant things and gravitate towards pleasant things. This tendency is so common that it has even been given a label, the Pleasure Principle, which has been defined as: “an organism avoids pain and seeks immediate gratification.”

In a way, the marshmallow experiment is an example of this principle. It was originally conducted at Stanford University back in the sixties. A group of four-year olds were given a marshmallow and promised another if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Some children could wait and others could not. The researchers then followed the progress of each child into adolescence, and demonstrated that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted and more dependable and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Those who gave into temptation early on were more likely to be lonely, easily frustrated and stubborn. They didn’t cope well with stress and stayed clear of challenges. Yale University later conducted research on adults and found the similar results.

The executive skills needed to wait for the greater reward include task initiation and response inhibition. It may explain why we tend to procrastinate on distasteful or overwhelming tasks and work instead on those brief and pleasant tasks, even though they may be less important. When we procrastinate, we are frequently putting off what we want most in order to get what we want at the moment.

But how were the few four-year-olds, who also had very weak executive skills (since these skills take almost twenty years to fully develop) able to resist temptation and wait for the second marshmallow? Well, in examining the tapes many years later, researchers noticed that those children used strategies that allowed them to resist temptation – strategies that we could use ourselves in order to manage ourselves more effectively. They all changed their environment in some way to offset their natural inclination to devour the marshmallow right away. Some put the marshmallow out of sight by sitting under the table or by facing away from the marshmallow. Others sang a song or hummed a tune, focusing their attention on something other than the marshmallow. They did something to avoid having to face the temptation.

Translating these strategies to the business environment, you could turn off your cellphone, engage voicemail, turn off email alerts and close your office door at specific times while you work on your priority projects. You could remove all clutter and other potential distractions from your immediate work area – including any in-baskets. Don’t have family photos or memorabilia in your line of sight. Face a blank wall, not a window or open doorway. Work on projects for 60 or 90 minutes at a time – maximum. If you find that’s too long to postpone urges to interrupt yourself, shorten the work sessions even more. You can always increase them gradually later. Between sessions you can check email, return phone calls and grab a coffee. Work in short sprints rather than attempt marathons. Research shows that willpower consumes a lot of energy so you must pace yourself.

Through environmental and procedural changes it will be easier to resist the temptation to put things off. And the more you practice self-discipline, the stronger the neural connections in the brain, and the stronger those task initiation skills will become.