Updated: Apr 23
Last Saturday was a rare day in my worklife. I completed everything on my daily "to do" list and had time to start on other waiting projects.
Perhaps you think a productivity coach should be able to complete her daily "to dos" every day. Shouldn't someone who writes and teaches about these issues be able to estimate how much time a project will take and schedule it, unerringly?
Nope. Perfection is never the Messy Desk goal.
In a recent Forge article, Linda Vanderkam wrote, "The key to an effective weekly calendar is pessimism." Her solution -- scheduling a back-up slot for every activity.
Good time management means planning a resilient schedule, not a perfect one. -Linda Vanderkam
The amount of time in your life isn't flexible. Vanderkam's idea is that you create a resilient weekly schedule by adding redundant time slots for valued activities. I would suggest that you make your schedule even more resilient when you schedule ample buffer time and have a menu of activities to fill in when needed.
First, know your priorities.
It’s worth noting that if you don’t know what is important and what isn’t, you won’t manage your time well. Consider your priorities at the big picture level of your whole life, including work and leisure, as well as the minutiae of your everyday “to do” list. For one schema for doing so, check out my Medium post, Setting Priorities: When Everything Seems Important. https://medium.com/swlh/setting-priorities-ceec78925d18).
Surprise! Unplanned Time
If you are planning your schedule well, you allow buffer time to make room for the unexpected. Vanderkam’s backup plans are one kind of buffer. Another is allowing more time than you estimate to complete a task or project.
Most of the time, adding buffer time means you hit your deadline (I like to call it a “Finish Line”) with just a little breathing room. I prefer to focus on one Finish Line activity at a time, designating a particular project each day. On a rare day like my successful Saturday, I finished the designated project was early in the morning. Buffer time morphed into the temptation of Unplanned Time.
Unplanned Time is a delicious treat on days off work. Since I’m an uber-geek about this stuff, my Sunday calendar this week says “No plans. Yay!” A day like that is restorative for me because it lets me do whatever I feel like at the moment, guilt-free. Those days usually involve sleeping in, hanging out with my spouse, or curling up with a purring cat and a trashy novel. The only goal is relaxation.
On work days, however, Unplanned Time is a black hole that can suck my carefully crafted goals into the abyss, dragging coworkers along with me as I lure them into the break room with jokes and snacks.
The only way for me to avoid that black hole (and the snacks) is to have ongoing lists of backup activities. Thinking of them as backups rather than plain “to dos” helps me avoid the overwhelm I feel when my “to do” list is too long.
Quick Wins: Fill-in Activities
Whatever method you use to keep track of your projects and individual activities, it is important to have them written down. Then, when you get a surprise moment of free time, you can refer to your lists without working hard to remember what else needs to be completed. Fill-in activities usually fall in the categories of Next Step, One Time, or Random Fun.
Next Step activities are bite-sized actions that make a big project manageable. These are much like David Allen’s https://gettingthingsdone.com/2011/02/how-is-a-next-action-list-different-from-a-to-do-list/ “next actions." I don’t schedule these activities tightly. I sneak them in between other scheduled activities. Then, when the next Finish Line activity is the designated focus for the day, I have already made some progress toward the end goal and it doesn’t feel like such an intimidating blank slate.
On Saturday, my “to do” was all about hitting that Finish Line report (with a priority of serving customers, had they shown up). But I always have Next Step items ready to work on. This week, I decided to tackle the next few steps related to implementing new statistics-gathering software. I read some documentation. Played with the interface. Set up a form. Yippee! Three things complete that I didn’t expect to touch that day.
One Time activities are those tasks that don’t necessarily apply to any particular project, but don’t repeat. Answering a single email or returning a call are good examples. Even though you can bundle similar activities together---some people return calls at the end of the day every day, for example---I try to keep these unbundled so that I don’t procrastinate the tiny tasks that will only take me a few minutes to complete.
Random Fun OK, sometimes you need to balance a hard-working morning with a little bit of play. Snacks in the break room aren’t always a bad idea. I like to keep a fun activity in the back of my mind to reward myself when I have finished something particularly challenging. A bottle of soap bubbles, a spritz of a favorite essential oil, and an emergency chocolate bar hide in my Random Fun drawer at work.
To recap: Planning for the unexpected means being prepared not only for unexpected additions to your schedule, but also for unexpected free time. Taking advantage of those happy surprises is just as important as making room for unhappy ones.
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Like the ideas here? Email marie.jones@messydeskconsulting to learn how you can win a free Time Management Makeover from Messy Desk Consulting.