Let’s face it: it’s getting harder and harder to escape overwhelm now than it was twenty years ago. We have more triggers in our immediate environment than there used to be. We absorb more information in a day than our grandparents saw in a month, and nobody is trained to deal with the sheer volume of information on the internet. Data is like oxygen. And according to Francis Wade, author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, psychologists haven’t caught up with the changes that we’re undergoing on a daily basis. They’re moving far too slow to keep up.
How, then, can you escape overwhelm? If you don’t have a structure to routinely keep you from being overwhelmed, then you’ll be falling right into the Zeigranik Effect over and over again, clueless about where it’s coming from. The level of frustration that people experience is just not right. It’s one thing to find yourself in pain and in overwhelm. It’s another thing to have the wrong idea about where it’s coming from and then solving the wrong problem only to see time demands come right back. Francis delves into managing time demands to escape overwhelm – for good.
Listen to the podcast here:
Perfect Time-Based Productivity To Escape Overwhelm With Francis Wade
On this show, we talk about tips and tricks and strategies to help you make the most of your time. It’s clear that you can’t take back the time that you’ve already spent, but at the same time, you can invest your time wisely. You can think and act more strategically, so that in essence, you’re taking back time in the long run. We’re going to talk about one of the things that disrupts our ability to use our time most wisely that can affect us in the long run as well, and that’s overwhelm. So many people today feel like they’ve got so many activities, responsibilities and different types of projects and tasks that have to be done and they have a hard time identifying which is the most important priority and want to escape overwhelm.
I’m excited to talk about how to escape overwhelm. I’m here with Francis Wade. He is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. He’s quite the time management guru. He’s also a consultant and a business columnist, but he considers himself and is an innovator in the area of time management. He’s involved in some very interesting projects. He’s a fantastic writer and writes a lot about his innovations and philosophies. I’m excited, Francis, to have you here and to talk about escaping overwhelm.
Thanks, Penny. It’s my pleasure to be here.
Is there anything that the audience needs to know about you? Why did you get this fascination with time management?
I was born in Cape Cod, but I grew up in Jamaica. I returned to the States for twenty years and then came back to Jamaica in 2005. All those going back and forth, I developed a real North American sensibility around time and being productive. When I came back to Jamaica, I was severely confronted by the difference in culture. We’re very unproductive here in Jamaica by any measure and I found myself being way less productive than I used to be and I tried to figure out why. I figured it had something to do with me at some level. The more I dug, the more I started to read and started to write and started to explore. I bounced into all sorts of psychological research that was applicable to everyone’s situation, but it applied to me and I was able to use it to a good effect.
When you think of Jamaica, you think of very relaxed. That’s where we go for vacation on the beach. I’m sure that if you want to get something done quickly, that’s probably not the place that you’d want to go to be in the fast pace and get it done.
It’s easy to become just as unproductive, but I’ve been struggling to not do that. It’s a struggle that’s given me my impetus to write and to present and do all these things.
We want to talk about overwhelm and escaping overwhelm. What do you think is different today than ten, twenty years ago that has created people to be in such a state of overwhelm?
We have way more triggers in our immediate environment than there used to be. We see more information in a day than our grandparents saw in a month. We’re just not trained to deal with the volume of information and the triggers and the proximity of the mobile internet. We’re not geared for the world that we’re in right now. We’re geared for a world that’s more similar to the world that they grew up in. The volume of information, the ubiquity of mobile computing, the fact that we’ve gotten into brand-new smartphone habits, they all accumulate. They pull on our attention, they distract us, they cause us to respond, they lead to the fear of missing out, and it all has an impact on our psychology. From the research I’ve done, psychologists haven’t caught up with the changes that we’re undergoing on a daily basis. They’re moving far too slow to keep up.
You’re saying that it’s the triggers and it’s the technology and it’s all these outside forces, so it’s not our fault. Is that what you’re saying?
I’ll tell you why it’s a little bit of our fault. You could do some of them which is to escape to the beach in Jamaica and just pull the big thing in Ganja and do that thing, but most of us who live responsible adult lives don’t have that luxury and we must cope with the life that we’re in at the moment. However, if we bring over the practices that we taught to ourselves when we were teenagers, that’s when we suffer.
We need to build new habits. We need to have different coping strategies in order to make ourselves work in today’s society. We have to come up with strategies that work for us at any stage of our life in any situation and circumstance. I use a lot of structure and I create a lot of things around me to support me because I’m naturally like a squirrel. It just happens to be my tendency. It’s not just that there’s a lot of information out there that makes it ten times worse. Even in my head with all the ideas that come to me, I have to be able to manage that. It’s just as bad as the internet. I see that for people and the challenge is creating those structures. How did we get here? You said psychology is trying to catch up. Tell us a little bit about what you’ve researched and seen around the psychology of this overwhelm we have today.
I had to go back to some pretty old research from 1926. It’s a researcher by the name of Bluma Zeigarnik. She was a Russian psychologist. She discovered that unfinished tasks stick around. They have a persistence and our subconscious mind pings us with reminders of tasks it believes we’re not going to fulfill.
Everybody can relate to that because it’s an open loop. Whenever we have an open loop, it sits there, and it takes up energy. I constantly get pinged with those things until they’re resolved, until they’re closed, so I totally get that
In my training, we call the worst manifestation of it a pop-in. A pop-in is when you’re deep in sleep and about 1:00 AM all of a sudden, a thought pops into your dreams or your subconscious and pings your conscious mind and you jump out of your sleep and your heart is racing and your palms are sweaty and you’re wide awake because you just remembered that there is an unfinished task that you didn’t manage and it’s either in jeopardy or it’s already a problem or you’ve got to remember to do it. Some people would do it right then. They’d go to their smartphone and send that email at 1:00 AM or they’ll remind themselves to do it at 6:00 AM. It’s called a pop-in. The most dramatic example I could think of is the Zeigarnik Effect, which is that it wakes you out of your sleep and gets that adrenaline immediately pumping. It’s not a pleasant feeling.
Sleep can be whatever we’re focused our attention on. At that time, it might be sleeping and we’re focused intently on something else and it pops in. Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and then all of a sudden it disrupts the whole conversation because it comes in and you say, “I’ve got to remember to do X.” It breaks the energy that you’ve got going with that person or whatever it is that you’re doing. It’s as much of a distraction as your cell phone or anything like that, so that’s key. How do we manage these pop-ins?
The funny thing is that your subconscious mind only cares about the tasks that it thinks you’re going to forget about. You could have 5 million that you’re managing well and that you’re on top of. You properly schedule them, you put them in your calendar, you’re calendar blocking, and you’re using all the fanciest techniques. It will care about that one that you didn’t write down. It doesn’t care about the 5,000, it cares about the one.
It knows that if you wrote the other ones down that you’ve got this.
Funnily enough, someone who has, and this is a point of contention when I introduced it to groups the first time, the sense of overwhelm that you have has little to do with the total number of tasks you’re trying to manage and everything to do with the number that you’re not managing. For example, if you’re managing ten tasks and you only have one that you’re not managing, and I have 1,000 and I have one that I’m not managing, research says that we would suffer the same loss of peace of mind because that one is the one that the Zeigarnik Effect and your subconscious cares about. It forgets about the 10,000.
It doesn’t matter that I’m handling ten times more than you’re handling. You’re going to emotionally suffer in the same way and at the same level because we’ve got that open task.
Unfortunately, we’re not taught this thinking and we’re not taught this fact. People, in their efforts to escape overwhelm, they try to do different things, they try to ignore it. That doesn’t work. They try to cut back on their total set of commitments and that may work. Ultimately, it’s not the right solution. The right solution is to upgrade your methods so that you can manage more time demands. That’s the ultimate answer. That’s the only one that your mind will be satisfied with. It’s to improve and keep on improving so that there are fewer and fewer tasks that you are not managing. That’s what gives you the peace of mind that allows you to escape overwhelm.
Is it possible to write down everything? I once had a client and he had two to-do lists. He had the to-do list for today and then he had the someday list. This list was ten pages long and it cost him a lot of stress to know that there was ten pages of things that were to be done some day, that he had to constantly look over and see what he needed to do. How do we handle that? That seems like a piece that creates overwhelm in itself.
It’s such a great example because he’s using a someday list as a later list. He’s capturing everything but his system isn’t a match for his commitments. In other words, the subconscious doesn’t buy it. He’s following everything to the tee but the subconscious doesn’t believe that his system is working. It’s seeing a gap. This is one of those things where we can fool ourselves, but we can’t fool our subconscious because it’s smarter than we are. It figures out when there’s a gap. Having this sense of overwhelm is the leading indicator thoughts that our system is faulty. We consciously may think, “No, I’ve been following this system right down to the last degree. I have every single list of everything.” Your subconscious is that little bit smarter and it will look for the point of weakness. If it detects the weakness, it will wake you up in the middle of the night just like anyone else.
I always say that anytime you get what I call an unproductive emotion that comes up, and I call it unproductive only because if we stay in it, it becomes unproductive, so overwhelm would be that emotion or any kind of obsession like anger, too much frustration, sadness, or maybe in the other extreme like an apathy and just not caring anymore. Anytime you’re there, it’s a great trigger for you to see that you’ve been triggered something’s not working. Instead of ignoring it, to embrace it and try to see, “How do I shift this?” overwhelm can be that, it’s just to recognize, “I recognize something’s not working, so let’s figure out what I need to do to change it.”
That takes a pretty strong sense of self, a high level of awareness to be able to relate to it that way. Most of us don’t.
What do they do?
Most of us just suffer.
I happen to be very fortunate. I do have that sense. I don’t stay in those emotions. I seem to recognize it and then look for a shift. What do people do when they don’t recognize it?
The other option, which doesn’t work, is that they copy. They copy someone else, they copy a mentor, or they read a book and the book says, “Follow this habit, call it that, follow this practice, use this APP,” and only use it in the way in which it’s being prescribed by the book or the program or the training.
It’s like a one-size-fits-all.
Unfortunately, all the research says that doesn’t work. The far better approach is to find a way to understand what you’re already doing in enough depth that you can apply what we call ETPS. It’s basically understanding where you are with respect to all of the practices that make up your system so that you can improve them slowly but steadily.
Identify what already works for you in some areas and improve them and also apply them to other areas. I know people who are phenomenal at work, but when it comes to doing stuff at home, then everything falls by the wayside. Identify what’s already working for you and then make it better.
The analogy I use is a triathlete. I used to do triathlons regularly. When I did them, there was swimming, biking and running. If you’re doing longer races, it’s also important to do other things like lift weights, rest, and managing nutrition in a particular way. These are the habits that people see when you’re racing. They’re just as important to get you to the finish line. Being a great triathlete, especially a long-distance athlete, means managing all of these disciplines at a particular level of skill. As you can imagine, the weakest one would hold you back in any given race. You’re always confronting the question of, “Which one do I improve next? Do I go for the strength? Do I go off of a weakness?” As you look at which ones to improve, there are many dimensions. That might be knowledge that you’re missing, that might be practice, there could be awareness that you need to have, maybe you’re not motivated enough. It gets more dicey and more difficult or more complex as you deal with yourself and you’re honest with yourself as to, “What do I need to bring to the party so that I can improve in disciplines I need to improve?”
I have these ten fundamentals that I talk about how to get people into the productivity zone. You have some fundamentals that you’ve uncovered as well. Let’s talk about your fundamentals. Show me how they work and what they can do for us.
Not everyone can remember, but there was a time when we didn’t know what time was because time is a taught lesson. Somewhere around six, seven or eight, someone, a teacher or a parent or brother or sister taught us the concept of time. It was an instruction and nobody discovered it on their own. Shortly after we learned and started using the concept of time, we started to create what I call time demands. Time demand is an internal individual commitment to complete an action in the future. It’s a psychological object so it only exists in your mind and your mind only. It’s triggered by outside influences, but it’s kept in your mind as a marker of your commitment to complete all of your objectives that can’t be completed in the moment. That happens around ages of nine or ten. Around ages twelve or thirteen, you start to experience the importance of keeping these time demands around for longer than just a moment.
You realize that they are slippery little suckers and they’ll just disappear. You’ve got to develop some habits and practices in order to allow them to persist long enough that you cannot suffer from the Zeigarnik Effect so that you can accomplish your objectives. You start to develop some practices. By the time you get to around eighteen or nineteen, you have practices in place and they’re the ones that get you through high school, college, and early adulthood. For many people, and it used to be the case, they will get you through your entire career. In the case of our grandparents, however, we’re not so lucky. We have to keep upgrading our fundamentals because life is changing so often. The technology, the information, the mobility, the internet are all pressuring us to take it to the next level.
What folks don’t know that we should know is that the seven habits, the seven practices, the seven fundamentals, capturing, emptying, tossing, acting now, storing, scheduling, and listing, we’re already doing them. The question is, “What did we teach ourselves to do and how well are we doing them with respect to what we’re trying to accomplish today?” For most folks, there’s a gap because the teenage practices that were fine when we were sixteen don’t work as well when we’re 32. 1973 is not 2018. No, it’s a totally different era. The first step of the ETPS process is E for evaluation. It’s to evaluate and to self-discover, “What did I teach myself? How well am I doing each of those seven practices against world class standards?” You develop a profile which says, “Here’s how I’m doing in this area, that area, the other area.” In a way, you’re revisiting the past because you put this all into motion, you created this system usually without any help or without any assistance. It was a magical thing that you did. However, the magic probably ran dry now that you’re a full-blown adult. This is an introspective exercise to understand, “What did I put together and how well is it working for me today?”
That’s the first segment which is to evaluate and discover, to see what habits and practices I have created to this point to say what’s working and what’s not working.
We’ve collected the data from about 200, 300 people who’ve done our programs and compared their profiles against each other. I wish I could say we had a grand revelation or brilliant insight, but it seems like people are sputtering along, making up things as they go along in their teens, so the results don’t look uniform and they don’t tell this awesome story. It just seems like we’re struggling in our teens to put something together.
Because there’s no education. There is a challenge there. There is no class that you go to at an early age that can teach you how to organize better. Those seven are capture, emptying, tossing, acting now, storing, scheduling, and listing. We don’t have any courses that help us to be better at that. With my kids going through elementary school or middle school or high school, they’re just now starting to put some very basic things into college, but it’s too late. They’ve already created their processes. I’m working and I know you are too, we’re working with adults in the workplace. When you don’t have the practices, it’s much harder to learn them later and to unlearn. I do believe that anything that’s learned can be unlearned, but there is a harder process to unlearn and interrupt old behavior patterns so that you can replace them with new ones.
Here’s a tragic example. I worked with a Harvard graduate, a brilliant fellow who has very close to photographic memory. He says that he took no notes during his time at Harvard because he could remember everything. It’s believable because the guy is brilliant. However, the guy is brilliant around content, but ask him to manage his time demands and he’s like a beginner. It’s like a total disparity between his super high skill in one area and his abilities and his capacity, but he’s still managing time demands. We have what we call white belt skills which are the lowest skills, like a novice. He’s trying to use memory. I was a little bit older than him when he was at Harvard, so his memory for time demands doesn’t work the way it does for understanding his course material. He’s struggling and if he had been taught just the basics, “Here’s what’s going to happen to you in the next few years. You’ve got to revisit. You’ve got to find apps that work for you. You’ve got to find new models,” if he’d just been told that an early enough age, he probably be a different person today.
Teachers, educators, people who are looking for change in the system, please add something like that. Also, what I see a lot of is, and I believe that it plays an important role in how people manage their time demands is getting people to think more strategically. We’re very tactical in the way that we think and the way that we operate. That has a big impact on organizations and their growth because when they bring people up in the workforce and they bring them from, let’s say, an operational job into a managerial role and then up into a bigger leadership role, then they have to manage those time demands in a different way and then be able to think and act more structured, more organized, more strategically. It’s difficult for them to do so because there’s little training around that as well.
If you’ve ever heard people say things like, “Let me do it now before I forget,” or if you’re trying to set an appointment with someone that’s too far out for comfort, so you say, “Let’s talk a month from now on June 18,” and they say, “No, June 18th, are you kidding me? That’s way out there. Call me on June 15th.” They don’t have a way to manage a time that’s that far off. In school, my hypothesis is that this causes people to fail exams. You and I are here because we passed. We self-taught or self-teaching was successful, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. There are all the folks who sat beside us in grade school or grammar school who weren’t able to self-teach themselves the same way that you and I were, and they failed their classes as a result. Translate that into the corporate world. Those two examples I gave, they’re very true for them too. To ask them to create a five-year strategic plan is like, “Are you kidding? I can’t even forget to go to an apartment a month from now.”
They can’t even wrap their head around it because they have zero space for thinking time because they’re overwhelmed. They’re trying to escape this overwhelm. What are the last points that you’d like to bring to the audience around escaping overwhelm?
I mentioned that the first step was E for evaluate in the ETPS model. The second is target, which is to set easy to hit targets for the behavior changes in each of the seven fundamentals. The third is to create a plan for steady improvement based on those targets so that you’re not trying to change too many things all at the same time. The final is the one that people think is the weakest of all, which is support. I know you have some awesome software to help people help support people in their behavior changes. We believe we’re Superman. When we make these plans, we’re more like Clark Kent. All the research says we totally overestimate our ability to change behavior. We think having high willpower at the moment of commitment is what makes the difference. All the research says that we are fooling ourselves. We need not only support, we need backup support when the original supports fail. We treat support as if, “I don’t need that. I’m the kind of person that when I make up my mind then that’s all I need.” It’s not true.
People feel that when they reach out for support that it’s a weakness, or when you say, “You need systems and structure,” a plan is all about structuring things, and some people get hives all over them when they think about having to plan something or creating structure in their lives. They think it takes away from their creativity and their freedom, but it opens it up. They don’t realize that those systems, support and structures that get us to where we want to go and give us freedom, give us creativity, that help us to take back the time.
Yes, and escape overwhelm. Having great structure around us is what routinely keeps me from being overwhelmed. If I didn’t have that structure, I’d be falling right into the Zeigranik Effect over and over again and not understand where it’s coming from. It’s one thing to find yourself in pain and in overwhelm. It’s another thing to have the wrong idea about where it’s coming from and then solving the wrong problem only to see time demands come right back. If you’re not managing them, the feeling overwhelm comes right back with it. The level of frustration that people experience is just not right.
It’s not right and it’s each one of our responsibility to get ourselves out of it because it’s no way to live. The World Health Organization has declared stress a worldwide epidemic. It’s creating greater levels of suicide because people are at such a point of overwhelm that they don’t know what to do. The opioid challenge that we have comes from people not being able to cope from being overwhelmed and finding that as a solution. Our message to everyone out there is it’s about escaping overwhelm doesn’t mean escape in the sense of ignoring it, finding something to numb the pain. It’s not about cutting back per se. It can come from simplification, but it’s about upgrading our methods, finding the right systems and tools to support us with structures around us so that we don’t have to rely on willpower. We can fall back the support structures that are there to support us. Francis, thank you so much for being here. Do you have anything else that you want to point us in a direction of a URL or how they can find out more information about you?
It’s got to start there. You’ve got to have a clear idea of where you are now so that you can bridge the gap to where you want to be. Thank you so much for being here. To all the audience, thank you for being here. We hope that we got you down the first stage of understanding where overwhelm is coming from. A couple of things that you can look at in order to build off of the strengths that you already have is to look for systems and structures. One size doesn’t fit all, so look for the systems and structures that are going to best support you so that you can take yourself from a state of overwhelm into a state of motion. Thank you all for being here.
- Perfect Time-Based Productivity
- Francis Wade
- Perfect Time-Based Productivity audiobook at http://perfect.
mytimedesign.com/downloads/ perfect-time-based- productivity-audio/ or https://goo.gl/yccfZK
About Francis Wade
Francis A. Wade is a business columnist, consultant and time management innovator. He writes regularly for business sections in the Jamaica Gleaner and Newsday in Trinidad.
Francis Wade was born in the US and has lived much of his life between Florida and Jamaica. An alumnus of AT&T Bell Labs, he has been an entrepreneur for 21 years. For many of those years, he compared U.S. workplace culture, which ranks among the top 3 in the world in terms of its productivity, with Jamaican culture, which ranks #86. Along with the training, he’s developed, his two books, Perfect Time-Based Productivity and Bill’s Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure, help him fulfill his aspiration to make time-based productivity easy to learn and teach in every corner of the world.
He completed his Bachelors and Masters degrees at Cornell University in 4 1/2 years in the fields of Operations Research and Industrial Engineering. As a member of the teaching faculty of the University of Phoenix, he enjoys full access to their state-of-the-art research libraries which he uses to expand the work of 2Time Labs, his company’s research arm.
Francis is a newspaper columnist, recovering triathlete, avid reader and lover of all kinds of personal improvement. He continues to split his time between several countries.