Controlled input: the missing piece of time management

In this post, I’ll talk about a problem that affected me personally really badly and that I see in too many other fellow entrepreneurs & developers.

Twelve years ago I thought that increasing my productivity would solve my problems.  It did the exact opposite.  My problems did not disappear.  They became bigger as I became more highly productive.  Until I learnt that I was missing an obvious piece of perfect time management: commitment or what I prefer to call: controlled input.  For those who don’t see the obvious coming (like me a few years ago), this is for you.

In 2000, I started freelancing as I was hit by the entrepreneurial fever. Very quickly I became overwhelmed by work and projects. Sometimes, I had to completely stop moving and think “what is it you are doing?”  I was doing 3 things at the same time, in addition to reacting to every external disturbance such as phone calls. That’s when I decided to invest in something I hadn’t been taught at school or by my parents: organizing myself.  At the time, delegating was out of my reach.

I purchased top rated books on the subject and went to training courses. I started to learn and to put everything into practice.  Productivity increased dramatically.  I became an unstoppable working machine.  In the less than 2 years that followed this, I was able to create 5 companies (with the satisfaction that all still exist today) in addition to freelancing and working on the numerous side projects I had.   This was made possible with increased productivity and the fact that almost 95% of my conscious time was spent working. I started to earn a lot of money, more than I could handle.  But all of this had a price: I became like a zombie and eventually, I burnt out.

I had missed something very important that I hadn’t learnt how to manage yet: my commitments.  I was tempted to say yes to everyone, and more importantly, to myself.  As an example, any new idea I had would be turned into a new company, immediately.  I finally learnt how to solve that problem the hard way.

When I talk about it to friends, employees or students, I use the illustration of the tap and the funnel. The tasks coming in flow from the tap, your input, while the bottleneck of the funnel is you, your maximum output, your productivity. What’s in the funnel is your commitment.


Below is an illustration of three possible scenarios.

  • Overwhelmed: you have too much work and you can’t face it. The fact you are overwhelmed affects your productivity negatively because of stress and other technical factors, eg having to multi task. Not to count the waste of unfinished tasks (or low quality).
  • Increased Capacity: you decide to learn GTD to increase your productivity. It works, you have a larger bottleneck, but you are still overwhelmed. You do more with the same time.  By your new behavior, you teach others (and yourself) that you can do even more. Instead of solving your problem, this actually worsens it.
  • Controlled Input: you control both external solicitations and personal commitments. Input is controlled and matches your capacity. Everything is under control. This is a part of self-awareness.

Funnel Details

Properly or improperly managing your commitments has many other effects, for example – trust. The more commitment you fail to meet, the more you teach others (by conditioning) that you are not reliable. They will progressively lose trust. Everything you say will be seen as something said by the unreliable guy. It works both sides: if you succeed in meeting almost every commitment you make, you will teach others that you are very reliable. You will build trust and increase your circle of influence. This includes trust in yourself.  

Here are few ideas on how to manage input:

  • Deadlines set by others: in the developer’s world, we often face situations in which other people set deadlines for us. When I face such situation, I re-estimate the task myself and compare it to my actual commitments. If there is a difference, I confront the person who set the deadline. In short, I learn to say no, but with a proper argument. Saying no without any explanation is not only rude, but unprofessional.
  • External disturbances: I’m always amazed when I see someone looking at his ringing phone saying: “oh no, not him, he disturbs me all the time“. Why not simply ignore the call? You are NOT committed to answer the phone, you can call him back at a better time. This statement is valid for everything including emails. They can wait another 3 hours to get an answer, right? In addition, these interruptions are real productivity killers (Nass, Ophir, Wagner 2009).
  • Ongoing projects: Limit your ongoing projects. Don’t involve yourself in two big projects at the same time. I limit myself to one large project and one or two much smaller ones. In order to do that, I put every idea or thing I would like to do on a list. I update the list often with new stuff, but nothing goes out of it until I have the free room (time) for it.

Increasing your productivity is very easy. The techniques work and are easy to learn. The hard part is learning to say no. To others, but also yourself.  If you are like me, it will take some time to be completely healed from this bad behavior.  But being aware is certainly one big step.  Be productive, control your input, be happy (Oswald, Proto, Sgroi 2009).




Incoming search terms:
  • Controlledinput:themissingpieceoftimemanagement|MindfulHacker
  • managing capacity

The actor–observer asymmetry

There is a difference of judgment in any activity depending if we are an actor or an observer (Malle, Knobe, Nelson 2007). I realized this fact when I was practicing martial arts, long before my studies in psychology. The audience, usually parents, downplayed the difficulty of the discipline and very often judged the activity incorrectly. One of the most common expressions was, “but it is only dancing.”

This comment annoyed many of the new practitioners, but not the more experienced who knew that this was a gross misjudgement. You could see the difference when these same people decided to try the discipline once. As you can imagine, most did not usually go beyond the first attempt as it was physically demanding and much more difficult than they had imagined. Their judgement of the activity observed radically changed when they became an actor.

In our everyday life, we alternate between the positions of observer and actor. In both situations, we make judgments and many of the various decisions we take are based on them. As an observer, we can judge incorrectly the behavior of others. As an actor, we take into account the judgment of observers. It is important to recognize these situations and act accordingly.

Let’s take a concrete example: starting a software business. This is a subject dear to my heart as I far too often watch the growing disillusions of entrepreneurs when they take in the reality of things. As the disillusionment grows, only those predisposed (very rare) or those working for pleasure keep going.

The reality is that entrepreneurs work very hard and take on tasks that we would probably never have agreed to do as an employee.  You must also be aware that very few projects succeed at first; most stop after the first failure.

When we see talented entrepreneurs in the newspapers, we think it’s easy and as simple as registering a domain name, writing 10 lines of code and then selling your company for millions. The reality is that most successful people have worked hard, often in physical and psychological pain, for many years and have faced all kinds of problems. They made the difference by persevering. All my successes have been preceded by hard work and pain.

It is difficult to realize this when you have not been there yourself. But how do you know before you make a judgement or take an important decision?

The first step is certainly to become aware of any bias and take it into account. It is very difficult as these behaviors are unconscious and judgment is rooted in how we operate.

When you realize that you are in an observer’s position and about to judge and eventually take a decision, you should not be satisfied with the information available. As you may have noticed, observing is insufficient to get an opinion, even if one is aware of the bias. Failing testing it yourself (and you can’t start a business as a test in the same way you can attend a single martial art class), the only solution is to ask questions of the actors. Those who have experience in the field or are in the situation. Do not just question one of them. The more people you question, the more relevant your information.

The only concern with this approach is that it can block you from moving forward. Indeed, if you ask too many questions you can start to stagnate. Everyone now knows that one of the primary qualities of an entrepreneur is his ability to move forward quickly. Many are also characterized by a certain impulsive trait which will be discussed in a future article.

Awareness of the actor / observer asymmetry is directly related to critical thinking: identifying biases, separating fact from opinion and analyzing data. Awareness of our mental functioning is, again, the key.

Critical thinking for developers

You gain knowledge from information coming from many different sources including books, articles, blogs, conferences and all the discussions you have with other professionals. Being able to interpret, evaluate, assimilate, synthesize and apply the data you collect is called critical thinking and is an essential skill for anyone (including the developer).

“A persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends” Edward M. Glaser

The word critical derives from the Greek word kriticos, which means discerning judgment. The roots of critical thinking come from analytic philosophy (Greek Socratic tradition) and pragmatist constructivism (Buddhist teachings).

In this article, I’ll try to isolate the 3 most common steps to practice critical thinking which is similar to scientific skepticism.

1. Identify potential cognitive bias

Cognitive bias, such as the confirmation bias, is a pattern of deviation in judgment that occurs in particular situations. Everybody is more or less affected by it. The more you know about those biases, the less likely they are to affect your judgment negatively. Here are some well-known cognitive biases:

  • Confirmation bias: the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.
  • Mental filter: inability to view positive or negative features of an experience, for example, noticing only a tiny imperfection in a piece of otherwise useful clothing.
  • Gambler’s fallacy: the tendency to think that future probabilities are altered by past events, when in reality they are unchanged.  This results from an erroneous conceptualization of the Law of large numbers. For example, “I’ve flipped heads with this coin five times consecutively, so the chance of tails coming out on the sixth flip is much greater than heads.”
  • Overgeneralization: Extrapolating limited experiences and evidence to broad generalizations.

Sometimes journalists, politicians and even experts are affected by the overgeneralization bias and write like this: “The scientists confirmed global warming”. Try to replace words like “the scientists” or “the experts” respectively by “some scientists” and “some experts” which usually reflects the reality. It will give a very different meaning to the text. Be aware that identifying another’s bias is easier than identifying your own and don’t forget some people will use tricks to consciously manipulate opinion.

2. Separate facts from opinions

Anyone can post anything online and this is a great opening for narcissist leaders and other fake experts with extrovert personality.  The internet is full of information coming from these sources and a lot is based on opinions rather than facts. A critical thinker is able to separate the two.

You will prefer references to recent scientifical studies. Serious papers will reference multiple sources. But as you will see in next point, mentioning references is not a guarantee that the information and its interpretation are correct.

Always verify the credentials of the experts.  Has the business expert only created one or two businesses or has (s)he created several ones facing difficulties? Is it easy to find information about them or does any data about their past seem hidden or difficult to reach?

3. Analyze the data

To be reliable, the source must be based on empirical data that is produced by observation or experiment. The theory based on the experiment must be refutable.

“A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific”. Karl Popper

In human sciences, any experiment which aims to define a theory or methodology should be reproducible in at least 95% of the attempts. A good example of non scientific theory is the Freud’s Oedipus complex in psychology. There is no way to refute the theory because Freud states that if the behavior doesn’t appear, it’s because it is repressed.  There is no way to validate or invalidate the theory. Even if there is a possibility than the theory is true, there is no way to verify it and so it should treated with care.

Here are the research methods commonly used in human sciences:

  • Observation: usually the first step of research to attempt to identify potential causes of a behavior.
  • Surveys & tests: if you can’t observe thoughts, we can ask people to describe them. The problem with surveys is that you can’t be sure that the answers are correct.  Social desirability bias, demand characteristics, memory errors are some of the problems you will encounter in addition to the sampling bias. After that, when you interpret the results using correlational approach, it’s impossible to prove that changes in variable A causes changes in variable B. At best, this method can be used effectively to describe or predict a behavior (what), but not to explain it (why).
  • Case study: this is the most popular research method in software as it is easy to do. Observe a few persons and try to determine a pattern. You can’t really prove a causal effect,  just like with surveys. But like observation, this is a good first step for the experimental approach.
  • Experimental: the experimental approach is the only type of methodology that, if well conducted, is able to make causal statements.  They are very difficult to carry out, especially in the field of software development. A well conducted experiment will include the following:

Have you ever read a book written by successful entrepreneur or software developer that converted his own and unique experience into a methodology? Your critical thinking would force you to evaluate the methodology by calculating how many successes have been made out of the millions readers. How many of these would have been successes anyway even without applying the methodology? As a reader with critical thinking you will be able to take what is useful in the book and leave the rest for what it is: a case study at best, observation in most cases. This applies, of course, to any source of information.

But even the results of well conducted studies can be wrongly interpreted, consciously or not, by the person that mentions it. Sometimes it is even conscious: a great example is how some people are caught lying with statistics. Politicians against the decriminalization of marijuana claimed that studies showed 87% of heroin addicts started by using cannabis. Cannabis would  therefore lead inevitably to hard drugs. What they forgot to mention are the millions of people smoking cannabis that never use heroin. The information is true, but manipulated.  In fact, we could present a study that demonstrates that 100% of heroin addicts used coca-cola! Should we prohibit coca-cola?

The 3 steps

Developing a critical mind is not easy, and we must be prepared to accept that a certain number of our current beliefs are wrong. To summarize, here are the three steps to follow to ensure you won’t be intoxicated by the information you gather:

  1. Step 1: identify potential cognitive bias.
  2. Step 2: separate facts from opinions.
  3. Step 3: analyze the data.
To learn more

How much of your current knowledge and beliefs are opinions rather than facts?

Check the cognitive bias list on Wikipedia to learn more about them. You can read more about the different methods summarized above on this page.

Book recommendations: