Monday, June 21, 2021

Schedule Tasks, Not Just Meetings

Actions to take: Put important tasks on your work calendar, just like a meeting. Stick to the time you've allotted to complete the task, even if it means the work will be a little less refined. When others request your time during that block, tell them you have something scheduled. 


Tell me if you can relate to the following anecdote. It's Monday morning. You made your to-do list for the day, not too ambitious but certainly enough to keep you busy. Then the interruptions start rolling in. An employee wants to ask which week would be best for vacation; a coworker from another department calls to chat about the meeting last week; three of your eight bosses stop by to ask why you misfiled your TPS reports; and so on...You look up, the clock says 4:30, and you haven't even touched your to-do list. 

Managers are pulled in a hundred directions. When we allow it to happen, there is no way to focus long enough to do anything well. Sometimes it is impossible to get anything done at all. This post walks through a simple behavior that surprisingly few people engage in, yet it solves the problem entirely. 

Schedule time to do your work. Don't just make a to-do list—put time on your calendar as a scheduled event to do the work. I use the acronym WBO (work blocked out) as the "meeting" title. 

Scheduled things get done. There is a funny psychological element at play here, and it has to do with our capacity to make decisions. Throughout the day, those hundred distractions each ask you to make a tiny decision: "Do I continue doing what I was doing, or do I focus on what this person wants?" Our brains tend to go with the option that requires the least mental energy in the moment. When someone asks you a question, the default path, the path of least resistance at that point in time, is to engage. Each interruption requires you to decide that you will continue working on your task at hand instead of getting distracted by their request for your attention.

When you have scheduled something, the psychological script is flipped. Now the default is, "I should do what I have planned to do." When someone or something interrupts, the mental path of least resistance is to continue working on what you are "supposed" to be working on (i.e. the task you scheduled for yourself).

We're entirely capable of procrastinating and getting distracted without help from anyone else, of course. Scheduling the task helps with this problem too. When you just have a list of things to do with no times attached, you can get around to them whenever and however you want. There is no psychological pull to do anything at any particular time or in any particular order. So, when something new comes up (a gif from a friend or an email about a new task or anything in between), we naturally turn our attention to it—it is new, and new things are more attractive to our brains. 

However, if a specific task is scheduled for a specific time, there is more of an imperative to get it done. This little bit of guilt-tripping ourselves is usually enough to keep us on task. It doesn't matter that the plan is self-imposed. It still works.

Tips for scheduling tasks effectively:

  • Put it on your work calendar: For this advice to have any meaning, you must put your tasks on the same work calendar as your meetings, the one others can see and use when planning meetings with you. You will not get the same benefits if you just mentally schedule yourself to do it or put it on a private calendar. There are two groups of people who need to see it on your calendar:
    • You: Once something is on your calendar, it is part of the plan for the day. Sure, the plan can change. Meetings sometimes get cancelled. But not often. When you put a task on your calendar, you will treat it the same way you treat a meeting. It becomes work to change the plan, so you will be naturally inclined to do the task.
    • Everyone else: People from all over the organization make claims on our time. Our employees need to pop in with quick questions; our manager calls us up to review this or that; the business office and HR need to check in on budgets and timecards and all sorts of minutiae. When a portion of your calendar is blocked out, it eliminates a big chunk of those claims. Most (though not all) people tend to respect your time. They prefer to catch you when you are not busy. They will gladly pick a different time to talk with you or schedule that meeting if they know you are busy. (Even if you haven't shared your calendar, people will respect your reply that you've already scheduled something during that time. You do not need to mention what that something is.)
  • Estimate time and stick to it: There is an adage, "Work expands to fill the time given." How many times have you written an email to your boss, then re-worked it two or three more times to get it just right? We double or triple the time we take on a task for very little improvement. Assert to yourself that you will finish the task in the time you have given it and follow through on that assertion.
    • If you find yourself at the end of your time with the task incomplete, pause to review why it happened. Did you productively work on it the entire time, or were there interruptions and procrastinations? Make a note of which problem it is, and set out to do better next time.
  • Say no to interruptions: You are letting people make demands on your time. You do not need to do that. If you were running a meeting in your conference room, you would not answer your office phone. You would not let an employee pop in to ask a quick question. Treat your scheduled tasks the same way. It's simple: 
    • When your employee pops in, say, "I'm in the groove on something and would like to finish it up. Would it be alright if you came back in an hour?" Virtually everyone will be totally fine with that.
    • The phone is even easier. Just don't answer. Most phones have a button that silences the ringer or pushes to voicemail. Use it. When you call back later, you can give a quick apology that you were busy. Or don't apologize, frankly.

There are exceptions to all of this. Use your judgment for what should and what should not displace your plan. The crux is, treat your important tasks like meetings. You would cancel meetings, interrupt meetings, push meetings around for something more important. But you wouldn't pause or cancel a meeting at every minor request for your attention. Use the same criteria for your solo work.

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