New findings about scheduling tasks
I’ve actually come across an entirely new technique that improves productivity even more than our previously mentioned techniques. It’s actually a technique that’s used by many of the ultra-successful, and to great effect. Previously in Part 1 of our guide to productivity, we mentioned a ton of techniques to make yourself get things done more effectively, but today let’s improve on that even more with one technique that has been a guiding principle of some of the greatest entrepreneurs and business owners alive.
This technique is a change to how you organize your tasks. Instead of making a to-do list of tasks and repeatedly looking upon it to pull the next task to perform, we schedule them on a calendar. That’s it! The technique is simple, but let me explain further all the intricacies behind it, why it works, and the small but extremely important differences in how we go about it.
To give credit to where it’s due, I’ve actually come across this technique here, an amazing podcast by Kevin Kruse. It actually kind of blew my mind when I first read through the transcript, since it’s such a simple technique but has huge ramifications for how your day is run, and changes your behavior entirely through this simple change. I highly recommend reading through it when you get a chance, and I hope that the principles behind it resonate with you as well. I’ve actually accidentally exercised the technique before, but never sat down to think about why it works, and forgot about it for a long while. Ever since reading and watching the podcast, I’ve actually restarted the habit of scheduling, and it’s been in fact quite effective for me.
So how does it work? The basic premise is that a to-do list is more like a wish list that constantly nags at you. How many of you would make a long to-do list, only to find out that not all the tasks listed on it were performed today, but half the to-do list remains for you to work on tomorrow? And when tomorrow comes, more tasks are added to the list, and you end up with a long list of things you’d love to get done, but never seems to be fully done, and the simple presence of all those tasks on your list become an annoyance, or even a stress that never goes away. On top of that, to-do lists are often a mix of tasks that need to be completed in an urgent manner but may not be the most important long-term, and tasks that are extremely important long-term but may not kick back at you with immediate consequences if they aren’t completed in a timely manner. And that really is the crux of the problem: the important but not urgent tasks are repeatedly pushed back because more time-sensitive things keep getting put onto the top of the list, even if they don’t necessarily contribute as much to your long-term end result.
Scheduling things, on the other hand, gives a distinctive and clear time slot to a task. Every day, you will refer to your calendar instead of your to-do list. Whenever a time block of a task comes up, you dedicate that time slot to the task. If something is not on the calendar, you simply don’t do it. If something comes up that’s important enough for you to do, then add it to the calendar in the next available time slot. Your work, your time with family, your daily rest, your phone calls, your vacations, your errands, schedule it all onto your calendar. It is much harder to put things off if the current time slot on your calendar tells you that this is the only thing you need to do right now, and your mind doesn’t need to think about what else needs to be done, because everything else important already gets another time slot sometime in the future. Instead of looking at your whole to-do list and evaluating which task to pick off every time you’re free (often you’ll pick off the one that’s easiest instead of the one that’s most important), with a calendar you are making a decision now about what is most important, and scheduling it into the calendar so you no longer need to choose when the time comes. It gives you a plan for the day, instead of needing to do decision making (on which task to pick off next) each time that you are able to tackle the to-do list.
It also gives you an opportunity to put off things that aren’t as important. When someone asks for a short meeting for some coffee and brain-picking, you have the opportunity to say, “let me figure out when the next available slot on my calendar is”, and slot them in at a convenient time. It’s much easier for your mind to get lost without a calendar, since your inner need to please others will reluctantly agree to that coffee meeting, which is happening now, and you have effectively inadvertently delayed more important tasks that actually contribute to your success in the long term. This concept becomes even more effective if you have a strict allotment of time slots for each type (or priority) of activity. For example, imagine that you allow yourself a ratio of 50% important work, 30% family time, 10% personal time, and 10% other. When a co-worker invites you to an un-important meeting, you can schedule him into the next available slot of the “other” category, assuming that slots are still available in that category. If no more slots are available in the generic “other” category, then keep moving forwards in your calendar and schedule him in for three weeks later. This way, you’ll never inadvertently push back the most important things in your life. As an added bonus, your coworker might simply say to you, “it’s quite alright then, three weeks from now is too far away, this meeting wasn’t so important anyway, I’ll let you get back to your busy schedule”.
Scheduling makes sure that you stick to your priorities. You might say, and truly feel, that your family and kids are the most important things in your life. But work happens, and slowly but surely, you only get an hour or two with the kids per week, and your happily-married-to-you significant other gets the same treatment. In no way do you feel that they are less important to you, but it’s simply a failure to organize your time effectively, and scheduling your family time on your calendar goes a long way to fix that. In a different situation, if you are working on several different projects with differing returns on investment (e.g. income), it’s easy to get bogged down by a lower-paying project, impeding some of your higher paying projects. Let’s say that you’re in the construction industry, and you are working on two different projects, one to build an apartment complex where the profit will be $1 million, and another smaller project renovating a home where the profit will be $200 thousand. The large project is going swimmingly, and the client is easy to work with. However, the smaller project was a bit of bad luck, where the client is fussy and keeps asking for changes, local zoning codes keep getting in the way, and for various other reasons is taking even more of your valuable time than even the larger project. It’s easy to get pulled into the immediate situations and inadvertently delay progress on the larger project due to immediate communication concerns with the smaller project, risking the much larger payout from the larger project. This is the perfect situation to allocate time slots to each project that is proportional to its importance; so you would allow yourself to schedule five time slots per week for the larger project for every one time slot for the smaller project, since the larger project has a 5x potential profit. This doesn’t need to be an absolutely strict rule, as there are always special situations where your business needs differ, but it’s good to stick to the rule as much as possible, perhaps only rarely making exceptions when it’s best to apply your own educated judgement. Of course, the standards for what is most important to yourself or your business, and the amount of priority to assign to different categories, is all up to you. Some may find family to be most important, some may find a particular project within their work to be most important, some may find that exercise and staying healthy is their priority, but the key guideline here is that the most important things get the most time scheduled onto the calendar, whatever your priorities are.