Migrating from a List to a Schedule

I have been doing a little research on some of the popular time management systems described in books and blogs, and most of them tell their users to do two things:

1) keep lots of lists

2) keep a minimum schedule of appointments

In 2Time, this thinking is the equivalent of telling people that they should give up on ever earning Orange Belts in time management, because Orange Belts have found ways to make the transition effectively, and are able to handle more time demands as a result.

What they do is simple:  they remove time demands from places like their email Inbox and their paper pads, and they immediately put them in their schedule.  Yellow Belts (who are below Orange Belts) add them to lists.

Let’s slow the action down a bit to see why it’s easier to work with a schedule than a list when one is trying to manage a high number of time demands.

When a Yellow Belt decides to take an action in the future, they simply add the item to a list.  However, when they do so, they are also simultaneously and mentally recording the following:

  • how long the task takes – they make an estimate
  • when they believe the task will start and end
  • what else might be pre-scheduled for that time-slot, and they determine this by scanning their memory
  • a decision not to schedule anything for the same projected time period

As you can learn in my free program – MyTimeDesign 1.0.Free – and on this website, this is not a problem for low numbers of time demands.  It’s quite a bit of mental activity, but it’s inescapable if you decide to add this information to a list.  At some point, you must account for the difference between doing simple tasks like picking up the milk and complex projects such as finishing the annual marketing strategy.

Some Yellow Belts have pretty long lists, which means that they carry around mental schedules that are quite hard to remember.  The way they compensate is by scanning their lists frequently.  They need to check their entire list when they do a review, which might be completed at the start of a week or the start of a day.

Once again, it depends on how many time demands are added  to the list and how fast.  Those that find themselves adding 10 items each morning, might very well have to check the entire list just after lunch in order to rejigger their mental schedule.

Some have gone a step further, and put together lists that correspond to time-spans.  They might have a Today List, or a Tomorrow List or a Next Week List.  This helps a bit, but they still force one to remember the timing of each item on the list.

As an example, take a look at the following list made by someone on Monday morning for work that can be done at his/her desk:

As you glance at the list, you may notice yourself  quickly making an estimate of how much time it will take to complete the entire set of items.  Some may think it will take a week, while others may believe that it should be done by lunch-time.

There is no right answer, of course, but notice that if you were to start the week you’d be carrying around these estimates in your memory.

You could improve things by making a list of tasks for each day, like this:

These could be separated into three lists, but the principle would be the same.  Here the user has accounted for the time realities by dividing the list into separate parts.

However, they are still keeping a mental schedule of each day.

Here is what the original task list would look like in an Orange-Belt schedule:

There are some apparent advantages to be gained from navigating the next three days with this kind of schedule.

  • at any point in the next three days, the time demand to work on next has already been pre-planned
  • there is very little that has to be remembered if this schedule is accessible via smartphone, PDA or laptop
  • it’s easy to see when each item will be done, so that when the boss asks when he’ll be able to see the draft email for the VP-IT, you can tell her when you plan to work on it
  • space can be allocated for important items like lunch, breakfast and time each morning to plan the day
  • possible problems can immediately be seen:  the activity at 6pm on Monday night – “edit white paper for conference” – looks as if it’s a scheduling problem waiting to happen, with its proximity to the prior task and its placement at the end of the day
  • with this kind of schedule, it’s much easier to say No to anyone who wants something done during the next three days.  On a White Belt calendar, these days would appear to be blank, but the fact is, they are filled with important items that don’t involve other people appointments

With the advent of electronic calendars comes a tremendous gain:  this schedule can be easily changed around at will.  When paper calendars were the only ones that were available, this kind of scheduling was onerous. but the software has now become easier to use, allowing us to use a schedule like this to make a plan that is entirely flexible.

With a schedule such as the one described above, there are none of the things that a list requires you to try to remember.

This is a fairly simple example, with only a handful of time demands, but you can imagine what happens when that numbers grows.  Someone who is stuck with Yellow Belt skills is forced to review frequently, and remember a lot about each item.  It’s a lot of work that can quickly become overwhelming.

Some of the books I have read argue against this kind of scheduling because they say that it’s too cumbersome to change a schedule on the fly.  That point of view needs an upgrade… it WAS too cumbersome, but today’s software has made things much easier, and there is evidence that college kids who never had to make lists on paper are doing  this kind of scheduling on their mobile devices with ease.  I can speak from experience – I once experimented by reverting to lists after using schedules for some time, with disastrous results.  (Here’s an article the describes how How Smartphones are Transforming the Mobile Lifestyles of College Students and you can search for the Survey of Students’ Technology Use for Time Management.)

And the fact is, new technology is making it easier every day.

I have used Orange Belt scheduling techniques for years and found it be a powerful tool that requires important habit changes, but is well worth the effort.  It’s a scalable habit that can accommodate way more time demands than lists ever can, and its much closer to the project management best practice of laying out activities in time using a similar tool:  Gantt Charts.

Many years ago, they made the switch from running projects using lists, and were immediately able to complete larger and more complex projects.  Now that the tools are readily available, it’s time for professionals to upgrade their personal practices so that they can avoid the experience of overwhelm, even as they handle more each day.

P.S. If what I’m saying is accurate, it points to a few possible new industries…