A History of Total Task Scheduling

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While calendars have been around since the Bronze Age,  the appointment calendar for personal meetings is a more recent invention. Some believe it was invented by helping professionals such as doctors and lawyers to keep track of their appointments with patients and clients.

While it was first intended as a tool for coordinating meetings, one of the earliest calendars recorded indicates its use for quite a different purpose. Here is a page from a personal calendar published by Benjamin Franklin.

This outline he created to describe his ideal day includes no appointments at all. Instead, it’s a personal plan for the day. The idea that a calendar could be used in this way probably wasn’t invented by him. It’s still in use today by Total Task Schedulers who, like Franklin, believe that making a written plan for the day is superior to the alternatives: having no plan whatsoever, or keeping only a mental plan.

It’s not hard to imagine that each day, he wrote down a schedule that included the elements included in his ideal plus other matters that had arisen: his tasks, appointments, meetings, events, and reminders. This method of Total Task Scheduling probably remained unchanged until recently, on the advent of digital technology.

By then, the problems of using paper to schedule everything had become apparent.

As Alan Lakein stated in his 1973 classic, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life,”  “the overorganized person…  tends to spend much time considering every possibility, planning every detail… He doesn’t move without first planning the smallest detail.”

He also described the “time nut,” someone who is “overwhelmingly preoccupied with time… always rushing around to meet an impossible schedule.” He warns against having too much scheduled time: “Rigidity in setting and following demanding schedules without variation creates the feeling of being regimented by the clock, and living your whole life with a constant eye on the clock can be unpleasant.”

Looking back at his advice we must understand how the world had shifted since Franklin’s advice shared three centuries earlier. My research shows that the number of tasks people were trying to manage using this method had increased dramatically. Like most productivity methods, it didn’t scale.

So, paper is a fine solution for Total Task Schedulers who are trying to manage a small number of tasks.  At a higher number, they become Lakein’s “overorganized” “time nuts”.

When the first digital calendars came into being in the mid 1980’s they were not very popular. After all, Total Task Schedulers who couldn’t carry around their calendars found themselves hamstrung. The perfect schedule stuck on a laptop was of little use.

Even though the design of paper planner improved to the point where carrying around a DayTimer or Filofax was a sign of being serious, they made only a marginal difference. The next big change came with the introduction of the first Personal Digital Assistants (PDA’s) in the mid-1990’s.

Now, for the first time, a Total Task Scheduler could bring his/her digital calendar everywhere. Use bulky cables and tricky synchronization, a calendar could be copied between a PC and PDA. Some were disciplined enough the teach themselves the discipline required to connect their two calendars new per day using an imperfect, slow technology.

Perhaps there should have been a steady organic increase in the number of Total Task Schedulers as these new capabilities came to be realized in everyday usage. However, this didn’t happen – instead, there was a backlash.

With the publication of David Allen’s Getting Things Done in 2001 came a new rule: don’t use your electronic calendar for anything other than appointments with other people, or events whose dates cannot be changed. Over time, he has changed his thinking, but many of his readers have stuck with his original idea that the calendar is a sacred space which should only be used to track one’s “hard landscape” of commitments that “must” be done at a particular date and time.

Certainly it should not be used as Ben Franklin recommended or Alan Lakein recommended.

It was a simple idea and even though it was offered in the original book with only anecdotal evidence, it became a mantra that continues to be repeated. Total Task Scheduling was wrong and should not be attempted by anyone.

However, even as this battle between opposing philosophies is being fought, extraordinary power continues to make its way into people’s lives. They steadily replaced their paper tools with digital equipment of increasingly stunning capacity. Today, the sale of Internet-enabled mobile devices outpaces that of personal computers.

Cloud computing allows us to keep a single source of information, such as a calendar. Local devices are now used as points of access, rather than a permanent place of storage.

Also, Artificial Intelligence combined with raw, robotic computing power makes it easier than ever to perform tedious tasks en masse. The intersection of these and other technologies has dramatically expanded the possibilities for Total Task Schedulers.

Unfortunately, this new frontier remains just that… an unexplored wilderness. The calendar that most people use is just a digital version of the one found on paper, leading them to engage in the same practices Franklin probably used.

For the most part, Total Task Schedulers still enter their tasks one at a time in their calendar, and when there’s a surprise event or emergency, they must manually reconfigure their calendars to keep up. This chore is somewhat easier to perform digitally, but it remains a hard, daily slog.

The “modern” calendar was hardly a radical improvement over the original idea.

In fact, it appears that most people who attempt to schedule everything give up when the real challenge of scheduling everything becomes evident. They surrender, and sometimes advise others to do the same.

In my 2014 book, Perfect Time-Based Productivity, I describe the fact that this widespread failure is only a part of the story. There are a small number of people who have persevered successfully. Some have full-time administrative assistance. But the majority have taught themselves the practices needed to become Total Task Schedulers regardless of the tool or platform being used.

In 2015 Kevin Kruse‘ book, 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, shared his the results of his interviews with millionaires, top athletes, high-performing students, and entrepreneurs. Flying in the face of the published advice from Allen and other gurus was his discovery that they were all Total Task Schedulers.

At around the same time his book was published, I was introduced to SkedPal. It belongs to a class of apps I have dubbed auto-schedulers. They shuffle and optimize a user’s calendar, reaching in to move tasks from one time-slot another.

It isn’t the first auto-scheduler to be invented, but it has become my app of choice, plus I consult with the developers on a contractual basis.

During that year, Google purchased Timeful, another auto-scheduler, eventually releasing some of its functionality into Google Calendar in the form of Google Goals. Other apps like Sheldonize, TimeTo, Get Plan, and Todoist Smart Scheduling (the most recent entry) all perform auto-scheduling functions. They are specifically designed to make it easier to accomplish Total Task Scheduling, often working alongside traditional calendar apps like Google and Outlook Calendar.

They have broken through the limitations of Total Task Scheduling that have existed ever since the concept was first implemented.

My Predictions

I expect auto-schedulers to become ubiquitous. At some point, every digital calendar will offer an “Update Schedule” button, allowing users to bring all their tasks up to date with the click of a button. This capability will reside on all platforms and be fully mobile.

Also, the latest version of SkedPal points to a redefinition of “Total Task Scheduling.” In prior versions, users were forced to assign due dates to each task, regardless of the need to do so. This thinking has changed. Now, a task may be stored with either a “fuzzy” due date (such as someday, or next week), without a due date at all, or with its own due date.

This new feature allows the user to create tasks in way that’s more in line with the way they think about them on a daily basis.

So a Total Task Scheduler need not store his/her “total” complement of tasks in a calendar. In fact, the new thinking is that new feature will continue to blur the distinctions between a list and a schedule. After all, they come from old ways of thinking borrowed from the paper-based days. We are fast developing new ways to think about our tasks along with the best ways to represent them.

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