Context and Schedule Buckets

For a long time I’ve concluded that you should never schedule actions more than a day or two ahead of time. A few days at the most. There are exceptions to this of course… meetings, vacations, hard deadlines, etc. But still, those things are rarely specific enough to be actions in of themselves. Typically they are larger projects, sub-projects or events. I’ll even go so far as saying that an action should never even grace your calendar. There’s nothing more annoying to me than a long to-do list cluttering up a perfectly good calendar.

When you plan with too much detail, you are constantly having to rearrange your schedule. Something unanticipated always materializes requiring your immediate attention, and it can turn your week into an ongoing process of rescheduling. So, until recently, I hardly ever used calendar software like iCal. I’d toss meetings and deadlines on it. I’d reference it every few days to roughly scope out my week, but that’s it.

Like many self-employed folks, I have a very wide range of activities that I do. And working from home over the years, my days have tended to be rather unstructured with regard to what I do when. I’ve worked loosely by priority, which has worked out okay of course… my responsibilities get completed more or less on time. But I’ve noticed that such lack of structure can make me feel like my head is spinning by mid-day. What’s next? It’s all so freeform… I never really know. Just grab the next action and run. That lack of structure tends to zap my energy a bit sometimes, causing me to have to regroup for a while before switching gears and deciding what my next task should be.

My business partner and I often chat about approaches to productivity, because we both actually enjoy that kind of stuff. We’re weird. A few weeks back, we were discussing the use of context in our organizational systems, and he pointed me to a 43Folders post that I’d missed which addressed simplifying context.

I agree with Merlin Mann that contexts should be simple. I myself have been guilty of setting logical yet unhelpful contexts like @email and @calls. However, there was still something about Mann’s idea of context being strictly “what tools, resources, opportunities, and limitations are unique to this situation” that didn’t sit right with me. Defining context in such a way does not help me mentally structure my day. In fact, for me, simply knowing I’ll be at my laptop and online doesn’t help me much at all because 90% of the time that is the case.

Then, I was pointed to a particularly interesting comment on the article (emphasis mine):

I’m a writer working at home, so @computer, @phone, @home never really worked for me. Instead, I’ve matched my contexts to the way I structure my workday. The morning, from 8am – noon is for writing and editing. The afternoon, from 1 – 5 is for research, reading, email, website maintenance, etc. The evening is for entertainment and housework.

As simple as that is, it was pretty eye opening for me and illuminated some of the issues I was running into with both scheduling and context. My day was one big tornado of random high priority tasks which I had selected from my system. There was no dire problem with my daily actions list, but something was missing in-between. I needed to break my time into more manageable contextual chunks.

Schedule Buckets
Lately, I’m framing my day into what I call schedule buckets. I’ve gone into iCal and sectioned my day into several of these rather generic daily reoccurring blocks of time. Two things are outlined by these blocks… the locale and the general task type. For instance, I might have:

Home:Exercise 5AM-6AM
Home:Reading 7AM-8:00AM
Office:Writing 9AM-11AM
Studio:Production 11AM-1PM
Office:Development 1:30PM-5PM
Home:Flextime 6PM-9PM (this for odds and ends)

These buckets cover the broad activities which I feel I should be doing on a regular basis. Something like “Writing” may cross over all client projects, personal projects, internal documentation, etc. And it may encompass writing articles, lyrics, storyboarding a videocast or outlining talking points for a podcast. The specifics don’t matter. I just know I have 2 hours set aside for writing, and today I can use that time to do {fill in the blank}. And the location is set, so I know that the tools to preform the task will be available to me when that is relevant.

These buckets are all flexible of course. I can skip, extend or reduce any of the buckets as needed when my day changes. If a major project is due tomorrow which involves ruby coding, the day may become one big “Development” bucket. But at least the following day I can be directed back to focus again on all my other activities.

When something does change, I don’t have to shift dozens of granular tasks around over the next several days. I can, in fact, wait until just before a schedule bucket starts to choose the tasks to fill that bucket. Which is a wonderfully powerful compromise between my desire not to granularly over-schedule and my need for a more structured day.

Other benefits I’m seeing is how much easier it is to initially process actions in my system. I just figure out which bucket an action fits into and roughly how long it will take to do. I’m also finding projects progress more consistently and incrementally. Where before I might get lost in a single activity for a few days and come out of that feeling I needed to play catchup on the other activities, now I feel I’m covering everything pretty well day to day. I’m also less likely to overbook my schedule by taking on too much at once because I see my time in smaller, more limited chunks. That is maybe the biggest hidden benefit.

  • J Ryan Williams

    I am principal of Websuasion LLC, based out of Fayetteville, GA. We Develop Web and Mobile Applications, Produce Video and provide tools and methodologies for Responsible Brand Marketing.

    This blog tends to focus on the technical and conceptional aspects of our work with Ruby on Rails, iOS, DSLR video, the business process and a little branding discussion at times. I welcome your relevant comments, and if you have questions, feel free to speak up. For info on rates and service packages for Websuasion, please visit our Service Packages page.

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