Two of the hardest things for many people is getting and staying focused and the distinct but closely related, getting and staying on track.
Who hasn’t periodically thought “I am so disorganised…right – I’m going to start a new system. I’m going to start to-do lists or … or… or…”
I don’t believe there is a one-fits-all solution – you have to find the combination of philosophies and supporting systems that work for you. For example, you could be a fan of the Getting Things Done philosophy but find the various tools cumbersome to use. And if there’s one thing that dooms your new resolution to get and stay focused and organised, it’s tools that get in your way and frustrate you.
So I’m going to share the simple system that I use based on nothing more than Gmail Calendar – it’s not perfect but the ease of use and fitting in with my long term strategy of working from online makes it the best solution I’ve found for me.
Like any system, it requires proactive use – it depends on me sticking to a routine and actually opening Calendar – it doesn’t send reminders.
What we’re ultimately talking about is two related systems:
- A place to store tasks – anything that needs or wants to be done either now or in the future
- A way to schedule those tasks to meet two objectives:
- Ensuring that business (or personal) tasks are suitably prioritised
- To give a fluid time framework – a guide – for completing those tasks
For example, you may have a task you must get done this week but it doesn’t matter which day. Or you have a task that you want to do some time in the future but it’s not that critical when or even if it’s done at all. You may have a task that must be done Tuesday.
It seems to me the only sensible philosophy is that all tasks get added to the system as you think of them and through a periodic review, you decide priorities and at a suitable time, you actually schedule them into your calendar.
When you start to do this, your task list will become hundreds of items very quickly and it becomes dauntimg to face a simple long list of to-do’s. This is where some time management systems call on priorities. You assign a priority to a task – a,b,c,… or 1,2,3… or urgent, important, long-term for example.
That way, your list of tasks is more organised and the most important things that you must do today or very soon are at the top of the list. Of course any software system makes it easy to change priorities at will so there’s no need to ‘start a new piece of paper’ when priorities change.
The philosophy I use is hierarchical but I think in terms of timeframes rather than priorities. It’s also simple and gives me the right level of visibility of tasks. It’s also extremely practical because the hub of it is the calendar – so scheduling is easy.
An important part of the philosophy is that tasks need to become more actionable as time goes on. So the most actionable would be I have to call Joe at 10.30am on Tuesday – hard and fast. Then might come tasks I have to do today but it doesn’t matter when. Then tasks that I have to do (or really ought/want to do) this week. Same for this month. Beyond that, something is off the calendar and through the regular reviews, those longer term taks (many would call these goals because they’re not really tasks yet) gradually get more defined and actionable and start to move into the monthly view and then into more concrete schedules.
It’ll be easier to explain by first detailing what I do and when. All of this is done with the calendar in month view.
- At the end of this month, beginning of next (depends how I feel), all incomplete tasks are moved (dragged and dropped) to the 1st of the new month. This needs to be done for at least two task types – daily and long-term (more on this later). No task must be left behind or it will be completely forgotten about and lost. This is normally a 3 minute job and very simple.
- With the tasks view set to daily, I review the task list to see if any have actually become completed or obsolete and either mark them done or delete them (or move them back to the long range task list)
- With the tasks view set to long-term tasks, I review the list and see if I want or need to create tasks in the current month to move them forward.
- With the view set back to daily, and with all tasks that I intend to tackle this month now showing on the 1st, I move (drag and drop) some or all of these tasks to the Sundays of the month – a rough draft attempt to distribute the work throughout the month. Use common sense here, schedule more important ones early in the month etc. The important thing is, this is not a definite decision of when to do something, just a first pass attempt at organising my work schedule. I may leave some things in the 1st of month box until I’m clearer what needs to be done.
- Every sunday (and on the 1st of the month), I review everything on the daily tasks view and I move things between Sundays as conditions dictate. I move things from today (this Sunday) to specific days of the week. Again, this is a draft guide for me, most things for me don’t tend to be too time or day specific.
- On a daily basis, I review the tasks past and present from the week and move tasks to a new position if necessary. For example, Tuesday morning I review Monday and see there were two tasks I didn’t get done. I drag them to Tuesday or maybe later this week or even into next week.
- I try to tackle the days tasks. I tend to do the definite, well defined tasks that should be straightforward first – they have to be done sometime today, why not do them now. I find that clears my mind of the nagging I get if I’m working on something less well defined andI don’t know how long it will take but know there are some things I really should get done today.
This might seem a lot of work but 1-4 are only done once a month (minimum, it’s ok to do a bit of monthly planning any time I feel like it, especially Sundays). 5 is only weekly.
I find this way of working motivates me and keeps me on track better. It’s totally flexible, I can change plans without a care in the world and with no audit trail to make me feel guilty I didn’t keep to my original plans. It’s good to review the month passed and see all those tasks you’ve successfully ticked complete. And I make it a small personal challenge not to move tasks too many times from one day to the next because I didn’t complete them. If I’m doing that too often I review why. Is it because tasks are genuinely taking longer than I expected? Or am I squandering my time?
I find Google Calendar just the right level of organisation for me. It’s flexible, it’s always available from anywhere, there’s very little overhead to using it (especially drag and drop rescheduling) and using day, week, month as my prioritising system reflects how I think much better than a,b,c priorities.
Calendar has a daily, weekly, monthly and long-term task list, only one of which can be visible at a time. I haven’t tried using the weekly and monthly lists because I feel it would be too cumbersome to review weekly tasks without being able to see the daily view. So I use the 1st of the month to collect monthly tasks and the Sundays to collate weekly tasks, avoiding the need to change views other than at weekly/monthly reviews.
And I’m sure Google may have or will have other whizz-bang features that you could use if using the system is more important to you than just getting things done. For me, simple wins every time!