In my experience interviewing 700 experts for my podcast, the Unmistakable Creative, I discovered a clear pattern among every single person who does creative work for a living. From entrepreneurs and graffiti artists to peak performance psychologists, high performers create on a schedule.
Some argue that a schedule is constraining but there’s other research cited at FastCompany which shows that constraints can spark creativity. It’s a similar argument made by those who insist that creativity is a function of professionalism. That is, people who treat their performance achievement like a job they show up to every day are said to produce better results, just because they follow a regular discipline.
In other words, they don’t create when they are “in the mood.” They do so when it’s penciled in their calendar.
Are you being bad and ineffective if you don’t schedule everything?
One of the mistakes occasional visitors to ScheduleU make is to conclude that if you aren’t putting all your tasks in your calendar, it means that you are doing something wrong: That only someone who is a Total Task Scheduler is correct, productive and doing things the right way.
If that’s not what they are doing, they feel judged. Put down. Diminished. They get defensive, arguing that their way is either just or good, or better. They are being attacked by ScheduleU’s teaching.
This experience sometimes comes from a place where one answer is believed to be best. It’s a point of view promoted by authors who promote simplistic, single answers: the ones they have found and use. As a result, they imply, others should follow their example without deviation. There’s a hardening of positions which echoes the political, religious and nationalistic jingoism which is apparently in vogue.
How does this apply to ScheduleU? Well, as you know, ScheduleU is the “School for Scheduling Everything.” I liken it to a “school for sprinting.”
In this imaginary athletics school, other kinds of running are not diminished. Neither are other sports outside of track and field. It’s just that a school for sprinting focuses on producing the best result in a single discipline.
Furthermore, people who hang around top sprinters like Usain Bolt are surprised to see how little preparation time is spent running anywhere near top speeds. The ultimate end-result – a world record or Olympic medal – is not produced by practicing a single activity, but many.
In much the same way, the purpose of ScheduleU is not to simply teach the mechanics of putting all your tasks in your calendar. Instead, it exists to support anyone who has an interest in keeping their peace of mind intact amidst an increase in time demands. This commitment naturally causes people to wonder whether or not they are using their calendar effectively.
When this curiosity is heightened, it’s a good idea to find ways to continually evolve your scheduling techniques. The fact is, better calendar skills and tools are required in order to manage more tasks effectively. After all, we all face the same time limitations and each additional activity occupies some more of it. There is no escaping the fact that there is a limit your capacity defined by your setup of skills and tools at any point in time.
If you find yourself adding more time demands, and even more, then you must confront the limits of your current setup. The good news is that you are not alone – others are pushing past these limits, providing us with brand new possibilities.
For the most part, technology is taking the lead in breaking down these barriers. What’s coming is hard to predict, so it’s a bad idea to rest on your laurels, and assume that you already use the best stuff, thank-you-very-much, full-stop.
I know, because I fell into this trap.
When I published the first edition of Perfect Time-Based Productivity in 2014, I thought I had completed a comprehensive volume which would stand the test of time. So why am I currently writing a second edition?
It only took about a month after the book’s release to bump into new software (SkedPal) which I began to use. Today, it’s an essential part of my daily workflow. So now, rather than believe I know what’s best, I assume the opposite: that the discovery of even better behaviors and tools are just around the corner. Once they arrive, I’ll use them to keep my peace of mind even as they help me build new capacity.
ScheduleU is all about helping people like the persona I was in 2014 – it’s the resource I wish I had many years ago as I jumped from one technique/tool to another, without any guidance. I set it up to help people who want to be on this journey, so they can uncover important nuances such as the one I put in the subject of this post: that Everything doesn’t mean “everything.”
the detailed activities that comprise every task. For example, it makes no sense to break down the activity I’m engaged in at the moment (writing a blog post) into its component parts on my calendar.
all your habits. I don’t schedule the time to brush my teeth. Do you?
time demands you aren’t ready to schedule. Got “Someday” tasks? They shouldn’t be forced into your calendar but stored or listed in other reliable places for ready retrieval.
stuff you used to schedule, but no longer need to. When I was training myself to go to bed early, I used an alarm. Now, it’s a permanent habit, so there’s no need to do so.=.
more time demands than you can manage. If you want to retain your peace of mind (and your sanity) use behaviors/tools which are appropriate for the number of time demands you are trying to execute. This requires a delicate balancing act which I explain in this answer I gave on Quora, and you can explore for yourself in A Course in Scheduling.
In other words, “Scheduling Everything” really means “Scheduling Everything you need to schedule to accomplish your goals.”
Given the fact that you are unique, and one-size-doesn’t-fit-all, you are the only one who can determine what “Scheduling Everything” actually means. Consider ScheduleU to be your partner on this adventure!
The sheer volume of productivity advice you and I face each day is mind-boggling. As we look to a future in which we must make further upgrades just in order to keep up, we cringe.
Are we doomed to surf the internet for random tips, tricks and shortcuts that might fit? How many “Top 3”, “Best 10” and “Secret 99″ lists will we have to read or listen to? Hundreds? Thousands? Really?
In the area of time management, the end-result is “improvement overwhelm.” It’s a feeling that with so many potential upgrades to our practices and tools, it’s impossible to choose the best one. Exhausted, we collapse into doing nothing at all. But can there be a better way?
Deep down, we hope there is. We know that the future is likely to demand more from us. Getting stuck using old, inefficient tools is not an option.
Today, it’s as if we have no other choice than to somehow filter an increasing number of recommendations. This is a losing strategy: at some point, even the best curator will fail.
Instead, we need to transform the problem.
To keep improving the way we have in the past, we must learn to drive our personal upgrades from a different place: the inside. Rather than being pushed by advertising, blogs, and random notifications we require an internal source.
Our journey to the inside begins with a deeper understanding of human development. Psychological researchers tell us that we all follow a similar path in the way we forge a unique time management system. The road we take is described in the diagram below.
In almost all cases, the personal system we create is self-taught: it’s all our own. As a result, you have a different set of specific habits, practices and tools from everyone else reading this article. When put together and seen as a single system, it’s not hard to see it has strengths and weaknesses which are uniquely yours. Here is some data that backs this up: it’s borrowed from the hundreds of people who have completed my training programs.
As a result, one-size-fits-all, super-simplified solutions may be easy to grasp but rarely work as advertised. The data suggests that they can’t: when people are in different places, using different behaviors, giving them all the same prescriptions won’t work. While it’s simpler for an author to write a “Just-Do-What-I-Do” article or book, it makes things harder for readers who can never become junior replicas.
Unfortunately, very few people appreciate this fact. When they discover a blogger’s “Top Ten List of Time Management Hacks” they believe that the writer’s description of an El Dorado of ideal behaviors must also apply to them. When they discover otherwise, time, money and energy have all been wasted. Sometimes people even feel guilty, believing that failure must mean something is wrong with them.
There isn’t. They are not to blame.
Most simply don’t understand that issues in time-based productivity are a result of stale practices and tools. They worked fine in the past, then suddenly, it seems, they didn’t. Fortunately, this usually means that the changes needed to be made are closer to small tweaks, steadily applied over time, than they are to total makeovers.
But developing these solutions, even the tiny ones, isn’t easy. You need to develop three extraordinary abilities.
Superpower #1 — Detect Like Sherlock Holmes
Most people are quite weak in picking up on small but important changes in their productivity. Hoping for the best, they ignore them, believing that things will work themselves out.
This especially applies to their personal system for managing time demands. As I mentioned in the diagram above, each one is an “internal, individual commitment to complete an action in the future.”
Lacking a practical knowledge of the processes they use to manipulate time demands, they suffer. They just don’t know what to look out for. As a result, only big failures gain their attention, attached to painful symptoms.
Take the example of Geoff, an executive. He has access to all the latest technologies, changing his smartphone regularly. However, he will readily tell you that he’s “not that good with email.”
Attending a webinar, he’s shocked to learn that the most effective people practice a technique called Inbox Zero, in which they empty their inboxes once or twice per day. Only then does he realize the advantage they have over people like him who practice an unstructured “Skim and Leave Behind” method.
On reflection, he realizes that the 10,000 unprocessed email messages in his Inbox are concealing all sorts of tasks he is supposed to do. Recently, his boss warned him that he shouldn’t be dropping the ball by failing to keep up with email. “It lets down the entire team” he advised, before forwarding the email about the webinar.
Geoff learns that this situation did not have to become such a big issue. He missed the warning signs.
It’s the very opposite of what Sherlock Holmes would do. If you have ever seen him in action on the screen or in a book, you may remember that he constructs an entire narrative based on a few easily overlooked observations. He paints a picture others cannot see, but it all starts with an uncommon superpower: keen observation.
He operates a bit like Spiderman who miraculously developed “spidey-sense” when his alter-ego, Peter Parker, was bitten by a radioactive arachnid. With it, he’s able to discern imminent danger even before it occurs.
With respect to time-based productivity, anyone who has the ability to detect lead indicators is rare. In fact, it’s a superpower which enables them to see around proverbial corners, and pick up on future issues with their system.
For example, you would know that a sudden increase in time demands is a strong predictor of trouble. So is the adoption of a new tool, or an unexpected surge in late nights at the office.
These are three examples of early warning signs few bother to notice. Focused on just getting through the day, they fail to see the larger indicators. Neglecting their personal systems, they leave the door open for repeated failure.
However, when this superpower exists, you operate like a skilled mechanic who can listen to an engine, picking up on problems others can’t. They must wait for a catastrophe to occur.
With this skill, your ability to intervene on a small scale prevents disasters from happening, but they also help you take the next step to uncover root causes.
Superpower #2: Diagnose Like Dr. House
Andrea sat in my class, stunned. She had just learned that she wasn’t incompetent because she couldn’t mentally keep track of all her time demands. In fact, she was quite normal.
Her panic dissipated: now she could imagine herself being promoted without the pressure to remember more stuff. Relieved, she could see that it was all a classic case of misdiagnosis. She had correctly identified unwanted symptoms, but assigned them to the wrong causes.
Television’s Dr. House is the opposite. His character possesses a fantastic ability to perform expert diagnoses that stump other professionals. Physicians assure me that the show is an exaggeration: in real-life, no single physician covers so many fields of expertise. It portrays a superhuman, but fictional, capability.
In the world of time-based productivity, you need skills which touch on these heights. With study and practice, your development of a diagnostic superpower can be a reality. It starts by undertaking a deep examination of your personal system for managing time demands.
Without it, you make mistakes. A 2010 survey showed that 87% of people who purchased an iPad intended to use it to increase their productivity. Unfortunately, studies have shown that it has little impact. Instead, it allows for better entertainment and greater convenience.
Imagine if Andrea had wasted several months training to improve her memory?
This superpower helps prevent such errors. Once you gain an in-depth understanding of how your system for managing time demands actually works, you can diagnose true root causes.
Our work at 2Time Labs should help. We have narrowed the practice of managing time demands to 11 observable behaviors: 7 Essential fundamentals supported by 4 Advanced.
Because we are self-taught, we unwittingly introduce errors at an early age. They continue into adulthood, where we are often strong in some fundamentals and weak in others, as the data I shared earlier shows. When we assemble them into a single system, it produces defects such as forgotten commitments, email overload and lateness.
With this superpower, and an understanding of technology, you can diagnose the root causes of these and other everyday problems in your life. In turn, this helps you focus on the next step: making the right adjustments to your behaviors and tools.
Superpower #3 — Implement Like Federer
Arriving at the Australian Open in January 2017, Roger Federer hoped to beat one or two players. In his mind, it was only a warmup tournament for a year in which, by April, he’d be able to play decent tennis. Coming off a six-month layoff, it was the best he could expect.
When he won the singles title, it was testament to careful preparation during his time away. After a complete and in-depth examination of his injury during the previous summer, he made a multi-month plan that included rehab, diet, running and sprinting. In the fall when he finally stepped back on a tennis court he also tweaked his return of serve plus a few other strokes.
“It was just being clever with my scheduling, making sure I’m not getting hurt,” he explained.
Now, he’s spending a chunk of his time off the court studying what it takes for his 35 year-old physical self to compete with younger players who could be his kids.
It’s a great example of the inside-out method one needs to take to change a long-term behavior.
In time-based productivity, I recommend you use a similar approach to implementation, a weak point for most of us. Here is the ETaPS method we developed at 2Time Labs.
E — Evaluate your current standard of behavior against those which are best-in-class using objective criteria. Look for break-downs of complex practices into small ones which can be measured easily.
Ta — Set Targets for new behaviors. Pick a level of expertise or skills which corresponds to your desired goals.
P — Plan to make changes for new habits, practices and rituals by stretching them out over time. They should appear to you as baby steps which makes the plan realistic, but easy to implement.
S — Support the plan with the right mix of internal and external elements, such as a checklist (internal) and a coach (external.) Put in enough supports to make failure almost impossible.
Federer’s approach follows these four steps quite closely. Other players might have been impatient, injuring themselves in their recovery, because they failed to set up a sufficient support system. The fact is, long term change isn’t easy and we often overestimate our ability to make permanent shifts.
This superpower, more than any other, keeps you focused on the small changes you need to make. Now, suggested improvements from outside your life show up in the right context. If they support your overall plan, you entertain them. If not, you can safely filter them out of your attention.
To be clear — we are always declining improvement opportunities. But if you have this superpower, you do so effectively and powerfully, in ways others may not understand. Like Federer, who resisted the impulse to shortcut his recovery, you say no.
Bring the Superpowers Together
These three capacities are not completely missing for most people. We all possess them in small quanta at the very least.
Developing them into superpowers does not come naturally or without effort. It requires hard work and diligence to achieve that level of performance. Just ask Federer. Or Dr. Anders Ericsson, of Deliberate Practice fame. His study of high performers shows that they rarely accomplish the top echelons without 10 years or 10,000 hours of diligent effort. Much of it involves focuses on the weakest skills in their repertoire, under the guidance of a skilled coach.
Those who are fortunate become highly skilled in these superpowers, facing the future confidently. They aren’t afraid of all the suggestions and recommendations flying around because they understand what they need and why. It comes from their plan, not the external world, so improvement fatigue is something they are aware of, but don’t experience.
However, they are open to fresh opportunities. When someone offers a new behavior or technology, they know how to evaluate them against their needs. They are careful, even suspicious, knowing that it’s unlikely that a random suggestion will fit into their plan at just the right moment in time.
It’s a level I failed to reach while writing my book, Perfect Time-Based Productivity. A few months before publication I had my first exposure with SkedPal, an auto-scheduling app, but didn’t believe it would work. My hasty dismissal led me to publish without even a single mention of this new AI-driven technology. Now that I use it several times per day, my prior lack of planning is appalling!
Studies show that many people become cynical and resigned about their inability to cope with a future of increasing time demands. They simply don’t see a way out.
People armed with an improvement plan are free from this trap. They relax, working with what they have, rather than complaining about the stuff they don’t. Their acceptance of the way things work and how they can be upgraded is essential in overcoming the challenge of improvement fatigue.
Thanks to editors Brendan Bain, Doug Toft, Nicki Franklin, Wim Annerel, Jolene Brown, Catherine Munson and Arlene Henry. This article was originally published on Medium.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
In an experiment, students were given a choice as to when to complete three papers, all of which were due by a certain date.
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?
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?
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.
Externally imposed deadlines work even better than self-imposed deadlines.
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.
Kevin Kruse is one of the few authors to distinguish the importance of scheduling everything and the high performers who use this approach. In this article from Forbes magazine, he takes a look at The Value in Scheduling Everything.
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.