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Monday Master Class: Apply Weakest Link Theory to Time Management

July 23rd, 2007 · 4 comments

We start, as usual, with a story. If you want to get right to the meaty advice, skip ahead to the heading labeled: The Weakest Link in Time Management.

The Hidden Danger of the Weakest Link

The heat shield that protects the modern Space Shuttle is a marvel of modern material science. To understand the importance of this collection of Nomex-mounted silica tiles, is to understand the limitations of previous technology. The Apollo command module, and the smaller Gemini orbiters that preceded it, relied on ablative heat shields. These were, in essence, large and, more importantly from the perspective of space flight, heavy hunks of metals that literally melted away as the vehicle battled the intense friction of earth’s atmosphere during reentry. When the shuttle program was initiated, it soon became clear that an ablative solution would not work for a vehicle as large as the space shuttle. It would be too heavy and too cumbersome.

Thus began the development of what eventually became known as the Thermal Protection System (TPS). The resulting technology was nothing short of spectacular. Lightweight silicon-based tiles were invented that could withstand temperatures in excess of 2300 degrees Fahrenheit. Even more impressive, they could be taken from this extreme heat and thrust into extreme cold, like that found in the vacuum of space, or the icy pre-dawn mornings of Cape Canaveral, and suffer no deformation. The ability for the material to radiate away heat is so efficient that material scientists discovered that they could grab the tiles, with unprotected hands, only seconds after removing them from a 2000 degree oven. Over 31,000 of these tiles are carefully layered under the underside of the shuttle, allowing it to make over two dozen re-entries before needing major repair. This is, to put is plainly, a miracle of material science. A quantum leap from the technology of Apollo that dominated just a decade earlier.

Then, in 2003, the Columbia was destroyed.

Hot gases, generated by the intense heat of reentry, had penetrated into the right wing, literally disintegrating the internal structure. Once the wing was gone the rest of shuttle quickly broke apart — unable to resist the torque and torsion subjected on its compromised structure. How did the miracle tiles of the TPS system fail so spectacularly? They didn’t. The tiles did what they were engineered to do; absorb extreme heat and radiate it away. The problem had occurred during lift-off when a chunk of insulating foam, roughly the size of a briefcase, had careened from the main fuel tank and knocked loose a single five inch tile over the wing. That small gap was all it took for the relentless, super-heated bi-products of re-entry to find their opening and cause their devastation.

The Columbia was a victim of what the engineering community calls Weakest Link Theory. A system failure can occur at any vulnerable point. Over-engineering the most obvious problem areas does not increase the overall effectiveness of the system so long as any vulnerabilities exist. The tiles worked perfectly. The weak link in the system, however, was the presence of debris that could knock one or more of these miracle tiles loose. It was the aerospace equivalent of the homeowner who installs a heavy-duty, steel deadbolt to his front door, then forgets to close the nearby window.

Weakest Link Theory, as it turns out, also has an interesting story to tell about one of the most important pieces to a successful college career: time management.

The Weakest Link in Time Management

The adoption of a time management system is often the result of an extreme encounter with stress. Upset by the chaos born of an uncontrolled schedule, the hypothetical student decides to inject order back into his life. Soon, an impressive time management system is born. Every to-do will be captured immediately! Project lists will be broken down, tasks categorized! Daily time blocking will root out wasted minutes, and keep days productive!

Fast forward six weeks. The system is long forgotten. The chaos level once again begins to rise.

The mistake made here is to over-engineer one piece of the time management solution and neglect the others. Namely, we like to focus on capture and organization. What is the optimal way to intake, sort, and plan the various obligations that enter our life? But we tend to overlook how difficult it is to restart our brilliant system after an inevitable period of neglect.

In short: the restart complexity is the weakest link of time management.

If this link fails, then the system is a dud. It will last, at most, one or two months, before the first period of malaise cripples it permanently. How do you ensure your time management system avoids these problems? Here are three simple rules:

(1) The 15-minute restart. After one or two weeks of neglect, it should take only fifteen minutes of processing to arrive at a state indistinguishable from one in which you took no time off from the system. The hidden danger here is your e-mail inbox. In a week, it’s easy for hundreds of messages to pile-up. If your restart requires you to examine and act on every message, you’ll never make the 15 minute deadline. My implementation of GTDCS, for example, uses context labels in Gmail. I can clear an inbox as quickly as I can label and archive the messages it contains. Once processed in this manner, they are in the system. Restart accomplished.

(2) The stateless schedule. Your system should not require you to maintain any day-specific records. For example, some systems record the time you spent on each activity during the day. This thwarts easy restarts because, after a period of neglect, there are holes in your data that cannot be (easily) re-filled;. This weakens the integrity of the entire scheme. GTD-based systems satisfy this requirement because of their simple review-then-act structure.

(3) The bare-bones material requirement. The complexity of a restart is directly proportional to the complexity of the materials used in your system. If you use complicated custom software, located only on your dorm room computer, then restart is hard. You have to go to that location, load the program, then manually bring it back up to speed. (Which is why, incidentally, I am wary of solutions such as thus derived from Omni Outliner Pro, for use by students). Better alternatives include: a legal pad that never leaves your backpack and/or your online e-mail client. Simplify as much as humanly possible.

4 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: Apply Weakest Link Theory to Time Management

  1. Maru says:

    Hey Cal,

    I’m surprised this thread hasn’t gotten more comments. From my experience, someone who is just starting on GTD or some other type of list-based task management system should expect to lose track and restart three or four times before they actually consistently use the system for a long time. (i.e. The six-week cycle you mention is repeated a few times before one is consistent.)
    And if it takes longer to restart, the longer people will procrastinate putting in the time investment to get back on track…

    – Maru

  2. Study Hacks says:

    Thanks Maru. I think the article has been overlooked since it was from the early days of the blog, before I had readers…I hope to drive some new attention this way.

  3. Hung-Su says:

    “The adoption of a time management system is often the result of an extreme encounter with stress. Upset by the chaos born of an uncontrolled schedule, the hypothetical student decides to inject order back into his life. Soon, an impressive time management system is born. Every to-do will be captured immediately! Project lists will be broken down, tasks categorized! Daily time blocking will root out wasted minutes, and keep days productive!”

    I can relate to this so much it’s frightening. I discovered GTD, 80-20, and productivity in general as a result of massive course failure nearly a year ago, and truly doing the tasks I have appointed myself has been a shaky affair.

    I like the idea of the 15 minute restart. But for me, the problem is not restart complexity, it’s restart motivation. My email is almost zero most days, I have shed my old time scheduler (www.gradefix.com) and only use outlook as my task manager and calendar. I’m so relaxed I just don’t do anything. Since this is my problem I don’t have a solution, but the topic of restart motivation over complexity might be an interesting topic for a future post =)

  4. Study Hacks says:

    I like the idea of the 15 minute restart. But for me, the problem is not restart complexity, it’s restart motivation. My email is almost zero most days, I have shed my old time scheduler (www.gradefix.com) and only use outlook as my task manager and calendar. I’m so relaxed I just don’t do anything.

    Sounds to me like there isn’t anything else for you to do. You have basic system that seems to handle what you need. Go with that…

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