How Can You Reach the Promised Land? — A Calendar of All Tasks

I bet you’ve heard the saying that “What gets scheduled gets done.” At the same time you may have wondered: “What does that mean for me?” or “What should I do differently?”

If you’re like most people who ask these questions, your mind immediately envisions a new you: one who schedules every task successfully, never arrives late, never over-promises and never forgets a single obligation to yourself or to others. It would be a rebooted, productive version of your current self… at peace knowing that all the stuff you intend to do, but aren’t doing at the moment, is safely tucked away until later.

More likely than not, this Promised Land continues to evade you despite all your efforts. Somewhere along the way, something unwanted happened and you gave up, consoling yourself that it cannot be done, anyway.

– Maybe you took a look around you. No-one you knew was trying to schedule all their tasks. Plus, the most productive ones weren’t making an attempt, so why should you? It’s so much easier to copy what they are doing… no need to go overboard.

– Maybe you read the words of a blogger or author who advised against this approach altogether. Shamed into thinking you were doing something stupid, you dropped the idea.

– Or maybe, just maybe, you actually tried to schedule all your tasks using a paper or digital calendar. Sure, it worked for a while. But then, after a stressful day with lots of unwanted surprises, you became overwhelmed and just quit. It was just too depressing to see a carefully crafted plan go up in smoke, sometimes within minutes. Plus, who has the bandwidth to re-adjust their entire schedule every time the inevitable disruption occurs?

The overall effect? Disappointment. Jaded, perhaps you even became someone who told everyone that “Total Task Scheduling” does not work.

But in the back of your mind you never lost sight of the original vision. Even now, when you add a task to your calendar, you know that it’s different from leaving it to be buried in your To-Do List. “If it works for one task,” you still ask yourself, “why couldn’t I get it to work for all of them?” It seems as if it should work, and it shouldn’t be hard.
Looking for Help

Unfortunately, there has been little assistance in answering this question.

Now and then, you run into someone who claims to be “scheduling everything.” Authors like Cal Newport and Kevin Kruse make it clear that you are not alone in having a vision of a new you. Others do it, they say, citing their personal experience, case studies and research of successful people.

But rather than inspiring you to try again, this new exposure only brings back your disappointment, even as it reminds you of that original vision you once had. As they exhort readers to become Total Task Schedulers, you struggle to see where you went wrong.
Finding Best Practices and Practitioners

To get some answers, perhaps you turned to Google, like I did. “Somewhere,” I thought, “there must be others who are trying.” After a year of searching, I gave up and started Schedule U. As they say, if you can’t find the right group to join, start your own!

But, I’m fortunate. In the past couple of years I have become a daily user of SkedPal, one of the few auto-schedulers designed to help people achieve the goal of Total Task Scheduling. Being an adviser to the founder of the software, I have shared its features while testing early versions of its desktop and mobile apps. Plus, I contribute to a tiny community providing Beta-version feedback.

It’s led me back to a thought I had when writing Perfect Time-Based Productivity in 2014. Becoming a Total Task Scheduler isn’t easy, even with the use of an auto-scheduler. Both manual and app-driven approaches require the user to combine technology and personal practices, a feat left to the individual to discover.

So I launched Schedule U, a place of learning for people to find success stories and explain them in plain language. Fortunately, there are quite a few of people sharing how they do it which I have pulled together into a free training called A Course in Scheduling.

If you ever had a vision of the peace of mind which can come from a calendar of all your tasks, join us there.

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Thanks to my proofreaders — Glen Buchwald, Melanie Wilson, Jeneil Stephen, Robin Blanc, Catherine Munson.

How Do You Learn to Schedule Everything?

With that question in mind, I’d like to give you a heads up about a new initiative here at 2Time Labs.
It’s called Schedule U – a School for Scheduling Everything.

I don’t want to say too much just yet, but if you are interested in where this might be going, we do have a single page setup for early notification at www.scheduleu.org

CEO’s and College Students – Do They Manage Their Time in Similar Ways?

It’s an intriguing thought. Are there similarities in the ways that CEO’s and college students manage their time?

It’s a topic that I’m giving some attention to due to some research that I uncovered while reading an article about the ways that law students manage their time.

My first effort to delve into this topic came in the form of a recent article I wrote for the Jamaica Gleaner – How to Manage Your Time Like a CEO.

Solving Scheduling Problems – Summary of Our Findings

There are a handful of working professionals who have chosen to use their calendars as their hub for all their planning activity.

The challenges they run into are only rarely mentioned in time management and productivity books, programs and websites: the overwhelming conventional wisdom states that it’s impossible to use a schedule in this way, and that one should only use lists. Unfortunately, these statements (so far) remain empty assertions, without the backing of either academic research or recent, direct experience by the author.

This leaves the working professional who has decided to use this technique without help… until now. Here are some of the articles we have written and research we have found to back up our central hypothesis: it’s possible to execute either a list-based or a schedule-based strategy successfully. Our additional hypothesis is that, in general, schedule based strategies are more suitable for handling large numbers of time demands.

The Benefit of Developing Advanced Scheduling Skills – this article compares Listing and Scheduling directly.

Videos based on the work of Dezhi Wu – her research shows the superior results gained by those who maintain electronic schedules.

Student Time Management Video – watch as a student as she develops her weekly schedule and you will notice some of the challenges she has that you might share.

We have trained hundreds of people in the use of these techniques and often provide the following specific advice, which will become the topic of future posts on this blog:

  • Make sure to leave sufficient time between scheduled activities. Leave buffers in each day of unscheduled time so that you account for surprises.
  • Be willing to juggle your schedule at a moment’s notice. This activity has everything to do with real life demands, which change on a dime.
  • Don’t turn your calendar into a source of guilt. It’s meant to be a powerful guide, not a rigid, Nazi-like ruler of your life.
  • Use your schedule to help get into the Flow State.
  • Use a smartphone and/or tablet to ensure that you have a schedule with you at all times.
  • Audible reminders are a great to alert yourself that a new time demand is about to start.
  • Balance supporting lists with your schedule.
  • The point of using this technique is to achieve peace of mind, which means that you must b aware of the times when you are trying to schedule too much.
  • For an in interesting story of how to navigate a few scheduling problems, read my book – Bill’s Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure.
  • Another point of using this technique – to move your schedule from your mind and into a calendar that’s in front of you (we used to say, “on paper,”  but that’s clearly not the case
  • Speaking of paper- forget about trying to manage lots of time demands via a paper calendar, for multiple reasons.
  • You can actually use the way you language a time demand as a source of motivation e.g. instead of “goto gym” you might write “dropped 10 more pounds by the wedding”

Update: Much of the discussion on schedule usage has been moved to ScheduleU.org.

 

Why To-Do Lists Sometimes Do Work

checklist-thumbDaniel Markovitz wrote a great article about a year ago in the HBR Blog Network entitled “To-Do Lists Don’t Work.” From a 2Time Labs perspective it raises some provocative points but then falls into a familiar trap: it tries to argue for a one-size fits-all approach.

He does, however, start off on a strong foot by clearly stating some of the weaknesses of To-Do Lists that defy conventional wisdom.

  1. To-Do lists that grow to be too long end up presenting too many choices to us at any/every point in time. We quickly become overwhelmed with too many choices.
  2. Because tasks that are short are listed alongside those that are long, the mind must contend with the inherent differences between the time required to complete each task, even though they seem to be identical when placed on a list. It’s s little like looking at a row of identical apples, knowing that the one with the shiniest color always has worms.
  3. The same applies to tasks of differing priority.
  4. The task appears on the list without context, as if it were free-floating. For example, one critical piece of background information is always “how much time do I have available?”
  5. His point about “commitment devices” is a bit confusing so I won’t venture a summary.

He rightly points out that when you put together a schedule to replace your To-Do list you are instantly confronted by the time you think you have, but don’t. Advocates of tracking your time spent on different tasks each day are right: when you compare what you planned to do vs. what you actually do on a regular basis, you learn to make better plans.

The article falls apart as it started, which might be a function of the way it was edited, and not written. Markovitz concludes by saying “So do yourself a favor: ditch the to-do lists, and start living in your calendar today.” That line seems out of place in the article – it’s a blunt and didactic statement that follows a nuanced and subtle argument, and it’s the only statement in the article that supports the bold claim of the headline.

While all the concepts that Markovitz outlines do fit our findings here at 2Time Labs, it’s a mistake to go the next step and imply that everyone would benefit from living out of their calendar. Our research shows that people with a low number of time demands do quite well with just a list. They don’t experience the problems he outlines above.

Also, people who cannot develop the skill of using an electronic calendar or can’t afford one are better off using a list than trying to manipulate a paper calendar for large numbers of time demands. (I know lots of people who will never own a computer in this lifetime due to its cost.)

The problem with articles headlines like these is that they don’t acknowledge the continuum of skills that ordinary people require to lead a daily life. It’s a problem in the time management world; a sound observation is converted into a one-size-fits-all conclusion that simply over-reaches, and causes the strength of the original argument to be rejected by those who think just a bit differently.

P.S. Dan gets a lot of flack in the comments of this article… ouch… for over-reaching. It’s tough to bring people back when they believe that they are being attacked. It’s an issue I worry about about a bit as my book will make some pointed observations that others are bound to experience this way.

The Inescapable Demands of ToDo Lists

I have noticed a wide and growing number of apps on the new iPhone, Android and laptop  that attempt to improve a user’s personal productivity.  They all seem to focus on the same thing:  how to make better lists.

It’s a bit disheartening, because our research here at 2Time Labs shows that lists work fine for a small number of time demands, but after a certain point an upgrade is needed to using a single schedule instead.  While many people repeat the mythology that “it can’t be done” based on a someone’s opinion, there are many professionals who pull off this trick, and many others who are curious to see if it would make a difference for them.

Some of the data comes from new high quality research conducted by Dr. Dezhi Wu.  A great deal of the proof, however, remains to be established and while I’m hoping that another Dezhi comes along soon, here’s a comparison at the steps that take place in both fundamentals:  Scheduling and Listing.

Imagine a conversation between you and your boss in which a new time demand has popped up. Your boss wants to know whether or not you are able to complete a new assignment – “The Smith Report” – due in two week’s time.

With a single schedule: You pause for a moment to check your schedule to see whether or not you have the space to allocate the 10 hours that are required.

With multiple lists: You pause for a moment to scan your personal memory, because a list of all the to-do’s that you need to do doesn’t tell you if you have the time to complete the report by the due date.

This happens over and over again when you use multiple lists – you must use your memory to try to remember what you planned, and for when. This is not a problem when the number of demands on your time is small, but if you have a great number of commitments, the chore of remembering a mental schedule quickly becomes burdensome.

Imagine, that if have multiple lists, that you can easily make the mistake of telling your boss “Yes,” only to discover that you have other deliverables that you placed on your mental schedule, but simply forgot for the moment. That might be an indication that it’s time for an upgrade.

The problem is that ToDo Lists force you to use memory – this is an inescapable demand of this particular technique.

The Time Management System You Need

One of the ideas that we promote here at 2Time Labs is that each person needs a time management system that effectively allows them to handle the number of time demands that show up in their life on a daily basis. The corollary to this statement is the idea that each person doesn’t necessarily need a system that can handle more time demands than they’ll ever get.

The underlying notion is that one size doesn’t fit all, and we have decided to distinguish the different “sizes” in terms of their capacity to deal with time demand volume. While the technology doesn’t exist to measure these differences, we have described them in relative terms, with the belt system of skills.

At the top end there are Green Belts who have the most advanced skills and can handle the most time demands, and at the low end there are White Belts who have the most basic skills and can handle the least time demands.

Now, there is some evidence showing up in new articles that there is a different way to think about these differences. It backs up our direct observations gained from programs and coaching sessions.

The idea in a nutshell is that the most time-pressed individuals have so many time demands that consume so much of the day/week, that they only have a few extra hours to play with each week.

In other words, when they add up all the things that they are committed to doing, or must do “or else,” the number of hours left over each week add up to les than 20. Or 10. Or even 0.

Think President Obama. Or a CEO or business-owner. These are the hyper-committed professionals who have what we call “A Green Belt Life” (even if they only have White Belt Skills.)

Unfortunately, living with skills that can’t handle the number of time demands that come into one’s life is often stressful. The result of a severe mismatch between volume and skills is that stuff falls through the cracks, appointments are missed or started late, clutter accumulates, sleep is lost, etc. By definition, there is a cost that must be paid.

Here is an article from Lifehacker in which the author describes a Green Belt life at a time when he was a Project Manager. He describes just the kind of life that we have in mind. How to Focus and Stay Productive When You’re Expected to Always be Available.

Here’s an excerpt:

When I was a project manager, I had meetings every single day. Even worse, I was responsible for scheduling most of them. I learned pretty quickly that the only time I could truly tell people I was “unavailable” were the times that were blocked off on my calendar (and even then, they’d ignore it, but that’s another problem entirely.) So I started scheduling my work—or times when I was head-down and wanted everyone to know I was busy. Then I started specifically scheduling my breaks so people would know when I wasn’t around and when I’d be back.

Here’s he’s using the advanced Scheduling skills that we associate with an Orange Belt – his schedule has become the main focal point of all activity. Also, here’s a video from Microsoft Outlook that gives a pretty graphic picture of a soccer Mom that also has a Green Belt life. The juggling that she must do with her schedule is quite typical of someone who only has a few spare hours here and there in her life, and is always moving stuff around in response to what shows up. (BTW, we don’t advocate the habit of interrupting your Yoga session to check email!)

Interesting Piece of Data

I took the following notes from a source that I seem to have lost:

Professionals over-estimate what they can get done in a day, but under-estimate what they can get done in a week.

Has anyone ever heard this quote before? Does it ring true from your experience? Any evidence to back it up?

As my skills at scheduling improve over time, I find that I’m able to make better time estimates. Doing it in my calendar on Outlook/Gmail/BB is vastly superior to trying to do it  in my head, which reflects some of the research findings in the post I wrote last week.

 

Can You Create a Margin Without a Schedule?

Michael Hyatt posted an interesting entry on his blog entitled “How to Create More Margin in Your Life.”  In fact, it’s a summary of a book with a similar title by Richard Swenson called “Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives.”

I haven’t read the book, but it wisely advises professionals to create extra time, space, energy, etc. in daily life in order to avoid the risk of going into overload.  It’s a great strategy, and one that Orange Belts in Scheduling employ to ensure that their days don’t become overbooked and therefore impossible to complete with peace of mind.

The authors make the point that its rare to find someone who schedules free time for themselves in their schedule – most people run at 120% rather than 80%, with predictable results.

He also makes reference to an “Ideal Week” which is a concept that’s the same as one that we discuss in MyTimeDesign and NewHabits training.

It’s a post that’s worth reading as it indicates the power of pre-planning what one’s week will look like, before the first email arrives on Monday morning.

I have adopted the practice of placing margin time twice in each day.  When I have to delete these blocks of time in order to squeeze something in, I know that the day is at risk of being over-scheduled.  Wherever possible, I try to move time demands into later time-slots in the week.

This technique could be overkill for those who only need Yellow Belt Scheduling skills, and can get by with an appointment calendar and one or more lists. (At the Yellow Belt level, ones schedule remains in ones memory, so it’s much more difficult to create a margin.) However, when the time comes for an upgrade, this is an essential practice.