I’ve been thinking a lot about how most knowledge workers get work done. There are two primary schools of thought that I have encountered when it comes to getting work done. The first approach involves using a trusted system of some kind to keep track of your projects while using your calendar sparingly (mostly to keep appointments with others). The second approach is about scheduling your work on a calendar with the idea being that whatever gets scheduled gets done.
The first school of thought involves having a list of things we need to do in our everyday work and life that we keep track of in a list manager of some sort, which is a part of our trusted system. The reason behind this mentality is that we don’t have to think about not doing them when we are doing other things, so we can be totally present and appropriately engaged with whatever it is that we are doing. They are essentially a part of our Next list, which is a place to keep track of items (the next thing we need to do to move our projects forward). The idea is to work through this list when we have some discretionary time. Things that are due on a specific day or at a specific time, however, are tracked in the calendar.
This approach looks at knowledge work from three different perspectives. There is the work of doing things we have defined in advance from our lists. Then, there is the ad-hoc work that shows up in the moment. And finally, there is the work of defining the work we need to do. At any given time, we are doing one of these three kinds of work.
This approach defines a project as any outcome that requires more than one step to complete, so your list manager is essentially a mix of projects and tasks.
Furthermore, this approach involves scheduling only those things in a calendar that absolutely have to be done at a specific time (such as having meetings), and if not done during those times, something will likely blow up. Any and all appointments (with others) are treated as sacrosanct.
The thing that makes this approach work is reviewing the system every week to make sure nothing “falls through the cracks” and that your lists are current and complete. This list is typically filtered by categories such as calls to make, errands to run, things to do on a computer, etc. that span all your projects so you don’t end up looking at the entire list with all your tasks, which can appear overwhelming and never ending. Of course, you can define these categories in a way that makes the most sense to you, which is also the way you work best.
Those who follow this approach typically begin their day (or previous night) by looking at what is known as the “hard landscape” (calendar). Apart from what is scheduled (meetings or what have you), the rest is assumed to be discretionary time, so you’re free to do things from your lists in that time as and when you please (or you may look at your lists and decide that you’re okay and you may end up doing something totally different). Those who practice this approach don’t see any boundaries between work and play. They don’t see it as a dichotomy. To them, they are always working and always playing. They think that life cannot be “compartmentalized” by creating these “artificial boundaries” for yourself.
Of course, the positives of this approach are that you know that if something goes on your calendar (day and/or time), it absolutely has to be done at those times, or else things will blow up.
The other great thing about this approach is that you’re not confined to any self-imposed schedule, which can seem limiting or restricting for some depending on the kind of person you are and the way you work. You can do the work as and when you please based on the discretionary time you have, which means you have more flexibility (this may be a double-edged sword; more below).
The idea behind this approach is: hey, we are already constantly thinking about the things we need to do; we might as well keep track of those things in a system we can trust so we don’t have to think about doing them all the time, be totally present, and give our full attention to what’s in front of us. The nice thing about this way of working is that it’s just as easy to “get on the wagon” as it is to fall off of it.
This approach works best when others are involved in a project. You see, projects move forward one task at a time; depending on the project, some tasks can be done in parallel as well, meaning they are not sequential. So, for instance, if you’ve delegated a task from your project to a team member, they can always work on it in parallel while you can work on other aspects of the project. This way, your projects are always moving forward and being tracked in your system. The important thing is that it’s not stagnant.
One problem with this approach is that we can end up with an endless number of things (projects and tasks) in our list manager. In other words, we can easily overcommit ourselves. It’s certainly possible to get overwhelmed from looking at those long lists.
Nothing lowers our self-trust more than not doing the things we have committed to. You see, we don’t get stressed from not doing things, but failing to keep our promises with ourselves and with others.
Using this approach, we schedule things with others on our calendar, but when it comes to us doing things, there is no self-accountability with this approach. Having an endless number of things to do begs the question: When will we do them? Will we actually get around to doing them?
The other problem with this approach is that sticking something in a list doesn’t exactly make it happen. You see, out of sight can be out of mind. In order to make the most of this approach, you have to consistently look at your lists and work to keep them current and complete every week. It requires tremendous self-discipline to keep using this approach, and it ultimately has to become a habit. Even with this habit in place, life may throw you a curveball that causes you to fall off the wagon.
One drawback of this approach is that your list manager does not differentiate between the big and the little things. It treats every task as equally important, unless you flag the tasks or have due dates.
Another downside of this approach is that you’re spreading yourself thin between your different projects. Instead of focusing your attention on a single project at a time, you’re dividing that attention on the different projects by way of doing things from your list. For instance, you might have a “Calls” list that might involve calling others from your different projects. This way you are always moving between your projects as opposed to taking the time to work on them. Sure, you’re getting work done, but you’re also spreading yourself thin.
If you happen to have the most control on a project (meaning if you are doing the majority of the work yourself in a project), then working with a project focus makes more sense, which is true for those who run their own business (sans the overhead). This approach can also work with your team in an organization you work for, where each member is working on a certain aspect of the project.
The other school of thought says that whatever gets planned (or scheduled) gets done. Unless you schedule the things that you need to do, how/when will you do them? You can either do something now, plan for it in your calendar to do at some point, or it never happens.
Followers of this approach believe in scheduling their work. This is not to say that you schedule every waking minute in your calendar, because that would be ridiculous. It will also burn you out quickly, and it’s not sustainable in the long term.
Some are big proponents of planning their weekly time in terms of results and relationships (myself included). Results is about getting the big things done in any given week and scheduling them in your calendar. These are things that would take large blocks of time with uninterrupted focus. The small things are done around those big things and don’t necessarily have to be scheduled, but still need to tracked somewhere (in a list manager, let’s say); they could even be done in dashes. Most people do it in reverse, which rarely works. They try to do the little things first because they are avoiding their work. In fact, there are books written about this topic. Of course, you have to be doing both of those things. Neither should be at the mercy of the other.
For others, they have clearly defined work times (such as 9-5), and after that, it’s all downtime (including the weekends). In that sense, they have clearly defined boundaries between work and play. That would mean taking the weeknights and weekends off from work so they can fully renew themselves and come back recharged for work on Monday. They believe that unless they create these boundaries, they will not be able to do justice to both of those things.
By the way, just because they are working from 9 to 5 doesn’t mean that it’s all work (although most of it certainly is). They also take time during their workday to renew themselves by way of taking small breaks through relaxation, short naps, or taking a walk. To learn more about working this way, I suggest reading my essay on 90 minutes.
The best part about this approach is that you know exactly where your time is going because you’ve scheduled it. It’s only when you schedule things in your calendar that you’re already doing every day (such as having meals, exercise, commute, etc.) that you realize how little time you actually have left for doing the work (which is no more than 4-6 hours in a given day).
Work time is actually time to work, and you do make the most of it because you know that after 5pm (let’s say) you’re not allowed to work. This creates an effect that is the reverse of procrastination. In those few hours, you’ll get your work done because you know you only have x hours before your “work time” is up. Whatever work remains will continue the following day. This ensures that you have time for work and for play. Both are required on an everyday basis (not a once-a-year thing when you take time off from work for a vacation), as too much (or too little) of either won’t work. This approach would work for either the one who runs their own business or who works for others. In the latter case, it is largely dependent on how much control you have over your time and how you negotiate your time with your employer.
Here are some downsides of using the second approach. If you’re scheduling everything (just like how I suggest you plan your week), small changes in your schedule (for reasons beyond your control) can have a domino effect, causing you to reschedule things endlessly. For instance, if you start your day late (for whatever reason) and you are scheduled back to back, you’ll have to move multiple things.
When you’re scheduling everything and working this way, it can either seem a bit monotonous or it can seem like a rhythm. Again, it depends on the kind of person you are and how you work best. For some, constraints can be limiting, yet for others (such as myself) it can be freeing. Whatever you do, don’t schedule every minute of your day.
What I’ve learned from both approaches is that we need both a list manager and a calendar. You need to keep track of the big things (such as time in your calendar) as well as the little things (the physical things in your lists you do to move your projects forward). Just using one or the other simply won’t work. You can’t expect to put all the things in your calendar; that would likely result in a misuse of your calendar, which can lead to other problems. Similarly, you can’t just keep track of the big things in your list manager alone (out of sight can be out of mind). If it’s a “big” thing, it will likely require you to block out some time in your calendar. For instance, I do creative work every morning, and for me that time is blocked in my calendar. I don’t keep track of it in my list manager because I don’t have to.
Everything we do (all our commitments) belongs on a calendar or on our list manager filtered by different categories; even if the list can be filtered by categories, we don’t have to use them because we can still work based solely with a project focus. We allocate time for different projects, and that’s how we move the needle forward. With this method, you’re giving all your attention to those projects, but this requires you to block out a chunk of time from your schedule, which, depending on how much control you have over it, may not always be possible.
Of course, filtering our lists using categories can be useful in some situations. For instance, if/when you’re running errands, you can simply look up the list of errands you need to run from the different projects/areas that you have.
There is no denying the fact that nothing happens outside of time — either we do something now, in the near future (goes on the calendar), or never — meaning, whatever gets scheduled gets done. Use the calendar to keep track of the bigger things and use the list manager to keep track of the small stuff that you can batch-process later on.
Of course, you can continue using your calendar to keep track of appointments with others. The question is if you also use it to keep track of things you’re doing by yourself (and if you need to). The answer to that question is one we can only answer individually.
When it comes to getting work done, a key question we need to ask ourselves is: how much control do we have over our time, and are others involved? The other question would be: what kind of person are you and how do you work best? That will inform your decision as to what approach will work best for you.
For example, if you’re working for someone else (an organization, for example), chances are you don’t have as much control over your work. As you go higher up the ladder, that might change, but then you might also have more responsibilities, which might negate any advantages that might initially come with the position. Because you have less control over your time, you need to be more flexible with how you get your work done. In that case, the first approach might work better for you.
If you’re working for yourself (if you have a business like I do or you are a freelancer of some kind), you have more control over your time. With more control over time comes greater flexibility and accountability to doing the things you’ve committed to. Nothing has to be done right now. The problem with this approach is that we don’t have to do anything right now, which can go both ways — it can be a good thing (giving us flexibility in how we do things) or it can be sub-optimal (if you’re the kind of person like I am, where you need some structure in your day and week to help you navigate and to get the most out of it). This is not to suggest that you plan every minute of your day. That would be ridiculous, unsustainable, and will likely burn you out quickly.
The idea of having some structure in your day and week is not that different from the idea of having and using constraints when a designer is given a design brief. You see, having an empty canvas can be freeing or frightening depending on how you see it. Similarly, writing on a blank document can be limitless or nerve-racking, if not downright frightening. Contrary to popular belief, constraints don’t limit our options, but give us more freedom to act within it. The absence of constraints is not freedom, as is usually understood by most. Au contraire, having self-discipline allows you to be free.
When we work for ourselves, unless we keep a schedule of some kind (by way of our calendar), we won’t get anything done. It’s called having self-accountability. Sure, as an artist, I don’t have to do creative work at 10 in the morning. Nothing will blow up if I don’t do it. At the same time, I know that unless I schedule time for it, it also won’t get done.
For some reason, for most people, there is pushback on using the calendar for keeping track of tasks. Sure, it’s not ideal for keeping track of small things that might be better suited for a list manager, but there is no reason why it can’t be used to keep track of the big things since they are also likely to take the majority of your time during any given week.
The idea is that if you’re committed to keeping your promises with others by way of meeting them when scheduled, why don’t we extend that same accountability to ourselves for doing our own work?!
When my family visits me from out of town, I’m not as rigid with my schedule because I am accommodating them (as being efficient doesn’t work with people). This is not to say that I don’t do the work when they visit or spend less time with them. I just make sure I do both in a way that is as frictionless and elegant as possible while having enough time for myself. Of course, being slow can also help.
I’ve already written about how I get work done (in terms of energy levels) during a week. Creative work happens in the morning since it requires fresh (and the largest amount of) energy and can mentally get quite intensive. Consulting work follows during the day. And last but not least is the Admin work I do in the evening, which is the work of defining the work. So, I tend to work in what might be called areas of focus, whereas those in the first category work their way through “contexts” (categories that help filter your list to what you can do at any moment) such as phone calls, errands, computer tasks, etc.
One reason I work for myself as a solopreneur (as anyone who runs their own business remotely) is because I can have the most control over my time. You might have your own business with office and staff (as few of my friends do), but that is overhead and that doesn’t guarantee the flexibility that comes from working for yourself. But, it all depends on how you run it.
Ultimately, when it comes to getting work done, it all depends on how much control you have over your time, how you work best, and whether you work by yourself or with others. Based on that, you must come up with your own answers. I can certainly help.