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To schedule or not to schedule, this is the question...

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  • To schedule or not to schedule, this is the question...

    I'm a fan of GTD systems since years and I tried several, based on softwares and paper, and I know how difficult is to be constant if the system suits less than perfectly. Difficult to keep the motivation high and avoid the natural tendency to be messy if you don't see the immediate benefits.
    I'm now in process of choosing for the nth time the system that suits better my current life situation, learning from errors in the past and from experience of other people who also take GTD seriously.
    That's why I'm here suggesting this topic: to schedule or not to schedule?

    Well, of course we all agree that it's necessary to schedule in our agenda the appointments or all other things that happens just at a precise date and time.

    Following some experts of GTD techniques (is this David Allen's idea too?) we should NEVER schedule in our agenda other things, like regular tasks or like the frames of time that we suppose to need to accomplish the goal of the projects we inserted in our trusted system.
    Following this school of thought, we need to use just our next actions list, better if reviewing it every day or every week.

    One of the concepts that I like most of GTD is the "think once a week, generate actions. One week later, think again." (citing Michael Sliwinski http://www.nozbe.com/gtd/show/site-course8), like saying "there is time for planning and time for just doing things, keep your mind empty, ready, not worrying of anything else than the thing you're doing in that moment, hence potentially achieving the best quality result too.
    Of course, this needs a reliable "trusted system" and personal organizational system, so we can be sure not to miss any appointment or any thought, project, action, ...

    Reading it at a higher level, it means doing just elementary actions, there is time for reviewing, time for planning, time for doing... somehow we should avoid our mind to distract from the action and try to process more actions of the same kind and the same context in a row, being it a big optimization compared to the mental overload due to the switch among different tasks, especially if doing them at the same moment (NEVER do multitasking!).

    (I find very useful also to write down procedures and methodologies, when I do one repetitive task the first time, I take a bit more time to write down the steps, this way I think accurately what's the best way to do, everything to check and in which order just the first time, and the other times I kinda follow the methodology as a robot, of course updating it if anything new comes up, at least it helps to feel sure not have forgotten any step and any check.)

    All this sounds and IS wonderful, but I see a contradiction in one point.

    On one side it says "think once a week" (maybe once a day, when picking up the next actions etc), of the other side it implies browsing the list of the next actions many times every day, to chose among them which I feel better doing at the moment.
    So it's like having a little prioritizing session among every doing session.

    And, very important, I said: "I feel". And this, from my perspective, opens huge spaces to the biggest enemy of GTD systems, lack of motivation and general laziness, maybe hidden behind a very busy daily to-do-list.
    There are two kind of GTDers: the cautious ones, who chose few next actions to get done every day, so at the end of the day they generally got everything done and the optimist ones, who tickle more next actions that practically doable, or not plan any time for hitches, unexpected phone calls, etc... so they end up not getting done the whole daily to-do-list.

    Let's guess: which kind of actions are more likable to never getting into the small daily to-do-list and keep latent and overtaken by the more urgent tasks (for the cautious ones) or bounce back and forward from the daily to-do-list without actually getting done (for the optimist ones)?
    Are you thinking the same as me?

    I'd say "chores", or to better describe them, I can use the words from http://sciral.com/consistency/:
    activities or tasks which
    -don't have deadlines or rigid time intervals associated with them
    -are often “routine” tasks for which you have not firmly established a habit of carrying them out as second nature
    - are (in the words of Stephen Covey) “important, but not urgent”

    To be even more clear, tasks like exercise or study a new language or a new musical instrument, are some examples of the activities that would be more likely be submerged by other tasks, because:
    - they are hard and not attractive
    - they are not urgent
    - they don't have a deadline

    Hence all the tasks with deadlines and the more pleasant tasks will surely overtake these regular tasks, we would probably end up not doing the N hours of exercise that we planned to do every week/month, ...

    Nevertheless these kind of projects can be very important if we planned them.
    And, getting projects like these procrastinated, can be a big frustration.

    An other category of things that can be easily put in background since they become urgent is the preparation of documents before an appointment or a public speech. When you booked the appointment/speech there was a lot of time and it was not urgent, also you didn't know exactly how much time you need for prepare all the documents, so you wrote down the action in your trusted system and, as you were busy doing a lot of other things, you ended up every time doing it the day before, just because you had a look at the calendar of the next days and... oops... the day that seemed so far became suddenly tomorrow! Never happened to you? )

    The same thing is when we have some tasks who are quite free to plan in any situation but still we know to have to plan N hours in that context every week/month, to get all things under control.
    It can be any kind of regular check, paying bills, shopping, bookkeeping, visiting your parents, answering low-priority emails/letters, ...

    In other words we can define it as deciding which context to switch to and when and when to stop that time slot and switch to an other context.

    Planning and prioritizing these activities were always a problem for me and the only solution I ever read about for it is time boxing.
    You can read a bit about it in Dave Cheong's blog: http://www.davecheong.com/2006/07/26...done-strategy/

    One possible implementation can be achieved putting the time boxes of these regular tasks on the agenda during the weekly/monthly review and planning. And of course the periodic planning should be scheduled too, being it a repetitive task.
    These boxes can be written in pencil (or with a different color or a special flag if the calendar is on PC) to flag them as movable and not fixed, as appointments etc.
    Still, to move the block away to free the time where it was planned, should contextually be found a free block of the same size to move it too.
    This can be helpful to make evident the eventual "overbooking" of our agenda, that is latent when we adopt pure GTD system so we can be more careful before accepting more assignments or to action new projects instead of keeping them as "future projects".

    But then, we come to the initial question: to schedule or not to schedule?
    And, if yes, does it work? Is there any software implementation of it?
    Do anyone has good experiences?

    If better not, how to get not urgent projects to step forward regularly?
    Any good experience in this sense?

    I hope this topic is interesting for you and thank you in advance for your comments.

    Tom

  • #2
    Actually, chores are often a means of procrastination. People who work at home often find that their home is very clean when they aren't getting much actual work done.

    In any case, I don't think there's an absolute answer. Overly rigid scheduling is bad, but so is a complete lack of structure. For me, the balance between the two varies depending on my mood and the task at hand.

    Katherine

    Comment


    • #3
      Thanks for the topic! (Especially as the forum's been quiet lately.)

      First off, about the so-called "contradiction." I don't think it's a contradiction, as I understand "think once a week" as an approximate expression. It means, "Resolve your higher-level priorities into immediate priorities once a week." It doesn't mean, "Think about all your priorities once a week."

      Throughout the week, I look at my Actions and decide what's important, urgent, do-able, etc. at that moment. I'm still prioritizing, but I'm prioritizing at a low level, factoring in my current energy level, context, etc. One of the great powers of GTD is that I don't have to factor in higher-level priorities at the same time; I've already done that during my weekly reviews.

      But getting back to the activities you describe. Here's how I handle them:

      If they're weekly habits -- a creativity exercise, or cleaning, for example -- I put them on my tickler.

      If they're daily habits -- Tai Chi practice, for example -- I print them up on a sheet of paper and hang copies around everywhere, to remind myself that I need to get to these at some point in the day. Mine includes Tai Chi, meditation, journaling, processing inboxes, checking my tickler, and reading the Bible (among others).

      Comment


      • #4
        Thanks Katherine and Brent for your replies.

        I read in many threads of this forums that people consider the weak point of GTD systems that it doesn't help the user to select which action to do.
        For me, for most of my projects, selecting week by week or day by day which one to step forward a bit, using the 4 criteria of the GTD methodology doesn't work at all.
        And it would make me scan through the NA lists and all the projects one or multiple times a day, actually worrying of getting things done and off the list, that's an opposite effect than achieving the peace of mind having everything written down in the correct place and correctly handled.

        I read a lot about procrastination, that's a very interesting and true topic, I would point out, for who didn't see it yet, the site www.structuredprocrastination.com (pointed out by ScottL in another thread of this forum).

        With all respect of Kathrine's wise and expert opinion, I think that in the thematic I am pointing out, procrastination is not the biggest element.
        Surely there are means of procrastination in such behavior, but still I do believe that the person who commit himself to a GTD systems does actually wants to get things done and smoothly, he maybe just doesn't want to feel the emotional pressure of deciding every moment what is the action that's more worth doing.
        I see maybe too far, a GTD system who gives to its user the peace of mind not just to have everything written down, but also that following it's schedule, everything will be done in time or, if not actually possible, it won't get to the active projects but keep a future project.

        It's somehow merging GTD with the 50-30-20 rule by Steve Pavlina.

        Let me make an example: if the weekly meeting to play soccer with my friends wouldn't be weekly or wouldn't be fix on every Thursday, probably most of the people would miss it, because they would have had already planned other things on the day (not mentioning the problems to get everybody agreed on the day). That's why, when I am looking my agenda to fit a new prospective appointment, I always have already occupied the block of hours on Thursday.
        If instead of playing soccer with friends I would do just exercise or jogging on my own, being allowed to do it on any time (or at least at multiple possible moments of the day/week) I doubt I would end up putting too many appointments of other kinds on the calendar (or choosing different NA during the day), actually letting my calendar to be overbooked and, after all, getting done just the booked things and the urgent things, that maybe are not the important ones.

        Let's make an example: how would you handle times to practice a new musical instrument? it's something you can do at home, virtually anytime and that doesn't require next actions, whatever you do it's fine, it's just important to spend time practicing.
        Do you think a tickler would work?
        Wouldn't it end up often not being tickled and just missed for the day/week?

        I think that the metaphor of the pebbles filling the bucket before the big rocks can get in is very pertinent in this case. From a previous post by Jeff on this forum:
        For me, this fills two significant gaps in GTD -- (1) the part which lets me schedule in the so-called "big rocks" before the pebbles have a chance of filling my bucket (If you don't know what I'm talking about, you can find a wealth of information from this Google Search). And (2) the part which tells me when I am supposed to change contexts (so I don't wind up spending all day surfing the 'net just because I happen to be on the internet and because my @Internet list has 82 sites I want to check out).
        Yes, it violates DA's rule that the calendar is sacred, and that I should only schedule the things that MUST be done on a particular day. But in my case, I have to plan ahead for the "big rocks", otherwise I will spend an inappropriate amount of time dealing with the pebbles beneath my feet (all the while ignoring the boulder that's about to fall on my head).
        Another thread on this forum has very similar topic, criticizing this area of David Allen GTD system when doesn't allow putting on the calendar tasks that are not 100% time sensitive.

        Would I be considered heretic planning weekly exercise sessions on my calendar and writing them down in pencil (or with a special flag if my calendar will be on PC) so I see immediately that are easy movable and not time sensitive tasks?
        Does anyone knows drawbacks of this implementation?

        Anyone has experience in merging a GTD system and time boxing?
        Last edited by tommato; 04-09-2008, 08:34 AM. Reason: correct quoting

        Comment


        • #5
          I have a lot of experience and my GTD system works 100% at the levels you need. You will not be a heretic if you put your weekly exercise on your calendar. That's the event that must go there as per DA. Because you have to do it on a certain day and time otherwise you will not be fit or lose the weight or whatever you want it for.

          AND you can and must move them if you have something more important coming at you. Just imagine that you planned a meeting and then you got a call from a client that wanted to give you 1 mln $. Would you tell him you're busy??? You just go to that new meeting and cancel or move the first one. The system allows you to know what you have on your plate so you can easily play with that.

          So use your calendar freely but keep in mind that if you put an event to your calendar it becomes the highest priority for you comparing to other Next Actions. So it's better to be real number one for you otherwise you'll be moving and re-negotiating too much.

          Personally I use the calendar mainly for appointments and sports (I go to a gim with a coach so it's like an appointment anyway ). I also put there day-specific information ("Call David Allen: happy birthday" or "Do weekly review") and deadlines for projects and tasks ("Finish the sales report for Q1").

          Regards,
          Eugene.

          Comment


          • #6
            I definitely agree that scheduling regular events can be helpful. The examples of a weekly soccer meeting and daily instrument practice are both right on target. I use this kind of schedule myself, and don't see a conflict with GTD at all.

            I just don't think scheduling is the complete solution to the problem of "what to do next?" On the one hand, it's possible to ignore a schedule just like any other tool. On the other hand, a schedule by its very nature has difficulty in coping with the flexibility needed in real life. What happens when a meeting absolutely has to be scheduled during your usual administrative tasks block? What happens when the administrative tasks take much longer (or much less time) than expected?

            In the end, no external tool will tell you what to do at any given moment. There's no substitute for human judgment.

            Katherine

            Comment


            • #7
              Again, thanks for the discussion!

              Originally posted by tommato View Post
              I read in many threads of this forums that people consider the weak point of GTD systems that it doesn't help the user to select which action to do.
              Yes, people definitely complain about this. It's not a weakness. It's vital. More below.

              For me, for most of my projects, selecting week by week or day by day which one to step forward a bit, using the 4 criteria of the GTD methodology doesn't work at all.
              And it would make me scan through the NA lists and all the projects one or multiple times a day, actually worrying of getting things done and off the list...
              Yes. You're supposed to scan your NA lists many times each day.

              To paraphrase David Allen, people want a productivity system that lets them input everything they have to do, then press a big red button and have it say, "Call Bob." Sorry, but no system can do this.

              You cannot know on Sunday what you will be able to do Thurdsay morning at 10:23 am. You can't know your energy level, you can't know what you'll have on hand, you can't know what information will have been handed to you.

              You can, on Sunday, prioritize your work so that on Thursday morning at 10:23 am you can choose among important, relevant work.

              ...that's an opposite effect than achieving the peace of mind having everything written down in the correct place and correctly handled.
              I suspect you're looking for a system that can't exist.

              I may be wrong, but it sounds to me like you want to make some kind of pre-arrangement, then launch yourself into your week and not have to think about your work. I submit that that doesn't work. You will have to make decisions about your work, hour by hour. If you don't, you become a slave to outdated decisions.

              I doubt I would end up putting too many appointments of other kinds on the calendar (or choosing different NA during the day), actually letting my calendar to be overbooked and, after all, getting done just the booked things and the urgent things, that maybe are not the important ones.
              Okay. Have you tried it? How well does it work?

              It may work great for you. I can say that, for many people, the calendar does tend to become overbooked. But for some, it doesn't.

              Let's make an example: how would you handle times to practice a new musical instrument? it's something you can do at home, virtually anytime and that doesn't require next actions, whatever you do it's fine, it's just important to spend time practicing.
              I put that on my Next Actions list, for when I'm at home.

              Wouldn't it end up often not being tickled and just missed for the day/week?
              No. When I practiced the guitar, I put it on my NA list, and I practiced the guitar several times a week.

              Would I be considered heretic planning weekly exercise sessions on my calendar...
              Good news! There are no GTD Police. You're free to try whatever you want. Nobody's going to stop you.

              Does anyone knows drawbacks of this implementation?
              Well, check out the other forum topics on scheduling. It can lead to an overbooked schedule, burnout, and insufficient time for important things as they come up. Let's say you schedule an hour a week to make candles, Wednesday evenings at 7:00 pm. The first week, you get an important phone call at 7:10. The next week, the dog gets sick that afternoon and you spend several hours in the vet. The week after, you got a bunch of extra work on Monday and have to spend Wednesday evening catching up.

              I scheduled my time in fifteen-minute increments for a while. Didn't work. Life throws too many curve balls.

              But, again, I'm not saying this won't work for you. May work great. Why not try it out, see how it works, and report back?

              Comment


              • #8
                Tommato, what the regular posters have answered you here is exactly on target. There is no magic formula that can tell each individual in what manner to process their actions, projects, goals, life. No one can tell you how scheduled your life should be. Some work better in a more structured environment, some in a freer environment. I do believe though, that the more responsibilities and life activities you have, the more an overly structured schedule will reign you in, although many will certainly disagree. It is up to you to test your best productivity environment.

                Try scheduling your regular activities; if that doesn't work try daily checklists or something else. Make certain to adhere to the strict deadlines and necessary appointments in your calendar, i.e., don't clutter up your calendar. Scan your NA list at least once per day. Diligently use your weekly review to determine your most important projects and actions. If a project or action don't make sense to you, perhaps pare it down or define it more clearly or even remove it. Determining your horizons also has surprising effects.

                Comment


                • #9
                  I'm a hybrid Covey-GTDer.

                  My system is primarily GTD, but I did find that the apparent lack of structure in GTD (at least for me) put me in a cycle where my days were filled only with urgent tasks, or with just the stuff I felt like doing. It seemed that I would only rarely get around to the "important, but not urgent" tasks.

                  So I brought in the old "schedule your big rocks" trick from Franklin-Covey.

                  During my weekly review, I pick out 5-10 things that I really should get done during the week and I schedule them on various days throughout the week (I go through a similar exercise once a month, but at a higher level of granularity). Each day, I make sure that I get the pre-scheduled things done first, then I can start working from my "next actions" list. It doesn't always work out the way I want, but in general, I feel like I have better control over the truly important stuff.

                  The one major downside to this is that it can become difficult to distinguish between the "MUST be done on this day" tasks versus the "WOULD LIKE TO do on this day" tasks. Color-coding, highlighting, using A/B prioritization, etc can all be helpful in this regard. For me, the most effective strategy is simply to minimize the number of scheduled items per day and try to treat them all as "MUST DO TODAY" tasks.

                  I've found that this approach has really helped me in a couple of ways:

                  1. It provides me with a certain degree of "focus" for the week. I can be realtively certain that I am not "wasting" my time, because I know whether I have completed my most important tasks for the day.

                  2. By limiting my scheduled tasks to no more than 1-2 per day, I have a great deal of confidence in my ability to get them done. The trick, of course, is to ensure that the tasks really are able to be completed during that day -- if the task is a multi-day task, then I break it down into milestones that I know are achievable.

                  3. I try to keep my total scheduled tasks to less than four hours while I'm at work, and two hours in the evening. This allows time for interruptions, impromptu meetings, and general ad-hoc stuff. It also allows me time to actually work through a few next actions.

                  4. Also, by keeping the list of scheduled tasks small, there is very little temptation to just stop working after I've completed the stuff on my list. There is enough free time after I've completed those scheduled things that I know I can (and should) get more done.

                  Of course, I have days like everyone else when I come into work, get none of my scheduled actions done, clear none of my next actions, and go home wondering, "what did I do today?". But those days are farther and fewer between since I've been using this approach.

                  Your mileage may vary, but this is what works for me (for now, anyway).

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Just to add my two cents:

                    Everyone has a different psychological makeup, responds to different types of "prods." Thus, you should determine what aspects of the GTD system "click" for you.

                    I myself have two basic work modes: big project mode and mosquito task mode. Most of the day, I'm working in big project mode, immersed in reading and writing. I like getting "lost" in my work in this way, and get more major things done, so I make sure to schedule time for this type of work each day.

                    When I tried to parcel my big projects into little actions, I felt very, very fragmented. I'd write a paragraph of a paper, brainstorm a bit of a project, read 10 pages of a book, etc. I felt bound by the scope of my next action lists. They were making me feel scattered, even frenetic. (In my line of work, I often need 4-8 hour blocks of time to make significant headway on a project.)

                    So what I do is schedule time to work on my next actions lists each day, so as to tackle the little tasks. The rest of the time is for bigger projects.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by madalu View Post
                      So what I do is schedule time to work on my next actions lists each day, so as to tackle the little tasks. The rest of the time is for bigger projects.
                      This is an excellent suggestion. Wish I'd thought of it.

                      I'm in the same situation. I usually know what the big project is for the day, or the week, and don't have much trouble moving it forward. However, I tend to get to the end of a big project and discover that many lesser tasks have been neglected. Formally blocking out "admin time" would definitely help.

                      Katherine

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Two things really struck me from the discussion in this thread. I do schedule some of those things, like exercise, because otherwise I will push them off and not value them as much as I should. I intentionally sign myself up for classes just to make sure I have real appointments that cost me if I need to skip them. I don't skip them out of a moment of apathy when I've already made a commitment to myself with my financial resources to go through with it.

                        The idea of incorporating how you feel into choosing your next action is one I've been really interested in as well. In non-GTD productivity lectures, I've heard a lot of emphasis on charting daily energy levels and using that information to schedule out blocks of time, but found that my schedule was too unpredictable to really make that work.

                        Instead I've been experimenting with thinking of my attention and energy as resources just like @phone or @computer. When I process tasks, I assign some of them additional contexts like @easy, @quick, or @concentrate. When I'm not feeling very motivated or am not very focused, picking the quick and easy lists to work from helps me get going and get into a productive state of mind so I can make progress elsewhere. When I'm really alert, I can work on things that require my concentration, often doing research or catching up on reading collected reference materials.

                        Obviously when I have a lot of deadline-driven work, I have to plow through my next actions lists one way or the other and don't necessarily have the luxury of choosing by mood. And committing to deadlines to other people certainly has a motivating effect as well... I'm still looking for a balance between deadline- and mental state- driven doing and playing around with this a bit, but I think there is some potential there.

                        And I find that I still work a lot by what has interrupted me and seems important, but at least in the GTD system I have the ability to skim my NA list to evaluate what I'm doing and feel comfortable that doing the new item is the right choice and more valuable than whatever else I could be doing.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          To schedule... what for? I think it is vital to know what you want to accomplish by scheduling tasks. Scheduling is just a tool. I use it to do tasks I have to do but don't want to. That way I am free to not do them the rest of the time. So, in my case the tool serves to achieve 2 effects: 1) get enough of the unpleasant tasks done 2) raise the quality of my time for most of the time. In the end it's always the same purpose: get a better life and reach your goals.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Great post, Cpu_Modern!

                            Do people want to spend all day following a schedule? Doesn't sound like my ideal life. One may need to follow a schedule at times and for certain things, certainly, but I sure wouldn't want to live a life of constant clock-checking.

                            I suspect that scheduling is a necessary step on the road to higher-level functioning. I know I tried scheduling for a while, which helped me a lot compared to what I was doing before that. But the more I "get" GTD, the less I need a schedule, and the more effectively I can work.

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