Cal Newport on the Monk Mode Morning

Cal Newport, Professor at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work, recently published a blog post entitled The Rise of the Monk Mode Morning.

It’s an interesting article and echoes one of the tactics I use to write my books, articles and columns. For me, I intersperse morning spent writing with triathlon training mornings. The breakthrough occurred when I decided to consciously move my last hour in the evening to the morning.

In other words, I decided to go to be an hour earlier in order to awaken an hour earlier. The end result was a swap – one unproductive hour at the end of the evening for a productive hour at the start of the day.

It worked like a charm, due to the reasons outlined in this article.

For Total Task Schedulers it’s an easier transition to make. When you consciously think about the use of your time you gain the ability to schedule spans of time when you can be hyper-productive. The Flow State, Deliberate Learning or Deep Work are all techniques which become easily available to you because you schedule everything.

It’s just one of the outstnading benefits of being a Total Task Scheduler.

Why Scheduling Everything Can Make You Happy

Chances are, you already know a thing or two about the hyper-focused frame of mind which produces a state of high productivity. But there’s surprising information emerging about its opposite: a state of “mind wandering” which makes you not only unproductive, but unhappy. It made me ask: “Is there are a hidden connection between happiness and being a Total Task Scheduler?”

Authors Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly, Anders Ericsson and Cal Newport are separately known for a trio of similar concepts: Flow, Deliberate Practice and Deep Work. They advocate a variation of the same idea; there comes a time when, in order to achieve a productive state, you must shut out distractions and focus on a single challenge for a long enough time to produce a breakthrough result. These tasks are the ones which produce the most movement in our professional careers. Complete enough of them, and the improvements compound over time, giving you a clear path to growth and an advantage over the competition.

The most productive people who attempt to achieve these states know that they don’t just happen by accident. They must not only be scheduled beforehand, they involve clear-headed preparation. Not only must you set up your environment in a particular way, you must also ward off other people who could become a source of interruptions.

While these highly productive states may occur by serendipity, you are unlikely to fall into them by accident. The opposite is more likely. Most workplaces are set up to interrupt you easily. As a result, a professional may never experience a single moment of Flow, Deliberate Practice or Deep Work in the course of the average working week.

Now there’s evidence that a failure to manage oneself to reach these productive states can make you unhappy. The evidence actually comes from a recent study of wandering minds.

Matthew Killingsworth

Apparently the behavior is widespread. “People spend some 4.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing” according to a recent study by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” they state. Even though our ability to think about what is not happening in the moment is a great advantage to us as humans, apparently we indulge in it far too often.

We think about stuff that has already happened, is about to happen, and will never happen, instead of being present. By contrast, we are at our happiest when completing tasks which occupy our attention the most: “making love, exercising or engaging in conversation.”

Daniel Gilbert

We are least happy when” resting, working or using a home computer.” Each of these are un-challenging tasks which are completed alone while not using any particular skill.

Not surprisingly, there is a strong link between mind wandering and happiness. “Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

In fact, the researchers estimate that a person’s mind-wandering is responsible for some 10.8 percent of their happiness, while the nature of the activity only accounts for 4.6 percent.

Someone who schedules everything is far more likely to stay on purpose each day. After creating a written schedule, they know what they hope to be doing at different times. This includes time for rest, social activity, meals and exercise.

Without a schedule, they have to make multiple decisions each day about what to do next. When decision fatigue sets in, it’s easy to let the mind wander, particularly late in the day.

Compare that with the approach of Total Task Schedulers who experience what I call “awakeness.” They don’t become lost in time, arriving at the end of the day wondering what just happened. In fact, they are likely to know the purpose of the activity they are engaged in at that moment, plus all its temporal attributes: how long it is supposed to last and what due date it is meant to hit, if any.

As a result, they leave little time for mind wandering to set in, and for unhappiness to accumulate. Instead, they move purposely from one task to the next, giving it as much of their attention as possible.

Furthermore, having a plan for the day serves as insurance: they are less likely to fall into the trap of chasing their tails – being hit by one surprise after another, often instigated by other people. Without a plan, the average person is entirely off-balance all day, wondering about the stuff  she had kinda intended to get done but never actually wrote down.

We hate this feeling: it’s when the Zeigarnik effect is at its worst and we are at our least productive. It turns out that we are also unhappy.

Why Scheduling Everything is Important If You Have ADHD

Andrea Sharb (ACC, CPO-CD, COC, CPO), owner of S.O.S.~Sharb Organizing Solutions, LLC  is a professional organizer and certified coach who specializes in supporting her clients in overcoming overwhelm.

I met her about five years ago when she was serving as treasurer for the Institute for Challenging Disorganization and her business focused primarily on supporting clients in overcoming their challenges with physical clutter. In the past five years she has shifted her practice to supporting adults with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and adults who who have difficulty managing their time demands.  She’s one of the few coaches I’ve encountered who actively promotes the ideas behind Total Task Scheduling.

Schedule U/Francis: Thanks for spending time with us Andrea. I’m learning more about common traits of individuals with ADHD as a result of our conversations.  How does ADHD impact an individual’s ability to manage their time demands?

Andrea:  Interesting question, Francis.  The impact on abilities to manage time demands can vary widely.  In a nutshell, ADHD is a neuro-developmental psychological disorder whose hallmarks are inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.  There are three presentations ADHD: Hyperactive-Impulsive, Inattentive and Combined each of which differs significantly from the others.  Therefore “ADHD” shows up differently in different people depending on which presentation and which symptoms are exhibited within each presentation.  The traits I see showing up most often for myself, as an adult with ADHD, and for my clients are:

  • Having too many time demands and getting overwhelmed
  • Difficulty deciding what to do, when
  • Difficulty estimating time needed to complete a time demand
  • Difficulty allocating adequate time in schedule for time demands
  • Difficulty with activation when needing to address a time demand
  • Difficulty completing a time demand that has been started
  • Difficulty transitioning between time demands
  • Getting easily distracted from a time demand
  • General lack of time awareness and the passing of time
  • Relying too much on memory to get things done
  • Using too many different systems to capture and track time demands
  • Inconsistent use of time demand management systems created
  • Magical thinking – Claiming “It will get done” yet not having any time allocated to do the work

 The challenges those of us with ADHD face with respect to time demand management are not that dissimilar from those that a neurotypical person might face.  The difference is that we face these challenges more often, and because of our brain’s structural and “wiring” differences we have a much harder time overcoming them.

ScheduleU: What do you mean by the ADHD “brain’s structural and “wiring” differences” ?

Andrea: First, recent studies have demonstrated the ADHD brain differs from a neurotypical brain in brain volume in certain regions.  In addition, the ADHD brain has challenges with transference of certain neurotransmitters like dopamine, resulting in a brain that is by nature under stimulated and which struggles to engage when tasks are not inherently interesting.  Dr. William Dodson reframes this by saying those of us with ADHD have an “interest based nervous system.”  If something is interesting to us, our brains engage differently and function in a more neurotypical manner.  Said another way, our under aroused, under stimulated brains are constantly seeking stimulation and this results in many of the challenging behaviors noted above.

Schedule U: What’s your experience with Total Task Scheduling?

Andrea:  It wasn’t until our conversation a while back that I realized Total Task Scheduling was a “thing”.  I had learned from personal experience over the years that if tasks and projects were going to be completed I needed to allocate time for that to happen.

Too often we, and especially those of us with ADHD, create time demands and tasks without regard for reality (i.e. the available time in our schedule).  I’ve termed this “magical thinking.”  Just saying something is going to get done doesn’t make it so.  Time must be matched with the intention, otherwise intentions wither and die or you end up pulling all nighters to get it all done.

A number of years ago, I noticed I was spending much of my free time in the evenings catching up on work projects that didn’t get finished during the workday.  Though I was sitting beside my husband on the couch in the evening, I was on my laptop finishing up session notes, writing blog postings, or catching up on email.  I wasn’t doing a good job with setting boundaries on my time and I was ignoring the most important person in my life as a result.  My magical thinking, that I could get everything done each work day, was being exposed for what it was.

That’s when things began to change for me.

I committed to overcoming magical thinking and to getting real about how many hours I had in the day.  My first step was to actively reduce my commitments and focus on what was most important to me.  I let go of relationships and activities that no longer served me and gave greater thought to who and what I wanted to focus my time on.

I began to schedule my days differently. Instead of just scheduling appointments with others, I scheduled appointments with me – for work, clients, exercise, meal planning, meal prep, laundry, connection with my family, gardening and even bedtime.  I also identified times of the day I was most productive and started to frame my days around these peak times.  I now use the 6:30AM to 8AM time slot and the 3:30PM to 5PM time slots, when my brain is most alert, for my most important work.  Getting real about my schedule has been a game changer in overcoming overwhelm.

Schedule U: Can you share more with us about your path to Total Task Scheduling?

Andrea:  Like you describe in the Schedule U course (A Course in Scheduling), I’ve been traveling along a time demand management path for many years. In college I got by using a basic calendar to track my activities, assignments, and commitments.  In the professional world, I found that as a CPA I needed a better way to manage demands on my time and purchased a black leather Dayrunner.  That tool was my life for many years.  As I rose through the ranks at KPMG I found ways to modify the components of if to better support the completion of my ever increasing time demands.

When I left the professional world to become a full time mother, I lost the structure that my career had provided and I found myself flailing around time demand management wise for number of years.  I kept a basic calendar for appointments with others, but shopping lists and to do lists ruled my world.  I got around to things when there was time, like when the boys went down for a nap.   It wasn’t until my kids started school that I was able to regain some much needed structure.

It was around that time I purchased a Visor Handspring Palm pilot.  It was blue and it was magical, in a good way, maintaining all of my lists, my contacts, my calendar and a calculator!  The Handspring was a game changer because it synced with your computer, creating a backup of your life on your hard drive!  In time I graduated from the Handspring to the Palm Zire and eventually to the first generation iPhone, etc. I kept on top of things with lists and calendars and all was well.

It wasn’t until my business started to take off in 2008 that I began losing the battle with getting things done.  There were now too many tasks for me to track using my lists and calendar.  Worse yet, I noted the busier I got the less often I was consulting the lists.  As a result, tasks that weren’t on my calendar weren’t getting done.

It was around this time I started searching for a new means of tracking the demands on my time and ended up going analog and adopting the Planner Pad as my time demand management tool.  The Planner Pad was awesome because It gave me a place to capture and visualize all of my time demands on two facing pages of paper. This visual resulted in me paying greater attention to the nature of and the necessity of my time demands.  My love affair with the Planner Pad lasted about a year, my biggest problems with it being the limited scheduling space on each page (it only had space for tracking the business day and my life was bigger than that!) and the lack of portability.

I currently use a variety of tools for my Total Task Scheduling.  The most important is an online calendar, available on various platforms, easily accessible wherever I am.  Also important is the container I use to hold my time demands.  I use a listing app, Reminders, but you may choose any of the multitude of similar apps available.  You might also choose a project management app like Trello or Toodledo.  I’ve used both, but as I’ve worked to simplify my life in the past few years I’ve found I can easily manage my time demands with Reminders.  It’s important that your time demand container, like you calendar,  be accessible across various platforms.  Finally, I also use good old-fashioned paper & pen because some days writing a list and crossing things off is extremely motivating in a way that marking tasks complete on a calendar isn’t.

Schedule U: What are the typical complaints clients share with you that indicate that Total Task Scheduling would be a part of the solution?

Andrea:  The most common complaint my clients bring to coaching is experiencing overwhelm on a regular basis.  Their overwhelm is typically significant enough to result in an unproductive pattern of avoidance & procrastination, followed by reliance on adrenaline fueled all-nighters.  This pattern may be sustainable for folks when they’re in high school or even college, but by the time they’re in grad school or the work force, habits need to change in order for them to thrive instead of just survive.  Total Task Scheduling can make a huge difference in the lives of these folks.

Schedule U: What steps do you use to diagnose their issues when you have that first set of conversations?

Andrea:   In our initial conversations it’s important for us to build awareness of the individual’s current reality as well as where they hope to get to.  We work together to better understand the nature of the individual’s time demand management challenges ( what works, what doesn’t work, the nature of execution errors, etc.)   In addition to building awareness around the time demand management component, it’s just as important to help the individual identify and understand their talents, character strengths, and values, the knowledge of which can be integral to the process of creating change.

Schedule U: How much support do you provide them? For how long?

Andrea: It depends on the individual.  Most of my coaching relationships with clients run 6-9 months.  By that time an individual has generally accumulated a number of supportive tools to experiment with and it’s not uncommon for us to shift from weekly to monthly sessions.

Schedule U: What been the toughest part about becoming a Total Task Scheduler for you and for your clients?

 Andrea:  In general, I think the toughest part is the acknowledgement of how much you’ve committed yourself to in relation to the number of hours there are in a week.  I was working with a client recently who is early along in the process of Total Task Scheduling.   At her previous session she had committed to starting the process of capturing her time demands in a spreadsheet.   She came to her session totally overwhelmed by how much she had to accomplish in the next couple of weeks and she was far from capturing all of her time demands.  She had truly backed herself into a corner of commitments and I thought she was going to breakdown and cry.

Instead she held it together and was open to learning more about getting real about her schedule.  We started by looking at her current calendar, which only included appointments with others, and assessing the negotiability of these commitments.  We opened up about a dozen hours of time by identifying less time sensitive commitments that could be rescheduled.  We next discussed what she knew about her energy levels at different times of the day and blocked out time in her schedule accordingly.  Finally, we reviewed the productivity tools she had identified thus far in our coaching that could serve her in being her most productive self.  By the time the session was over she still had the same amount of work to do, but she now had identified the time in which to accomplish it.  This was the difference between overwhelm and moving forward.

Schedule U: Given the fact that you are not an auto-scheduler user (yet!) is that a route you recommend at this time?

Andrea:  At this time I have only one client I have discussed auto-scheduling with.  He is a tech savvy individual and is always interested in the newest ways to improve his productivity.  I have another client who is highly motivated by games and I think she would appreciate a number of the aspects of auto-scheduling, though we’ve not discussed it yet.  Many of my clients are artistically inclined and have actually created beautiful paper calendars, planners and bullet journals for themselves that they use to track their time demands and lives.

These individuals have little interest in using technology to manage their time demands because the kinesthetic and artistic components of scheduling their lives are key to them following through with it. Pretty pens and heavy paper make the experience fun and more pleasurable and thus they follow through.  You and I both know that the most important part of any time demand system, no matter what level, is consistent follow through, so I think you’ve got to go with what works for the individual.

Schedule U: Thanks for spending time with us Andrea. If someone wants to know about your work, how can they find out more?

 Andrea: You’re welcome, Francis!  If you’re reading this and you’re interested in learning more about about how I might be able to support you in overcoming your overwhelm, please visit my website at  https://sossharborganizingsolutionsllc.com/

The Power of Setting Deadlines

Is it better to break up an assignment with a deadline into smaller parts, each with its own deadline? And is it better to have someone else assign you a deadline than create your own?

These are the kinds of questions Total Task Schedulers typically ask themselves in their quest for greater productivity. Fortunately, a recent article by Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch sheds some light on both questions.

In an experiment, students were given a choice as to when to complete three papers, all of which were due by a certain date.

Dan Ariely

One group was given or imposed three evenly-spaced deadlines, while another was given the chance to set its own deadlines (apart from the final deadline). These students had the freedom to set all the deadlines to the very end. To make things interesting, there was a penalty attached for missing any imposed or chosen deadline.

Take a moment to guess… which performed best?

Klaus Wertenbroch

Well, some of the results may surprise you.

  • Most subjects set deadlines, even though there was a risk of doing so.
  • Only 12% chose the maximum freedom of setting all three deadlines for the last day.
  • Grades in the imposed deadline group were significantly higher.

In another study described in the same paper, students were given an incentive to find proofreading errors in three texts. Once again, there was a penalty for late submission. They were divided into three groups:

  • the first group was given or imposed evenly-spaced deadlines.
  • the second was given only the final deadline for all three assignments.
  • the third group created their own deadlines.

Some of the results were similar.

Once again, students preferred to space out their tasks rather than to set them all to the final deadline. Also, the first group performed best on the task, followed by the third, then the second group.

Also, the researchers performed a comparison between members of the first group and those in the third group who happened to create evenly spaced deadlines. Their results were similar, hinting that in the very first study, the difference in performance on the papers was due to the sub-optimal way in which the deadline dates were self-chosen.

On the other hand, the first group reported that they spent the most time on the task.  The second group spent the least.

The researchers’ conclusions?

  1. People create self-imposed deadlines when they suspect they might have a tendency to miss deadlines i.e. procrastinate. Even when there’s penalty for doing so, it helps them meet their goals.
  2. Externally imposed deadlines work even better than self-imposed deadlines.
  3. Self-imposed deadlines improve task performance in general, in the absence of externally-set deadlines.

As you may realize, Total Task Scheduling is all about creating self-imposed deadlines. The good news is that doing so makes perfect sense to people who are committed to high performance, and reducing their errors-in-execution.

What do you think of these results?

Procrastination, Deadlines and Performance: Self-Control by Pre-Commitment by Ariely and Wertenbroch

Revisiting “Automatic Scheduling for Busy People”

A few years ago, this post by Dr. Melanie Wilson caught my attention. It served as my introduction to SkedPal, the first auto-scheduler I ever encountered.

The CEO of Linkedin on Scheduling Nothing

The CEO of Linkedin wrote an interesting article entitled The Importance of Scheduling Nothing.

It’s a description of one of the principles I share in A Course in Scheduling.  In a nutshell, the idea is that a skillful Total Task Scheduler creates the ideal day first, including time spent for sleep and other restful, mindful activities.