March 3, 2015
You’ve probably heard this time-management advice before: don’t just use your calendar for meetings with other people. Also schedule appointments with yourself and treat them as holy. If you’re like me, that trick somehow never seems to work. It sounds nice on paper. But when there’s an urgent request from your boss or client coming in, which is the easiest meeting to cancel? The one with yourself.
Recently I came across a different variation on the schedule-time-with-yourself-on your-calendar-concept. In "How to Stop Being Lazy and Get More Done: 5 Expert Tips”, bakadesuyo.com summarizes five tips from author Cal Newport. First tip? "To-Do Lists Are Evil. Schedule Everything”. He explains:
Scheduling forces you to confront the reality of how much time you actually have and how long things will take. Now that you look at the whole picture you’re able to get something productive out of every free hour you have in your workday. You not only squeeze more work in but you’re able to put work into places where you can do it best."
He then goes on with his second advice, recommending to work backwards from the end of your day:
Fix your ideal schedule, then work backwards to make everything fit — ruthlessly culling obligations, turning people down, becoming hard to reach, and shedding marginally useful tasks along the way. My experience in trying to make that fixed schedule a reality forces any number of really smart and useful in-the-moment productivity decisions."
The idea to consider todo lists completely useless is a bit too radical for me. As I’ve written previously, I’m quite happy with Asana and before that lived by Todoist and OmniFocus. However, Newport has a point when he says:
Until it’s on your calendar and assigned an hour, it’s just a list of wishful thinking."
Too often, we’re too optimistic in estimating how much time a task will take. Especially when we do the calculations roughly in our heads while making our todo lists. The day ahead always seems to offer more possibility than it actually holds. This is where your calendar comes in.
During my previous attempts to involve my calendar in managing tasks, I only used it for some activities. For example, schedule a block of time on Tuesday at 11 am, to work on a complicated client proposal I had been putting off for a while. This never worked. Inspired by Newport, I’ve started following a different approach in the past weeks using these steps:
The above list of steps to take is pretty straightforward, except perhaps the last point. Should you schedule every little task on your calendar? What about email? What if you can’t fit it all in? Let’s start with the latter. The first thing you’ll notice is that all the things you marked for today on your todo list, don’t fit on your calendar.
This is exactly the point. The calendar makes painfully clear how limited your time is. Instead of ignoring this reality and having a go at an unrealistic list, use your calendar to make the trade-offs at the start of your day. This ensures you get the right stuff done, but also gives you a much more satisfying feeling at the end of your day.
Big tasks can easily be planned with 30, 60 or 90-minute blocks on your calendar. But what about the really small stuff? It’s not worth the effort to cram a lot of little five and ten-minute blocks into your schedule. First of all, ask yourself: “Should it be on my todo list at all?”. Remember the two-minute rule from Getting Things Done:
If it can be done in under two minutes, it should be done immediately.
For everything else, you need to figure out how much time that small stuff usually takes you each day. In my case, I group small busywork with email and plan one block of 90 minutes per day (usually towards the end of my day). I’ve found this to be sufficient to stay on top of things and get my inbox empty. Since I’m completely in charge of my own schedule and my email load is reasonable these days, this works for me. If you’re in a more rigid structure (employed in an office with fixed hours) and are expected to answer email faster, you might want to have separate and multiple blocks per day for email and busywork.
Besides being much better at estimating how many tasks you can realistically get done, there’s another advantage. Having a clearly defined schedule gives you a sense of urgency. You don’t want to fall behind your plan, which in turn makes you more focused and less prone to distraction. Not only that, I found myself wanting to beat the schedule. Some days I might get a little behind, but on most I get ahead of things, actually finding myself getting more done than I had initially planned. Compare ending your day that way with staring at a list of unfinished todo’s by day’s end!
The last key is to be slightly pessimistic. Schedule some buffer time between each task and meeting. When you think something will take 30 minutes, schedule 40. This will give you room for unexpected events and interruptions. Depending on the nature of your job, you might also need substantial amount of general buffer time for emergencies which come up. If your job is such, try for example to only schedule tasks for the morning. Leave the entire afternoon for meetings and emergencies.
For a final turbocharge of this entire strategy, use this scheduling trick in combination with timed work rhythms such as the Pomodoro Technique. This will ensure an even higher level of focus on the tasks to be done. To sum it all up: