No, this is not an article on the GTD todo list or task management system. But it is in the same field – a simple method of organising yourself and your day so that you actually end up achieving what you want to achieve (and not procrastinate with following interesting tidbits of trivia and doing urgent work (see my previous post on achieving priorities) or just wasting time to get through another day – and paycheck).
This article is by Sami Paju who blogs on positive psychology, productivity and human performance according to his blog byline. I have just come across this blog, but it is rather interesting and serves up useful tidbits (there I go again, wasting my time on tidbits – just like I am not supposed to do!). Subscribe to his blog and give him a go.
The productivity article, some of which I have reproduced below to give you a flavour of the full thing, is about organising what you should be doing into chunks of 30 or 60 minutes in a calendar, as proper diary entries – just as if they were important meetings which you have to attend (and be prepared for). It certainly works and worth remembering whenever you hit a rut. Enjoy … …
“I have known for quite some time that one good way to be productive is to schedule tasks that need to get done. In the same way you’d schedule a meeting from 9 to 11 am, you could reserve that time slot in your calendar for working on a particular task or project. One of the best ways to be productive is to work in 25 or 50 minute intervals, followed by 5-10 minute breaks, and having a longer 30 minute break every two hours. This way you won’t run out of steam mid-day, but also have energy left for personal stuff after you get home from work. In other words, you should schedule work in 30 and 60 minute blocks. (2)
Here’s my calendar from last week (the green color stands for personal stuff, blue is work/study related):
[calendar graphic here]
What’s going on here is that every night I check my to-do list and create a schedule for the next day. The tasks are scheduled for 30 or 60 minute time slots, which reminds me to take those 5-10 minute breaks. I use a timer when I work because skipping a break is detrimental for long-term productivity. Lastly, I schedule longer breaks such as playing on xbox, taking a nap or watching an episode of South Park (humor boosts creativity!).
The reason I do this for one day at a time – as opposed to e.g. creating a schedule for the whole week at once – is that meetings are called, deadlines change, and so do my own energy levels. For example, besides writing this article and a mandatory class my schedule for today is almost empty. I have worked a lot during the past few days, including the weekend, and haven’t really had time to relax. Yesterday I noticed that my performance started to suffer because of it, so today is a take-it-easy day.
If you need to accomplish a task with a tight deadline, it makes sense to schedule time slots for that task for the whole week. This is to ensure that no one steals that time from you with (usually) pointless meetings – a common annoyance in corporate environments where people have access to your calendar.
The system is your friend
During the four weeks I have used this method my productivity has skyrocketed. It might be partly because having an hourly schedule is so similar to how all of us have lived our lives ever since the 1st grade. We already have a lot of conditioning to work this way. There are also more specific benefits and advantages:
- Say goodbye to procrastination. When you have a schedule and you have already decided the day before that e.g. from 9 to 10am you will work on that sales pitch or that presentation, you don’t end up browsing email or checking facebook news feed. When the clock hits 9 you put a timer to alert at 9:50 and you get going.
- Be meticulous when it comes to breaks. Like all the things that need to get done, you have also scheduled your downtime. It’s one thing to know on a conscious level that you should take breaks, but another to actually disconnect from work when you’re in a good flow. Having a break pre-scheduled removes the sense of guilt you might normally feel about “wasting” time, while also helping to maintain high-level performance in the long-term.
- Stop wasting your willpower. Did you know that at work Barack Obama wears only blue or gray suits? He does this in order to conserve mental energy: “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make, … You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” When you have a schedule you don’t need to decide what to do. You have already decided. (3)
- Gain control of your time. A major cause of work-related stress is the feeling of not having control about how you spend your time. Creating a schedule is exactly the opposite of that. It is one example of a problem-based coping strategy, which can be very powerful when it comes to dealing with stress. Even if you keep getting e.g. many meeting invitations, this method allows you to grab some control back to yourself. And if you need to regain more time for actual work, you can schedule the work time in advance to ensure that no one steals it from you. No more working after-hours or when everyone else in the family has gone to sleep. (4)
Obviously every now and then something comes up during the day that causes changes to your beautifully crafted schedule. Life can’t be planned perfectly in advance. When this happens, you at least have a visual representation of what you intended to do with the rest of your day. It becomes easier to prioritize. You can quickly check what you can still do, and what you should move to the next day. This is more liberating than it is restricting, and most importantly it helps you stay in control in spite of surprises.
I mentioned earlier that one big problem used to be that sometimes I didn’t know exactly what to do, and that resulted in procrastination and postponing the important tasks. When it comes to dealing with ambiguity, one solution is to schedule time for simply sitting down with pen and paper, making plans, dividing the task into smaller components, creating a list of things you need to find out before proceeding, and planning on how you intent to gain that knowledge etc.
Lastly, by using this system it becomes surprisingly easy to make progress even when a goal seems huge, distant, and uncertain. Many times a project such as writing a novel or creating a new product causes the inner resistance to go on overdrive, filling your head with all the reasons why the project won’t succeed. As a result, you give up before even getting started. When you adapt to the approach of working towards a goal in predetermined slots of time, and measure progress by the amount of work done – as opposed to the amount of tasks finished – suddenly the goal doesn’t seem that hard anymore.”