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LEARNING NEW HABITS

By Francis Wade

Tuesday, March 01, 2011.

In the area of time management, it turns out that some vital skills we picked as kids have to be un-learned, if we have an interest in being successful working adults.

Grade school and high school turn out to be nothing more than extended memory tests for many people.  A bunch of facts and techniques are thrown at them, and their challenge is to remember as much of them as possible, mostly in order to pass tests, quizzes and exams.  Good students are the ones who are able to recall this information when tested, and they come to take pride in their ability to remember even trivial information, such as the names of all the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Period.

This ability to commit data to memory, and to recall it at will, quickly becomes a habit that they apply not only to factual information but also to their future commitments, such as “the meeting 2 weeks from Friday with the marketing department.”

At the 2Time website, we refer to the latter as “time demands” — commitments that ones makes to oneself to complete a task at some point in the future.  For example, a commitment to “pick up the milk on the way home” is a time demand, whereas the route to the supermarket is different — it’s useful, factual information.

It turns out that we humans relate to these two kinds of information – time demands and factual data – quite differently, which is a useful thing, because they are in fact quite different.

Factual information, such as the route to the supermarket, carries with it an objective quality that is unchanging.  Time demands, on the other hand, are individual creations that exist only in the mind of their creators.  They are ephemeral in the sense that they have a finite lifetime – they come into being once they are created, and disappear once they are completed.

When we die, of course, they all vanish.

At the same time, they are critical to human beings as they allow us to think about and plan future actions, even if they are never written down.  You can hardly think about tomorrow without surveying the time demands that you have created for yourself that you think you should complete in that 24 hour cycle.

In very early grades, we are taught to manage time demands by keeping a schedule of classes so that we turn up at the right place at the right time, and we are taught to write down our homework so that we don’t forget.

Smart students eventually learn to discard both practices as they get older, and instead use they learn to use their finely tuned memory to manage these time demands.  This works well for the most part because they have few time demands to juggle.  After all, there are no bills to pay, and their weekly schedule of activities is a simple one to follow.  They can’t understand how their parents could forget simple time demands, like picking them up from school to take them to soccer practice.

Very few time demands slip through the cracks as a result, and they conclude that others (like their parents) who suffer from frequent mishaps, as just not as smart.

They take this practice with them into the workplace, in their first jobs, and for a while it works.  They appear at meetings with nothing in their hands to wrote with, or on, and when asked will scornfully tell others: “Don’t worry, I’ll remember.”

However, the time comes when they don’t.

At some point, their habit of committing time demands fails, and it happens for any number of reasons.

One may be that their managers give them additional responsibilities, and assign them complex projects that are too big to be managed by even the smartest person.  Another might be that as they marry, have children, assume mortgages, handle finances, pay taxes, play roles in their communities, and jump on volunteer projects , the number of time demands rapidly increases.

Also, even the smartest notice that as they get older, their powers of recall start to fade.  They realize that their parents’ momentary inability to recall their own children’s names is a malady that is about to befall them.

They need to develop some new habits in order to continue to be as effective as they once were.  Some persist however, and convince themselves that they can do no better.  They insist that that “their plates are full,” “they have too much to do” and “get too much email.”  They blame their circumstances for the number of balls they drop each day — I’ve known some to conclude that they simply cannot seek a promotion, or accept a new project because they cannot imagine a way to craft the 26 hour workday they think is required to be successful.

The solution is a simple on to describe — adopt new habits that are required in order to handle a new volume of time demands.

It’s much harder to do, and many smart people develop never develop these new habits, insisting that they already have good time management techniques.

What they really mean is: “I’m the most productive person I know, and I already know everything I need to know about time management.”

For some, it’s not until they are shown a multi-belt system like the ones that I give them in MyTimeDesign or NewHabits classes, that they begin to see that there are people who are way more productive than they are, even if they don’t know them.

A few never get to learn the lesson, and instead they use their ability to think fast on their feet to talk themselves out of trouble.  This works for a while, but it never moves them up the ladder to greater productivity.  Instead, it just helps them stay stuck at a low standard… just a little bit better than those around them.

Unfortunately, learning new habits has nothing to do with being smart, and has more to do with being resilient, or stubborn, and more than a bit humble. It’s difficult - and sometimes scary - to admit that your strengths don’t work as well as they should, especially when they have never really failed.

Francis Wade is a management consultant based in Kingston, Jamaica. He blogs at The 2Time Management System.

 

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