Jan 16, 2022

Mind Management Not Time Management

Mind Management Not Time Management

Mind Management Not Time Management

Nathan King

Every day a slew of possible tasks hatch in my mind, like dozens of baby spiders emerging from an egg sack. They start to crawl everywhere in my consciousness. I want to wrangle them onto a list—a clean, easy to follow sequential series of tasks to complete systematically and restore my life to calm, but there are too many. 

It seems like a problem of time. I think that I can just fill 8 (or 10, or 12) hours accomplishing tasks. But when the day is done, so much seems left undone. The pattern repeats the next day. 

At the end of the week the spiders have set up shop. They have spun cobwebs of anxiety. It just doesn't work.

Productivity Is Not about Time Management

In his book, Mind Management, Not Time Management, David Kadavy makes the case that time is not the real problem here. Organizing and completing our tasks relate first to energy, not time.  “Time management,” he writes, “is like squeezing blood from a stone.”

This is a book about maximizing your return on your efforts with knowledge work. It is about living in an unstructured environment, where valuable ideas spring from novel connections: the intriguing marketing plan that catapults your company forward, writing a book worth reading, or designing a garden that brings peace and beauty to your property.

Mental energy and managing the mind are both vague phrases, and Kadavy unpacks them in his book, revealing a framework for organizing and executing your work according to mental states.

The 7 Mental States

Kadavy argues that there are seven mental states, and for us to maximize effectiveness, we need to understand when we are in each of them and how to align ourselves with them.

The seven states of mind that we operate in are generate, prioritize, research, explore, administrate, polish, and recover. 

To give you a sense of how these mental states operate on us, let’s assume that I want to create a presentation to propose a new strategy for my company. I need to fit this work in amongst my other tasks, which include scheduling a meeting to discuss the annual budget, attending a meeting to solve an invoicing problem, and responding to all of the emails in my inbox. Reviewing my calendar for available time on when to work on this project, I declare to myself that I will spend an hour at 4:00 PM on a Monday afternoon, because that is the time I have at work. I will plan to methodically crank out those slides and be done. Simple!

But I didn't plan that a co-worker would identify a problem that they wanted my help to solve, requiring 35 minutes of listening intently and talking through various dimensions of the problem. And I didn't anticipate that I would receive an email from a customer that day complaining about how they are dissatisfied with a part of our service and that I need to prioritize solving that. Nor did I realize that the budget discussion referenced earlier would require an intense search for activities related to a project completed last year. 

When 4:00 comes around, assuming I even still have that time available, my mind is frazzled, and I don't have the creative energy to develop the slides on my task list. I open PowerPoint, and then I...check email to see if there is anything quick and easy that I can respond to. 

In the scenario I described above, my energy is more attuned with the Administrate state at that 4:00 hour, which is "taking care of details that make your creative work possible." Examples of this state include not only processing your email, but paying a bill, completing an expense report, or organizing your desk. In the scenario above, scheduling an internal meeting to discuss the customer's concerns would fit this, as would organizing my notes from the discussion with the person who expressed his concern to me. 

The work that needed to be done in this example, creative work requiring focus and concentration to produce a PowerPoint document that clearly communicates insights, requires the Generate mental state, which is “the time to do the work.” Other examples of this include building the financial model in Excel, creating a lesson plan, or crafting a sales narrative. 

For the other mental states, the Explore mental state is “less focused…[and] calls for being attuned to your curiosity.” It is the frame of mind for brainstorming new ways to solve problems at work, reviewing various websites for garden design ideas, or thumbing through a book of poetry looking for an example illustration.

The Research mental state is quite straight forward: it is when you are “searching for specific answers to specific questions,” like “getting the facts straight.” If you have spent time in the Generate state creating a strategy document where as part of your analysis you have asserted that the industry has grown significantly in the last 3 years. At another time, while in the Research state, you would review trade association websites, or analyst reports, perhaps even your own notes, for the answer. 

Energy and prioritization work hand in hand. In the Prioritize mental state, you plan what you need to do. It is the state of mind for the quick review of your calendar for what you need to prepare for today, or the time you set to review your projects and goals, like the weekly review of GTD. 

The Polish mental state is where editing happens. To use the strategy PowerPoint example above, it would be checking the grammar, cleaning up awkward wording, adjusting the layout of images and shapes. 

Finally, the Recharge mental state is down time for leisure or rest.

Kadavy’s framework led me to consider how time and energy work together to influence, and perhaps dictate, what I produce in the world, and it is the most valuable part of the book. Paying attention to energy helps me assign tasks more effectively to the mental posture I have at the time and causes me to prioritize my time more carefully. 

In a tweet shortly after publication, the author showed an example of how he categorizes his tasks in his task manager, using labels, by each type of mental state.

By carefully organizing your tasks, and managing your schedule so that you tend to the right task when you have the right energy, your busy schedule can accommodate more productivity than you otherwise thought possible.

Time and the “Stupid Little Dog”

It’s not that time is irrelevant to productivity. In The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker writes that, “effective executives...start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They find out where their time goes.”[1] Understanding time and how we use it is instrumental to a life spent contributing significantly. Kadavy even suggests tracking where your time goes:

A year of practice in estimating the time tasks took changed the way I saw time forever. My experience throughout my day shifted from being an amorphous blur of half-baked intentions that rarely became real, into a somewhat coherent and lucid progression.

He illustrates this coherency with buckets of time, organized by mental state, spread across his days. 

When it came time to plan his week, he filled the buckets appropriately. This methodology also has the benefit of making time in general, and more specifically, individual days, more digestible. As I’ve written elsewhere, when projects or goals are not digestible, we don’t accomplish them. 

Jerry Seinfeld addresses this problem as it relates to producing stand up comedy material, a practice he has consistently done for over 40 years. 

“The mind,” Seinfeld says, “is infinite in [its capacity for] wisdom. The brain is a stupid, little dog that is easily trained. Do not confuse the mind with the brain. The brain is so easy to master. You just have to confine it. You confine it…through repetition and systematization.” [2]

Kadavy’s advocates confining the brain by applying these mental states to limited periods of time. This can help with distraction and procrastination, and he writes, “If you have eight hours in the day to work, there’s plenty of time to procrastinate. But if you’ve identified a two-hour block in which you can be several times more productive than any other time of day, it creates a sense of urgency…Instead of ‘write a book,’ your to-do item is now ‘brainstorm 500 words on chapter seven,’ or ‘research the life of Ignaz Semmelweis.’

Using the Book in Your Life: Opportunity and Cautions

The book has caused me to match what tasks I need to accomplish with the mental state that Kadavy describes. I have used that approach in my own task management system for the last several months, and have benefited by looking at tasks by mental state when determining the next thing I need to work on, as well as blocking time in my calendar for tasks according to mental state. I’ve applied a more conscientious method to working on creative or analytical work early in the day, and preferably early in the week. I’ve delayed administrative tasks, like expense reports, scheduling meetings, or other administrative tasks until the end of the day, when my mind is less receptive to clear thinking. And I’ve seen clear benefits from his approach.

A problem with his framework is applying it consistently. Questions about how to sustain such a systematic approach amidst the messiness of life came up for me as I read. Kadavy provides plenty of examples from his own life of how he manages his time, but some readers may quickly object that nothing like the chronic demands of young children (which I have) appear to be a part of his life, who wreak absolute havoc on the ability to control time and align it with a mental state. 

And Kadavy, an author and podcaster whose background is software design, doesn’t work within an organization that has a claim on his time. From a company’s perspective, they create strength “ by lavishly using the executive’s time,” [3] as Drucker noted, which results in the imposition of meetings and activities that don’t fit within a framework easily. For someone who works within a growing organization requiring high degrees of coordination and an absence of clarity, meetings are frequent and it is often not possible to retain ownership over a schedule. I have found myself forced to adopt a Generate mental state during evenings or mid-afternoons, after a long day. Sometimes less than ideal production is required when the alternative is no production at all.

In his defense, he did describe in detail a personal example of a tragic family illness to illustrate how he contends with circumstances beyond his control, along with another example of visa problems during an extended stay in Colombia that thwarted his plans, but these felt more like rare anomalies, extreme events that recede back to a time of normalcy.

A final imperfection is that any book dealing with the mind should account for psychological challenges that hold us back. Procrastination does in fact arise from the failure to make a project clear, which simple steps can overcome, but it can also come from a deep rooted fear linked to a childhood trauma. Mental states cannot be managed without mental health.

I should add that these criticisms are better directed broadly to the genre of productivity books, and take aim also at readers’ expectations. Humans are flawed creatures, and even with good intentions, our lives are made messy by our own imperfections and the actions of other imperfect humans interacting with us. Contending with the troubles of our own pasts, the ready distractions our (“stupid little dog”) brains love, the needs and demands of our colleagues, spouses, bosses, children, and friends, is like an earthquake for the fragile, sophisticated beauty of any productivity system. 

I’m glad I read this book, and I will continue to work on applying these concepts as I seek to tame the wildness of reality and produce something meaningful that impacts those around me while bringing me joy, free from cobwebs of anxiety. Anyone seeking to improve the quality of their work in the modern era of competing priorities will benefit from reading and contemplating this book.


[1] Drucker, Peter. The Effective Executive. 2006. p25.

[2] Interview on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast. December 9, 2020.

[3] The Effective Executive, p31.




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