Scheduling Time Versus Scheduling Tasks

By Philip Brewer on 30 October 2007 (Updated 6 July 2010) 16 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

I never feel like I'm being as productive as I'd like. Every few years I try to do something about it, usually starting with reading a book or two on time management. Of late Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen has seemed like the book to read. I read it a year or two ago, and internalized a lot of its methodology. One thing about it, though, has never quite worked for me: I like to schedule blocks of time for certain kinds of activities.

In GTD one doesn't schedule a block of time, except for things that are actually scheduled. That is, you might schedule watching "Heros" at 8:00 CDT on Monday, because that's when it's on. Instead of scheduling a block of time to work on some project, though, you maintain a list of "next actions" for all the things you need to get done. When you're at a point where you could do something, you look on the list, select the next thing to work on, and then do that.

Now, this makes sense at many levels:

  • It minimizes context switches--you just work to completion in each "next action." (Of course, this depends on your "next action" being appropriately sized, but at least you're not switching to something else just because your scheduled block of time has expired.)
  • You're selecting the next "next action" to do, at the point when you have the maximum amount of information to use in selecting the item--how much time you have, how tired you are, what you feel like doing, whether some piece of equipment is available, etc. (Much of that information is not available hours or days earlier when you might be blocking out time on your schedule.)
  • If you've already decided on what the "next action" is, you're less likely to be paralyzed by having a whole project's worth of work to do and no idea where to start. (Of course you do still have to decide what the next action is, but separating the deciding from the doing seems to help some.)

Despite all that, I find there are certain kinds of activities where I'm happier blocking out chunks of time to just "work on" some project. In particular, I feel this way about working on my novel. Maybe it would be better to figure out what the "next action" should be, but I just find the whole writing process a bit too organic for me to easily plan next actions until I'm in the midst of them.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Of course, it's possible to do both. There's no reason I can't schedule a 3-hour block of time each morning to work on my novel while managing my other tasks on the basis of "next actions" (which is what I'm doing now), but I feel like I might be missing out on some productivity enhancement.

(I should mention that there's a lot more to Getting Things Done than just "next actions," and most of the rest of it works for me like a charm. If you wish you could be more productive, and aren't already familiar with GTD, check out David Allen's site and consider getting the book.)

Any Wise Bread readers out there doing the GTD thing? Any of you who also schedule blocks of time to "work on" stuff, despite the advice in GTD? Most particularly, any of you who feel the same draw to do so that I do, but have figured out some effective way to channel that inclination into "next actions" and think you're the better for it? If you've got any thoughts on the matter, I'd be pleased to read about it in the comments below.

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Guest's picture

I've tried similar things... And it only lasts so long for me until it just wears off. I'm not sure why. I used to use Google Calendar and even had it text me everything when the time came but it got annoying and I had to stop it. Then I completely stopped using it altogether. It's weird too because I also have a nice PDA from work that I can use for time management but I don't know... Maybe I need some more motivation for that.

Bas
BuildAndSucceed.com

Guest's picture
Ryan Tinker

I used to schedule my time out by the hour, but I found that I would waste time because projects seem to fill the time alloted to them. For example, if I alloted 1 hour for task A, but it only took me 20 minutes, I would read blogs, sit around, and not do anything until my next appointment came up, 40 minutes later. Then I felt stressed because I wasted so much time. If task A took more than 1 hour, I because stressed because I felt behind.

I use GTD now and try to keep tasks to 20 minutes. I'll schedule a "meeting" with myself for larger projects to block off a few hours.

Philip Brewer's picture

Yes: "scheduling a meeting with myself" to block off a few hours to focus on a major project where the next actions aren't clear--that's exactly what I'm doing. But I'm doing it so regularly, I'm afraid I'm losing some of the benefit of GTD. And yet, I can't seem to do a good job of figuring out what the "next action" for writing a novel is. Occasionally I can say the next thing is to "write the scene where the hero does X," but more often I'm in the mode of "fiddle around with that stuff until it feels right, then see what seems to be the next thing to do." I can do that--it's working okay--but I'm hoping someone out there can say, "Oh! I used to do that, but now I'm doing this and it's working much better." I'm hoping someone can tell me what "this" is for them.

Guest's picture
Marta

What program did you use in the photo above? What are some of the better time mgmt programs out there? I use Google calendar to keep track of most tasks and RTM for to-dos.

Philip Brewer's picture

@Marta--The image of a schedule for today was grabbed from iCal running on my Mac. It works pretty well for scheduling things that are actually scheduled, but it doesn't really support a GTD-style "next actions" list very well.

@Guest--Yes, I'm about halfway through Spook Country, which is awesome--William Gibson at his best. The story is a perfect, intricate creation, with every little throw-away line turning out to be connected to things later on. Reading it doesn't make me despair of my own fiction.... At least, that's what I keep telling myself.

Guest's picture

I use a combination of schedules and time blocks. My favorite productivity tool is a digital kitchen timer. The timer keeps me focused, motivated and targeted on the individual task at hand.

Identify your daily, weekly and monthly activities, set a time limit for each one, and start the digital timer in countdown mode. Save your favorite activities for last to serve as your reward for staying on task.

I've written a post outlining the specifics and included an example using my blogging activities:

"Productivity Tip: How to use a digital timer to get things done"
at
http://millionairemommynextdoor.blogspot.com/2007/09/productivity-tip-ho...

Guest's picture

I use a combination of schedules and time blocks. My favorite productivity tool is a digital kitchen timer. The timer keeps me focused, motivated and targeted on the individual task at hand.

Identify your daily, weekly and monthly activities, set a time limit for each one, and start the digital timer in countdown mode. Save your favorite activities for last to serve as your reward for staying on task.

I've written a post outlining the specifics and included an example using my blogging activities:

"Productivity Tip: How to use a digital timer to get things done"
at
http://millionairemommynextdoor.blogspot.com/2007/09/productivity-tip-ho...

Guest's picture
Naomi

I started using GTD a couple of months ago. It's helped me a ton and I really like the whole philosophy behind it. The only problem for me is that my next action list is so long, it kind of creates procrastination by itself. I'm thinking about finding a way to divide it up more without losing the location categorizations.

Guest's picture
Guest

Is that Spook Country or is it some other Gibson? What is your take on the work of whatever Gibson it is?

Guest's picture
Rebecca

The gtd-style next actions list worked really well as an IT professional but completely fell apart when I became a PhD student.
I do try to keep next actions on a list for all the shorter stuff; that way when I have some time but less energy I can work through those. But much of the work of an academic just can't be easily broken down into next actions. Writing a journal article, like writing a novel, requires research, writing, fiddling, repeat until its done and there really aren't steps.

What I have taken to doing is blocking out time for my PhD work in general; some chunks are long (for brainstorming and really digging into a thorny problem) while others are short (for tackling paperwork and such) and they are scattered throughout the week. Here's a post I wrote on it.

One thing i would suggest - I use google calendar and one specific technique is to separate my "hard landscape" (appointments, places I have to be, etc) from my "soft landscape" (blocks of time I set aside for specific tasks but which can move as the day progresses). This keeps me from running into the problem mentioned above of getting done early and wasting time or not being done yet but forcing myself to move on. The soft landscape is more malleable....

Philip Brewer's picture

@Rebecca--thanks! It's good to hear that other people have the same experience I do. It'd be nice if someone could give me the key to making GTD work for writing a novel, but a few datapoints that match my own experience are also useful.

Thanks also for the link to the interesting post.

Guest's picture
jc

I feel like the weekly review he suggests is def a scheduled chunk of time every week.

Guest's picture
pauly

One technique from GTD that took me a while to integrate or even try is the tickler folders - creating 43 folders representing 31 days and 12 months that you put hardcopy reminders and shuffle over everyday. I orginally thought it was a little overkill...but those are the things that always seem to fascinate me.

There's some days I forget to check but I have a repeating reminder I have go off every morning on my cell phone. While I can relate to an earlier poster saying how his reminders became annoying and turned them off, I challenge myself on just integrating a new habit for 90 days.

We all have normal habits we do everyday (i.e. brushing teeth, daydreaming of living large) so then incorporating a new habit like checking a tickler folder for items we "might" be able to do should not be hard to integrate.

Some of GTD is a little OCD. Learning to relax and realizing everything great doesn't happen over night. "Balance is key me thinks."

Guest's picture
Andrea

I believe I read or heard David Allen say that he regularly scheduled time to work on his books. Two or three hour chunks of time built into his schedule.

Philip Brewer's picture

I guess I'm ready to quit looking for some magic way to apply GTD to large, organic tasks. Which is okay, really. Some things, especially creative things, just take large chunks of time. I'm good with that.

Guest's picture
T

I swear by my google calendar. I think lists of next actions without a reasonable plan for how they can get done is just plain stressful. I prefer to block out time on my calendar, including overlapping appointments that make sense (e.g., like laundry and groceries because I go shopping nearby while my clothes are in the dryer). It's great to have a list of things to get done, but it makes more sense to just add those things directly to your calendar when you know you can actually get them done and just do it!