Do Schedules Work?

Some time ago I looked at how David Allen's "Getting Things Done" system was working for me, and pondered over some of the improvements that could be made. One of the improvements I thought about was the use of a schedule, so I've been experimenting with them over the past few weeks.

The overall results have been very positive, and although there's still a lot of improvements that can be made, I'm confident that it's worth the effort.

Why Bother With One?

  • Structure – A schedule gives you a sense of structure for your day, which can help you organise your time and resources.
  • Helps you focus – You'll constantly be looking at your goals and projects in order to put together your schedule, which helps prevent them from being overlooked or forgotten.
  • Highlights your limits – This might seem like a strange thing to mention, but being able to see your limits is very helpful when you're planning your working week. We'd all like to be able to do more in less time, but seeing how long tasks actually take can stop you from overloading yourself and burning out.

Creating a Simple Schedule

Here are a few recommendations to help you when you're creating your schedule:

  • Create it the night before – Creating your schedule the night before gives your subconscious time to process everything on it whilst you sleep. It also means you're able to get on with your work as soon as your day starts, instead of having to figure out what needs doing first.
  • Use large blocks – Don't divide the day into chunks that are too small. Hourly blocks are generally large enough, but it can take time to get into the flow state required by some tasks so you may need 90 minute or 2 hour blocks.
  • Group similar tasks – If you have a lot of small, similar tasks, it's best to stick them all in a half hour group and just dash through them. Clearing up all of these small tasks will give you a sense of satisfaction and leave you feeling energised.
  • Schedule your rest and relaxation – Working for long periods without a break will eventually take its toll, so schedule some time to get up and have a walk around. If you're an early rise, you may also want to schedule a 30 minute nap around lunch time. This can give a much needed boost of energy, and will stop you flagging later in the day.
  • Keep it flexible – It's very difficult to predict how long each task will take, so make sure your schedule is flexible and can cope with a reasonable amount of unexpected delays. One important point: don't fall into the trap of using your relaxation time as a "buffer" zone. Relaxation time should not be seen as something that is a luxury, and should be treated as important as any other activity.
  • Know your limits – We'd all like to be able to get more done, but it's important not to overestimate how much you can physically do. If you don't give large tasks enough time, you risk creating a backlog as the day goes on which will bog down your mind and demotivate you.

You may need a few days to get into the groove of using a schedule, but the more often you do it the more proficient you will become.

Optional Extras

Example of a schedule

As you'll notice from the rather colourful photo, I colour coded the tasks on my schedule. I tried two main methods of colour coding during the trial.

The first method I tried was to colour code by category. This seemed like a logical idea at first, as I could see which projects were getting the most attention and which were being neglected. I soon realised that I would run out of colours if I used a different colour for each project! I modified the system slightly to use colours for more general categories, such as "computer projects", "business projects" and "personal projects".

After a few weeks of this system, I switched to colour coding by priority. I used the Covey Quadrant style categorisation for this method. If you're not familiar with Covey's four categories, they are:

  1. Urgent and Important Tasks – Firefighting, pressing problems and deadline driven tasks fit here.
  2. Important and Not Urgent – Tasks that need to be done, but aren't particularly urgent. This is the area your should spend most of your time on.
  3. Not Important and Urgent – Things like some phone calls and meetings.
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent – You should look carefully to see if these activities are worth doing at all.

So far this method has worked the best, as it forces me to look at the bigger picture and to be more careful about where I spend my time. It might seem like a clash between the relatively priority free GTD system and the rigid quadrant based thinking, but really helps to keep a tight focus on what is important and what isn't.

Future Improvements

Although using the quadrant method of sorting tasks worked well, I think there is room for improvement. I tent to think that most tasks are important or they wouldn't be scheduled, so it's pointless to classify everything as a quadrant two task. One method I'd like to try out is Steve Pavlina's 50-30-20 rule (the Pavlina Pyramid?) for sorting tasks. These segments are:

  1. A Tasks – These are tasks that will yield significant benefits over a 5 year timespan (and beyond).
  2. B Tasks – Tasks that will bring benefits over the next 2 years or less.
  3. C Tasks –These will only bring improvements in the short term, and probably won't be remembered further down the line. However, ignoring them could cause problems at a later date.

You'll notice his system of prioritising is much more focused on long term goals and benefits, which can often be left behind in the rush to get something complete.