How do you plan and track your daily activities, with a calendar or a to do list? Some productivity gurus claim that putting everything on your calendar ensures that it never gets done, or that you’ll cross off what you don’t get done and just reschedule it for the next day — which defeats the purpose of scheduling. Other gurus claim that putting everything on a list, where items aren’t tied to a time and date, ensures that they never get done, since they lack specific queues to get started or deadlines to finish.
If the choice is mutually exclusive, I think they’re both wrong. Calendars and lists are related, but serve different purposes, not unlike clocks and timers. You can use a clock as a timer, but it’s not the best tool for the job.
Calendar Management Best Practices
By far, calendars are the most popular way to manage tasks. Walk into any office supply store and look at its selection of day planners, and you’ll probably see most pages devoted to calendar entries, and one page per week devoted to tasks. The iPhone has a calendar, but no native to do list application; the same applies to Android phones.
But calendars are clumsy as to do lists. Weekly and monthly paper-based calendars offer limited space for entering multiple items, compelling the user to either leave off many otherwise doable tasks, or describe agendas in general terms that require further thinking to make them actionable.
A well-formed task list gives enough detail to get started immediately rather than just suggest a general course of action, which is usually an outcome disguised as an action: “Get refund” is an outcome; “Call customer service” is an action. Actions descriptions that granular will be greater in number than what can be crammed into a typical calendar blank.
When to Use Calendars
Even an extremely busy person should guard against having a cluttered calendar. I have plenty of things to do, but I strive to keep as much off of my calendar as possible.
The more items you have on your calendar, but more potential your schedule has for getting out of sync. If you’ve scheduled A, B and C in sequential order, then doing B implicitly depends on first completing A, even if there’s no relational dependency between the two tasks. By artificially putting tasks in sequential order, the margin for error for each one getting done directly impacts all subsequent tasks, creating what programmers call cascading errors.
Suppose your first task for the day is “Talk to Mark re product launch,” and your next task is, “Edit monthly report.” But it turns out that Mark’s not at his desk. After a few minutes of walking around the office to see if he’s lingering elsewhere, you go back to your own desk. Since he’s late, you decide to spend the time thinking about exactly what you need to go over when Mark arrives. It feels productive, since you’re still focused on what you “have to” do, but in reality, you being idle.
That’s because your calendar put you in a “Talk to Mark” frame of mind, even though the item wasn’t a scheduled meeting (he wasn’t aware of your intentions). After all, your calendar says you’re supposed to talk to Mark before you can do anything else. But editing your monthly report has no dependency on your discussions with Mark, or lack thereof. If the tasks had been on a list instead, you would have been more inclined to respond to Mark’s absence by looking at your list and asking, “What else can I do?”
So what should go on your calendar?
- Appointments (obviously)
- Objectively time-dependent or date-dependent events: a package that won’t arrive until Wednesday, a package you have to mail by the end of today, a trade show you’re considering attending (even optional events can be time-bound)
- Things you deliberately want to defer until a more appropriate time, such as holding off on buying a shiny new gadget until after you’ve paid your taxes
- Blocks of extended time for high-focus activities: writing sessions, batched phone call or email sessions, jogging
Leave tasks that don’t have a time dependency off your calendar. Avoid writing down artificial start times or deadlines for them, for two reasons: (1) to minimize the potential for cascading errors and (2) to plan for unplanned but inevitable interruptions.
Keeping an uncluttered calendar doesn’t mean doing less. Instead of using your calendar to see how much you have to do, you’re now using the whitespace in your calendar to gauge your availability. Availability for what, you ask?
Using Your To Do List
Some people think that not allocating a specific time to a task gives themselves too much rope. I’d suggest the opposite: that they’re wound too tight.
Untimed action lists could be seen as collections of items to do whenever you get around to them, but I look at my lists as collections of items to do as soon as possible (I structure my tasks into context lists, hence the plural references to “lists”). I review my lists the way most people review their watch.
“As soon as possible” doesn’t mean in haste. It means looking at my calendar for the first opening in my schedule, then using that whitespace to go to my lists and look for the highest leverage action I can take in that discretionary time. Discretionary time isn’t idle time. It’s time to review your list to see which task fits best in the window available, then doing it from start to finish, as opposed to scheduling a 12-minute task into a 30-minute slot on your calendar, and then “thinking about” it for the remaining 18 minutes.
Your calendar and list work together. If you’re booked solid with a day full of meetings with no gaps, you don’t have to look at your list, since none of those tasks are time-dependent, and therefore, by definition, can wait. If you only have a couple of appointments that day, you have a window of opportunity to blast through your list. When you reach the whitespace in your calendar, go into “list mode.”
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