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A conversation with Marilyn Paul, author of "It's hard to make a difference when you can't find your keys"

Another treat in my interview series (kickoff post, all posts), I'm very pleased to share highlights from an hour with Dr. Marilyn Paul, author of the best-selling It's Hard to Make a Difference When You Can't Find Your Keys (The Seven-Step Path to Becoming Truly Organized) (personal and consulting sites). Not only is her book one of the top 10 in Amazon's self-help/time management category, it's also the first time management book recommended to me when starting my practice (the world repository of all knowledge says I read it read on 2005-10-01).

Like her book, our conversation covered a lot of topics, and I came away highly impressed. I hope you enjoy it! (If you'd like to hear more from Marilyn, check out this NPR interview from a while back: Overcoming E-Mail Overload at Work. I've pulled out her tips below [1].)

Getting started, and the book's origins

Like many of the leaders I've met in my field, Marilyn's story is rather non-traditional [2]. She has a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the School of Management at Yale University, and got started in the work of time management, organizing, and productivity because she struggled with these issues and realized she needed help. Having read a ton of organizing books and finding they didn't work, she decided to apply the principles of organizational Change Management - her speciality [3] - to herself. This came about after she sought out existing information and advice, but didn't get the help she needed.

As she evolved a new process and started sharing it via local workshops around the Boston area. In a lovely example of wild success, those workshops were overflowing (requiring her to turn people away), and she was inundated with requests for more events, and for the material. She kept doing the work, teaching and applying it to herself (in areas like clearing up the clutter and learning more about running on time), and over time collected lots of material. Then a friend looked at her workbook (fifty pages at the time) workbook and workshop, and said "This is a book." In a great example of Synchronicity, the next week after she bumped into three people were literary agents, one of them said she would work with her, and one thing went to another. Neat!

I asked Marilyn the total time from start to finish for this process, which she figured ("good question") to be about ten years.

Definition of productivity

Paul said she had worked with people on issues of productivity, but had not been considering it to be her issue. However, she pointed out that productivity is not really her focus either. She elaborated that she thinks of productivity as part of the "equation of living a good life," along with other important factors such as creating sanity in your home, having good relationships and connections, etc.

Paul said she's not sure the word "productivity" applies to life as a whole - it's part of the question how do we make work meaningful and valuable, and how do we do what we care about - Ready, Aim, Fire, rather than Ready, Fire, Aim [4]. As she puts it, it is not productivity so much that drives her as how do we live the best life that we can, given how different we each are. For GTD practitioners, this will seem a bit controversial - Allen's work is intentionally bottom-up (first get your life together, which makes room for uncovering what your life should be about). More on this below.

(An aside: I asked Marilyn the differences between "Organizing," "Productivity," and "Time management." I like her answer: Basically we don't need to make them distinct because there's lots of overlap. This makes my marketing a bit more challenging though!)


When asked about her influences, Paul said that, in terms of how she thinks of her work - organizational change - one great influence was Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization (see this FastCompany article for more on his work). This launched a field called Systems Thinking, based on what he called five disciplines for change. They include Team Learning, Shared Visioning, Personal Mastery, and Mental Models. And it's Mental Models that has to deal with how we use our minds (my favorite topic).

Other influences include Finding Time: How Corporations, Individuals, and Families Can Benefit from New Work Practices (Collection on Technology and Work) and The Secret Pulse of Time: Making Sense of Life's Scarcest Commodity.


On the importance of goals (think top-down), Marilyn said having clarity about them is crucial. While some people are very aware of their goals, many of us aren't (I wasn't), which means we're probably working from outdated ones (e.g., those from high school or college). This is especially relevant in the face of big changes like setting up life with a partner or having children. For example, these can kick off the need for work in emotional or spiritual areas.

She said it has to do with inspiration and aspiration, which inform everything else and which her work helps connect up. The goal is for us to live an inspired life, rather than the more typical "dragging ourselves through the day." Otherwise, we are too tired and don't have time to rest, relax, and connect.

Marilyn describes this goal discovery process as on-going. She says that in today's world many people have a lot of choice [5], and we don't really know how to work with them to even identify what our skills and abilities are. To illustrate she gives this quote from Nietzsche: "The greatest folly of mankind is that we forget what we are trying to do."

On the lack of self-management training

We talked a good bit about one of my favorite realizations in starting this work: that very few of us have been taught the essential skills and tools to manage ourselves. In workshops I point out that this is true regardless of background or education. The irony is that my clients (and readers) are very smart, and decide (often at a subconscious level) that self-management shouldn't be that hard. I continue to discover there are many reasons why that's not the case - information overload, the difficulty of changing habits (more next), procrastination, and perfectionism to name a few.

Marilyn took this further to say it's a curriculum that should be standard in high schools and colleges. By the end of high school, students should know how to use their talent via to do lists and other basics. Beyond that, she says we should also know personal traits like when our "prime time" is (e.g., being a morning person), how we are going to work with our biological givens, and then, if we procrastinate, why? What are my issues, what am dealing with, etc. See her book for much more on this.


An important topic I continue to explore is why is this work so difficult to adopt, which percolates down to changing habits. Paul acknowledges it's very hard to change habits, and is a major motivator in writing her book. She says you have to start with an strong desire to change (which, she pointed out, is what happened with me and kicked off my whole process), and that is probably what happens with people who really are able to make a change.

She frames this as the first stage of the work, and involves assessing what is at stake. Examples include not finding the stuff in your office, piles on your desk, or being a nice guy but having apologize a lot. Each of these has costs, and once people are aware of them (say in checking email vs. working on goals) they're more motivated to change. (My Alexander Technique [6] teacher calls this "making meaning," a phrase I like.)

This goes to addressing the top-down vs. bottom-up issue. Paul argues that people who make a change (e.g., adopting new self-management tools - a bottom-up process) have already realized they can't go on with the old behaviors because something important's at stake. However, the process is iterative: Feel some pain, get some initial help (e.g., read a book or get a tool), try it out, experience some improvement, and repeat. (In fact, this is why I cheated when asked the my ultimate productivity tip. There is no single tip - it's a process, and starting people on the road is what I do.)

For more on building a new habit, I have an excerpt from her book below [7].

Getting clients

I asked Marilyn how she built her practice. Interestingly, she is not out on the circuit, and is only teaching on the East Coast. The people who come to her are capable and competent people in many, many ways, who have tried other work, but the ways they organize themselves and manage their time are getting in their way. They are also dealing with health issues (e.g., issues around weight, chronic fatigue, and family issues, marital issues), which Paul deals with as part of addressing their whole life, not just isolated aspects.

Much of her work is word of mouth - personal referral - with some clients learning about her through through her website, workshops, and her book, which is becoming a huge contributor to her practice.

Work awareness, courage

Marilyn is developing a concept she calls Phantom Workload. I'll let her explain it:
By Phantom workload we mean the extra, redundant, unnecessary work that is created through procrastination (e.g., now I have to run to the PO to FedEx my mortgage payment instead of putting it in the mail or paying on line), through avoidance (e.g., now I have to have a long two hour conversation with my failing employee because I avoided giving good helpful feedback in a timely way because I didn't know what to say), or using quick fixes (e.g., we'll promise the customer what he or she wants - a common quick fix - only now we have a product that they want, but it is full of bugs and they are really disappointed in us, we are losing our credibility with them - very time consuming and expensive).
As part of this, Paul points out it takes courage to change these kinds of behaviors, and we want to be in a workplace where people are rewarded and respected for this. We want to be working with people who are addressing that quality in themselves, so that when you speak up and say something unpopular, someone else will support you rather than shoot you down. This means that when her team works with organizations, they target those issues because, as she puts it, courage is a big part of time management.

Here's a scenario: You are in your office, someone walks in the door, knock, knock, knock, can I come in? You stand up, walk over to the door, and say," How can I help you?" In that little moment of standing up, walking to the door right next to them, and saying that, you are signaling some important points about the conversation - how long you can talk, that your time is important, etc. This can be personally challenging to do, but is very different from saying, "Sure, I can help. Come in and sit down." Good stuff!

The meta question

In answer to my "meta" question ("What haven't I asked you that you have a good answer to?") Paul said one of the big questions that people have around productivity is creating a frame of mind. How do we create a productive frame of mind, decide what that is, and how do we shift from an action-oriented productive frame of mind to a different kind of focus, e.g., where we can say "It is a beautiful day." She thinks those require some changes in our brain so that we can move back and forth and selectively choose different states of mind. I think this is huge.

Thanks, Marilyn!


  • [1] Her tips for managing your email:
    1. Meet as a team to review e-mail use. Identify what works, what doesn't, and why. Create a trial period for improvement: Meet to discuss after a week.
    2. Use subject-line protocols to speed communication: a.) No reply needed - NRN; b.) Thank you - TY; c.) Need response by date and time - NRB 10/30 3:00 pm; d.) Use subject line for whole message: Meet 10:00 10/30 Okay? END
    3. Determine who needs to be copied on what, what needs to be read, and what needs to be filed.
    4. Keep e-mails short. Most should be no more than 1-10 sentences. Communicate your main point in the first sentence or two. Don't make readers work because you don't have time to focus.
    5. Don't deliver bad news in an e-mail message. If it's urgent, pick up the phone. Use tone of voice to indicate concern, but not anger.
    6. After two rounds of problem-solving on e-mail, pick up the phone.
    7. Don't hide behind e-mail. Any sensitive communications should be done in person.
    8. If you can't answer a request immediately, let the other party know when you can respond, or if you can't.
    9. NO EMOTIONAL E-MAILS: To resolve a conflict, schedule a meeting or use the phone. E-mail arguments tend to be huge time-wasters. Never send a hasty, irritated response to an annoying e-mail -- jobs have been lost that way.
  • [2] I don't mean to slight other professions. By traditional I mean a more structured path to work, such as through college, training, or apprenticiships. Believe me, I make no judments about how someone comes to do wokrk they love. And because there are as many routes as there are people, there are lots of good stories to share!
  • [3] Change Manager is definitely a cool job title - see Genius, purpose, and cool job descriptions - What are *you* built to do?
  • [4] This is a really interesting point, and you can make arguments both ways. RAF has value in being more principled - moving from goals/purpose to action. However, smart people (my consulting market, essentially) often suffer from "analysis paralysis" (AKA "too smart to start"), so some action before direction can help get unstuck. Also, we often over-plan (esp. small-to-medium sized projects), and RFA helps move us along the action-discovery-reflect cycle (which I just made up). Steve Pavlina calls thisfailing your way forward.
  • [5] For example see The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.
  • [6] See Reflections on Alexander Technique and personal productivity.
  • [7] On building a new habit:
    1. Pick one small habit that you'd really like to change.
    2. Estimate what it costs you to keep this habit.
    3. Become aware of your thoughts that accompany this habit.
    4. Check your deeply held beliefs for validity.
    5. Create a picture of a new, better habit. Actually act it out.
    6. Remind yourself of how your new habit will nurture your vision and purpose.
    7. Interrupt the old habit with a shout, music, or a "No!"
    8. Reinforce your new behavior with new thoughts.
    9. Reward yourself for the new behavior.
    10. Get lots of support; ask for help from all your support sources.

Reader Comments (4)

These interviews are getting better and better. I do wish you'd had found out some of the common reasons why people don't get organized and productive. The steps are really pretty simple, and I think that Marilyn's work -- identifying the reasons why people don't change -- is important. But I'd love to hear some of the common issues.

January 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDan Markovitz

I hear you, Dan. It's a real challenge keeping the questions limited to fit into one hour. I figure about 2 minutes/question, which makes 30 of them. It's like having $1 in the candy store - so many choices! Also, I go with the flow of the conversation. If she's excited about something, or if I find it interesting, I adapt.

Thanks for reading. I continue to enjoy your [ great blog | http://www.timebackmanagement.com/timeback-blog ].

January 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Word of the day: Phantom Workload. I get a lot of this all the time. Honestly speaking, I'm one of those people her book targets. I can be productive at times but basically, I'm just disorganized from A to Z. Unfortunately, although I would like to say being messy has nothing to do with how I deal with work, that really doesn't ring true. It does affect me. By drops or by pails, it doesn't matter. The fact remains that it really is hard to make a difference when you can't even manage the simplest things.

Thanks very much for your story, Jen. And I agree re: making a difference. It's a very big point (and a great title).

(P.S. I'm pleased to have your comment to this interview. I'm getting the sense that readers are losing interest in the series. I'm certainly not - there's a lot to learn from each of these. I do think I'll slow down for a bit, unless there's some strong pushback.)

January 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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