Microdose #010: Use Task Scheduling to Improve Productivity
Never forget a task, visualize your day, and address the root cause of procrastination.
BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front):
There is an ever-growing list of tasks that you need to accomplish every day. These tasks range from the mundane to the critical, from life logistics (picking up the kids from soccer) to work demands (creating a new presentation) to self-enrichment projects (writing a novel). We all have a finite amount of productive time in a day. Without a structured approach, procrastination and simply losing track of things can cause us added stress, and prevent us from doing what’s most important.
Using a simple task scheduling framework (detailed in The Plan below) will help you to be more productive, while also giving you space to reflect on your priorities.
Note: This is not just about being more productive. The research shows that good time management is most directly correlated to an improved sense of wellbeing.
There is growing evidence that procrastination and task-avoidance behaviors can be damaging to one's physical health, in addition to the negative impact that these habits can have on work performance and personal relationships. One of the reasons that this behavior negatively impacts wellbeing, is that procrastinators were found to engage in fewer wellness practices and self-care than those that don’t procrastinate.
Conversely, good time management techniques are positively correlated to increased work performance, and a general sense of wellbeing. By attacking tasks head on, we reduce stress, and by prioritizing the important tasks, over what happens to be directly in front of us, we make time for what’s meaningful.
Note: There are a number of complex psychological causes for procrastination. While the tips below are generally effective for increasing productivity, they are not meant to replace the guidance of a mental health professional in the case of procrastination habits that significantly impact daily life.
Negative impacts of procrastination:
“...procrastination was associated with higher stress, more acute health problems, and the practice of fewer wellness behaviours. Procrastinators also reported fewer household safety behaviours, and less frequent dental and medical check-ups.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886906004454
Positive effects of good time management:
“Results show that time management is moderately related to job performance, academic achievement, and wellbeing. Time management also shows a moderate, negative relationship with distress... We also note that time management seems to enhance wellbeing-in particular, life satisfaction-to a greater extent than it does performance.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33428644/
The world is certainly not lacking in frameworks, models, and acronyms which claim to increase your productivity, most of which suffer from being too complicated or reliant on special tools or apps. As the expression goes: the best [insert productivity method/diet/etc...] is the one you’ll actually use. Here’s a very simple technique for scheduling tasks that requires nothing more than a free online calendar.
Build a quick intake process for new tasks
Tons of important tasks are left undone or end up delayed because we forget to record them when they first enter our notice. We think we’ll remember them, and they disappear into the ether.
When a task comes in, follow this simple intake process:
- Is the task important?
- Importance is subjective and relative. Think about what would happen if this task wasn’t done. Don’t fall into the trap of downgrading the importance of tasks that contribute to your wellness. Important tasks are those that will have a negative impact if left undone, or that will cause you regret.
- Is the task urgent?
- Is the task time sensitive? Does it need to be done today? What would the consequences be if this were late?
- How long will this take to do?
- Try to be as realistic as possible in your estimation. A key driver in procrastination and failure to complete tasks is underestimating how much time things take.
If the task will take under 15 minutes:
- ...and is urgent or important: do it now
- ...is neither urgent nor important: add it to a low-priority to-do list (I use a simple paper list for this, but there are plenty of digital options as well)
If the task will take over 15 minutes:
- ...and is urgent or important: create a calendar event for this task
- ...is neither urgent nor important: add it to your low-priority to-do list
Commit all urgent or important tasks that take over 15 minutes to the calendar
The importance of this step is that it creates a visual acknowledgement of the fact that our time is finite and that we do not have infinite capacity to add additional tasks. Everything we commit to takes a slot of time away.
Google Calendar is very useful for this purpose. If you’re new to GCal, here is a helpful getting started guide: https://support.google.com/a/users/answer/9302892?hl=en&ref_topic=9282962&visit_id=637689703892165955-3421816470&rd=1
We recommend doing this directly on your work and personal calendars, as it creates visibility into your tasks for those that can see your schedule, and prevents meetings from being scheduled over the top of heads-down work time. However, if your particular work requires you to prioritize meetings, perhaps with external clients, it may be preferable to create a new calendar for this purpose that you can overlap with your shared schedules. Here’s how to do this in Google Calendar: https://support.google.com/calendar/answer/37095?hl=en
When filling in otherwise unoccupied time on your calendar with events that reflect tasks, make sure to include the following:
- Account for time needed to do things like travel to new locations, or even just context switch between two disparate tasks
- Order tasks by their priority and urgency
- Rearrange when new tasks come in that supercede existing tasks
- Only schedule tasks within the next 2-3 days (with the exception of tasks that have specific due dates)
Rightsize your calendar to reflect reality and notate deferred tasks
At several regular intervals throughout the day (we use lunch, end of workday, and before our nighttime wind-down routine) go back and correct your calendar to reflect what you actually accomplished during that time period. Especially in the beginning, this will typically mean enlarging the tasks you had scheduled to reflect that they actually took longer than you thought. You’ll also start to realize that, while it may be attractive to completely fill your time with tasks, in practice, your day tends to have more of a wave pattern to it, with productivity coming in spurts, followed by periods of down time. The purpose of this step is just to record the outcomes, and make note of tasks that get deferred. Try to avoid judgement.
If the task is deferred from its original time slot, but completed the same day, do nothing. Flexibility is a virtue.
If the task is deferred to the next day, add an asterisk to the beginning of the event’s title. Do this every time this happens.
Reflect on your day, and the tasks that roll over
At the end of each day, take some time to reflect on the following:
- Did I defer any tasks? What caused me to defer them? Did other things crowd them out?
- Is there anything on my calendar for tomorrow that I’m dreading? If so, why? Can I move it up in the day to get it done sooner (and proactively break the procrastination cycle)?
- How much downtime do I need in the day? Do I have specific times in the day where I am more or less productive? How can I get the most out of these super productive periods?
- Did my day feel hectic or calm? Does my answer reflect an over-commitment to tasks?
- Looking at my low priority todo list, what can I eliminate or delegate?
- Do I feel fulfilled personally by what I’ve accomplished today? If not, do I need to shift my definition of importance, when scheduling future tasks?
Alex - While I don’t use a digital calendar, I use a similar hard copy option: Bullet journaling. Time management has always been a challenge for me, so keeping tasks in the forefront of my mind is invaluable. Using the roll-over method has helped me to cut down on my overdue tasks.
Frank - I use this method extensively and have found that it empowers me to “say no” to tasks that do not directly align with my objectives, which was previously very challenging for me. Additionally, by doing this, I have a detailed canonical diary of what I’ve done every day, which is extremely helpful when it’s time to write my performance review.