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Defining Worst Practices

Worst practices are at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive. Just like a bad investment can end up costing you a ton of money, bad practices can steal your time, energy, and productivity.

Some of these practices are worse than others: some are minor infractions that simply waste your time or decrease your productivity, while others are major problems that can cause projects to fail.

Sometimes a bad practice can be not doing anything at all, just like burying all your money in the backyard can be a bad investment over the long haul because of inflation. Other times it is a mistake that occurs so often, to so many people, that although no one would call it a “practice,” it might as well be since it is so common.

Understanding the worst practices and working to avoid them is a valuable undertaking. Falling prey to them can easily undermine your efforts even if you are using all of the best practices. To become an effective time manager you certainly need to use the best practices, but you also need to avoid the worst ones.

For every best practice there is usually a set of related worst practices covering the same situation or desired result. For example, the best practice of effective delegation has the corresponding worst practices of doing everything yourself and backward delegation.

Worst practices are counterproductive and ineffective for various reasons, but these are the three most common:

Violate a principle

Many worst practices are bad simply because they violate a natural law or principle. As I’ve mentioned before, principles are basic laws that govern our life whether we accept them or not. Practices that defy a principle are fundamentally flawed and are destined to bring you pain and negative results.

These practices tend to be particularly bad because you may not even be aware that you are violating a key principle by using them; maybe you are just doing what you’ve been told or what you’ve been doing for years. When you discover that a practice is working against a fundamental law or principle, you have little choice in the matter. The principle is not going to budge for your sake. You must change and start using a better practice.

The story of the captain vs. the lighthouse provides a humorous illustration of what it's like to realize you are clashing with a principle. When you are confronted head on with a lighthouse principle, your only real choices are to change or face the consequences.

Based on an inaccurate or incorrect paradigm

A second reason worst practices fail so miserably is that they are often based on an inaccurate or incorrect paradigm. An earlier example clearly illustrated that ‘cures’ such as bleeding or drilling the skull of patients that were often used by medieval doctors were based on the false belief that evil spirits in the blood are the source of sickness. These practices were counterproductive—often killing the patients instead of curing them—because the highly ineffective paradigm from which they originated was not based on reality; instead, it was based on imagination, mythology, superstition, and fear.

Similarly, there are ineffective paradigms of time management that although widely believed and utilized, are no more real than evil spirits in the blood. Just like the ‘cures’ used by medieval doctors, the practices that flow from these flawed paradigms are counterproductive. Not all these paradigms are complete fantasies; some may have started with grain of truth that has been exaggerated or distorted over the years, which may be part of the reason why some of them are so widely believed: they may seem to make sense at first glance, but they are incorrect or inaccurate nevertheless. Artemus Ward said “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It's the things we know that just ain’t so.”

People using practices based on these ineffective paradigms may think they know how to manage their time, but the fact is that they really don’t, and it is costing them big time in one way or another.

They simply do not work

The rest of the worst practices simply don’t work. They are just ineffective ways of handling some situation or trying to accomplish a particular task.


It may seem strange that worst practices are so widely used if they are really counterproductive and ineffective. Here are the top reasons why so many people keep falling prey to them:

Classic Mistakes – Some worst practices are common time management mistakes that so many people keep repeating over and over again that they deserve to be called worst practices.

Path of least resistance – Many of the worst practices represent the path of least resistance; the practice that involves the least amount of effort or discomfort for a given situation or task. Best practices usually require some initial investment of your time and effort before they give their payouts; they may also require you to step out of your comfort zone in order to use them effectively.

People that are unwilling to make this investment typically fall back to practices that don’t require any upfront effort or discomfort on their part, but many of these practices end up being worst practices that over the long run cause them to waste away their time.

Lack of Skill or Knowledge – Some people fall into the trap of a worst practice simply because they don’t know any better, or because they lack a necessary skill to use a better practice. These situations are easy to resolve once you learn about the better practice and develop the skills that you need.

Monkey Traps – I’ve heard that villagers in India use ingenious traps to catch monkeys. They burry jars in the ground leaving only the mouth of the jar exposed above ground. They then insert small treats that the monkeys love to eat into the jars. The jars have mouths that are just large enough for monkeys to squeeze their hands through when empty, but are too small for them to squeeze their hands out while holding on to a treat.

The monkeys come during the night and squeeze their hands into the jars to get the treats, but when they try to leave, they are unable to get their hands out of the jars while still holding on to the treat. The monkeys do not let go of the treat and can get stuck for hours, sometimes for days, until the villagers come to get them.

Even if these stories are exaggerations, the concept is still valuable because many worst practices are a lot like these monkey traps: they give you some sort of payoff for using them, but just like the monkeys, they keep you trapped and end up costing you much more than you receive.

These payoffs are not always obvious; often we are not even aware we are receiving them. For example, the emotional payoff of frequently dealing with urgent crises can develop into something you might call "urgency addiction."

In this example, the payoff from the urgency addiction is the sense of exhilaration, success, and validation that we feel when working on an urgent task, putting out a fire, or managing a crisis. The trap is that in doing so, we are often sacrificing more important tasks just to get the payoff.

Like the monkey traps, the only way to escape these worst practices is to give up the treat, to identify and give up the payoff.

Psychological Barriers – Not to long ago, I took the Bus Tour Ride in the word-famous San Diego Zoo. Out of all the exhibits that I saw that day, there is one that I vividly remember. As the bus stopped near the gazelle exhibit, our guide started talking about the gazelles and how they have an incredible leaping ability.

In the wild, gazelles can easily jump more than 30 feet in length. She then started asking if we noticed anything potentially wrong with the exhibit based on the information that she had just given us. Nobody knew what she was talking about until she pointed out the small ditch and concrete fence that separated us from the gazelles. This was a wide open exhibit: no cage, no bars; all that was standing between the gazelles and freedom was a small ditch and a small concrete fence less than 4 feet tall. The distance between the start of the ditch and the walkway was no more than 15 to 20 feet…

Then it hit me: any one of those gazelles could have easily jumped over the ditch and fence to escape. The gazelles clearly had the ability to escape. But as our guide pointed out, none of them ever had. At this point I was very curious to find out why none of the gazelles had escaped their prison when it was so easy for them to do so.

Our guide explained that the gazelles never escaped because researchers had found and established a psychological barrier. It turns out that, unless they are running for their lives, gazelles never jump unless they can see where they are going to land. This is probably a survival instinct imprinted in their brain through millions of years of evolution since, in the wild, a leg fracture occurring from a bad landing would have meant certain death.

The concrete fence in the exhibit, while not very tall, was high enough to prevent the gazelles from seeing where they were going to land; the result is that they never jump and try to escape! For the gazelles, this psychological barrier was just as real and effective as a solid concrete wall 100 feet tall.

Another example occurs with gibbons, which are small, slender apes that live in southeast Asia. Exhibit designers in the Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Thailand wanted to create an exhibit where people could see gibbons going about their normal lives without cages or other man-made obstacles obstructing the view. Their solution was to build the gibbon exhibit in an artificial island.

Since gibbons have a strong aversion to water, the water surrounding the island serves as a very effective psychological barrier that prevents the gibbons from leaving their territory. The designers were able to create an exhibit without having to use meshes or fences because of the power of the psychological barrier.

Just like many animals have psychological barriers that keep them in their exhibits, we are often faced with psychological barriers such as fear, worry, limiting beliefs, and doubt that prevent us from escaping the worst practices that are trapping us. Psychological barriers are sometimes more difficult to overcome than physical barriers because most of the time we don’t even realize they are there!

Bad habits – Many worst practices are simply bad habits that people have picked up over the years. Maybe they didn’t know it was a bad practice at the time, or that there were other better alternatives to use for that situation. Whatever the reason, they have used the practice so consistently that it is now internalized in the form of a bad habit.

The easiest way to break a bad habit is to replace it with another habit. You'll notice that most of the worst practices in time management have corresponding best practices working in the same area. The best way to eliminate a worst practice is to find and replace it with the matching best practice.

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