I’ve been taking a hard look at how I do work. By that, I mean how I chose what work to do and how I arrange my day to make it happen. There have been a few iterations over the last year, and I keep getting better and better at it.
All In My Head – v1.0
In the beginning, there was my not great memory and my “feels“. My todos lived in my head (or my inbox) and calendar had a scatter of hard scheduled meetings and open time. Project time had to happen in my scattered free time, and was largely done based on what I felt like doing in the moment, or what urgent thing had been dropped on me. That was good enough in some ways, but I wasn’t as nearly as effective or productive as I could have been. Some days, it was hard to state a solid item that I had done that day, but I certainly stayed busy doing emails and the like.
I dabbling in GTD (Getting Things Done), in both paper and digital versions, and that never stuck. Capturing and organizing open items and tracking contexts never worked for me and took more effort than it benefitted.
Effective Capture – v2.0
Then I discovered Bullet Journal. (Site / Book) It’s a light-process, flexibly structured system of capturing things – todo’s, notes of different kinds, events to be organized, and whatever else comes up. All it takes is a notebook and a pen. It clicked for me in really useful ways. My biggest win was finally capturing all the todo’s that used to (poorly) exist just in my head and getting them on paper. That alone has been life-changing.
The second win for Bullet Journaling was the monthly transition process. The intentional act of going back through the month that’s ending and marking off things that were done, killing off things that don’t need doing anymore, and moving all open items – yes, rewriting them all, by hand – forward to the new month, mean that my list is always current and I only ever have to look at a month’s worth of notes at most – and project collections – to review what’s open and needs to be done. It’s the things that I don’t have on paper that I wake up thinking about at 3am.
If you go googling, don’t be intimidated by the art and decorations some folks do with their Bujo. You can have a very functional journal without drawing or adorning a thing.
Effective Scheduling – 3.0 and 3.1
Now that I had a reasonably solid list of what I needed to be doing, I needed a better way to manage what got my time and attention. A game changer was this blog entry from Cal Newport, author of Deep Work. His case was that one would be most effective if all your time is pre-planned and accounted for. I had bristled against this for forever. I maintained that i needed flexibility and spontinaity, and what if something urgent came up? In retrospect, totally unfounded concerns. So, I flexed my daily page spreads in my Bujo to add scheduling. Each morning, I’d copy my scheduled events and hilight the open project time in a different color, letting me know when I could do project work, but I was still relying on the feels to decide what to do during each one of those moments. Better, but not super effective.
Next, I started planning in todos in the open spaces. That was a huge improvement and a step in the right direction. Staying on paper so I could see it, and learning that I could rearrange to handle the (actually very rare) urgent thing that came up. An itterative improvement, but it could still be better.
The current, and for now final scheduling iteration is incorporating parts of Monday Hour One from The Life Coach School (Thanks Susie!). Their premise is that you schedule (nearly) all of your time. I made the jump to digital scheduling and now my work schedule (8:30-5:00) is planned in Outlook and my home life (5:45a to 9:45p) is in Google Calendar – meals, hangout time with Susie, workouts, chores, learning, reading – everything.
The other big change is that all scheduling for the week happens in one sitting. In reality, we’ve been planning the workweek on Sunday afternoon, and then planning the weekend late during the week. It’s easier than I expected to look at free time and find things from my todo list to schedule there. Am I perfect at executing everything I plan, no. Am I still way more effective than I was before? Absolutely.
Executing – v4.0
The Life Coach School Monday Hour One has an idea called Power Hour. The idea – and it’s similar to what I’ve heard about in other systems – is to block 2hrs a day for your most important work for that day, and isolate yourself for those 2 hours. It sounds hard – no email notifications (I close my email apps), no chat apps (close them all), and no calendar alerts (close that one too). My management (and spouse) know how to find me via call or iMessage if they really need me, but both tend to use those sparingly during the day. No one has screamed about my unavilibility during those blocks, and having a couple hours of protected time each day has been frickin’ awesome.
I’ve also taken to leaving my email app closed and schedulign email read and respond time into my calendar as an intentional act. During that time, I capture to Bujo things that need further action, and respond to thing that only need a quick reply. Not being beholden to instantly replying to emails has made a huge difference in my focus through the day. Less context switching leads to more intentional time and focus.
The evolution to going by feels and what’s in my head to having a reliable capture, scheduling, and execution systems has been a game changer for me. And I know this isn’t be-all and end-all, but rather is just another iteration in doing this better.