Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Reclaim Time by Unscheduling Abritrary Tasks

by Andre · 3 Comments

The hard landscape approach to calendar management is founded on the premise that less is more. The fewer commitments you have on your calendar, the more likely you are to keep them. The most reliable number is the absolute minimum — the engagements whose time frames are non-negotiable. These engagements typically fall into three categories:

Appointments. The need to schedule appointments is self-evident. If the dentist says 8:00 to 9:30 am, don’t trust your memory or an untimed list entry to keep the appointment unless you’re willing to pay the bill whether you show up or not.

Day-specific events. The gas bill is due September 12. The client presentation has to be finished by Friday. The poetry workshop starts August 29. Day-specific actions must happen on a certain day, begin on a certain day, or be completed by a certain day.

Time-specific events. Mike is out of the office until 2:30. Rather than look at the entry several times on your @Calls list before you can take action, you slate the first opportunity to make the call on your calendar.

What makes them “hard landscape” is that the time frames are already fixed. You can move the shrubbery, but not the patio. You can’t decide to call Mike earlier than he’ll be available. You could pay the gas bill in October, but not without consequences. In terms of your calendar, hard landscape is externally committed time.

The danger of using a calendar as a to do list

In time management, the standard practice is to use the calendar as a to do list. After all, some things need to be done at or by a certain time, so why not just throw time-independent tasks in the same grid? And while we’re at it, why not arrange them in an arbitrary sequential order, with equally arbitrary time blocks?

Yes, those are loaded questions. Of course, people do try to make strategic decisions about when an option task should be done, and how long it should take. As long as they work in interruption-free environments, scheduled to do lists can be effective. As a freelance writer, I could actually get away with this approach, though I choose not to.

But for the average office worker, a scheduled to do list is a house of cards that can collapse with one interruption. The next time your boss comes up to you during the time you’ve blocked out to work on a project, try using your calendar entry as an excuse to refuse the interruption, and see how that flies.

As soon as you’re finished handling the interruption, you have a choice:

  • Return to your original task, pushing subsequent tasks further into the future
  • Skip the original task to get to the next one on schedule, rescheduling the former one for tomorrow

If it’s not obvious, the first option is a formula for not leaving work at 5:00. If more than one arbitrarily scheduled task is interrupted, the cascading effect is magnified. The second option rests on the illusion that you’ll have more time tomorrow. Even if that were true, you’ll still have more interruptions tomorrow.

Every time you schedule an action with no authentic time dependency, you create an agreement with yourself. If the action is executed on time, everything’s fine, but if not, you reduce the integrity of your calendar as a focus tool — especially if the margin for error reflects a pattern. The lack of focus is exacerbated by the fact that you have to sort through the calendar to distinguish between commitments and aspirations.

The solution? Stick to hard landscape. Don’t put anything else on your calendar. Use the whitespace to work from your untimed action lists. Use your calendar for information, not motivation.

The big rock exception that proves the rule

What about the big rocks? If it’s Sunday, there’s no adverse consequence to drafting a business plan in the evening versus the morning. But it’s a high-focus activity that’s certain to take at least a few hours, so what’s the harm in scheduling it?

None at all. In fact, it’s a good idea to schedule anything that will take lots of time and concentration. There’s no contradiction, only an inversion of the external commitment. Instead of scheduling yourself to be available for a particular person or group, here you’re doing the opposite: scheduling yourself to be unavailable for others. As a writer, it’s my job to be unavailable to others during set times when I need to work on an extended article, so I block out that time on my calendar — even when there’s no deadline.

The point is to avoid turning activities into blocks of time that get arranged into a list, unless you’re comfortable with the domino effect that results from this sequence being interrupted. Unschedule those arbritrary activities, and make your calendar functional again by restoring the whitespace.

(Photo by Multiple Personalities)

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  • J-MoNo Gravatar // Aug 13, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Wow. I just love this blog. Love, love, love!

    This is a very good article. This is not a mistake I make, but I can see where it would be a very easy one to make!

    I tend to work to deadlines. That is, I scheduel/prioritize my tasks at work based on what is due first. I find that it is very rare that things have to get shuffled when I work this way.

    My time at home/in my art studio/at my computer (writing) is more fluid. I don’t do any of that for a living yet, so I have a lot more flexibility, though when I decide to have a Studio Night/Day, I find I stick to that just fine.


  • Uncommon Sense on Schedule Clutter // Aug 18, 2008 at 8:53 pm

    [...] happens when a calendar is used as a to do list. I recently wrote about this in the post, Reclaim Time by Unscheduling Arbitrary Tasks. Unlike most home-based workers, office workers have to deal with frequent but irregular inputs. [...]

  • SuarshanNo Gravatar // Sep 22, 2008 at 10:12 pm

    Really a good one. I was committing the same mistake. I think I can take a clue from this….