Is your day really as productive as you think?

Is your day really as productive as you think?

I had a lightbulb moment today. I was trialling the Emergent Task Planner, a paper-based task-management system recommended to me by Matt McCabe[1] in response to my recent GTD Reality Check.[2]

For those not familar with the ETP, I would describe it as a simple template designed to give a little structure to how you think about scheduling the tasks required to do today.

It is not a method for collecting/allocating/prioritising tasks and it is not a todo list.

Setting out what you want to achieve today

What the ETP does is ask you to think about the key actions you want to achieve today (it recommends you identify three) and force you to consider the time needed to do it versus the time you have available.

There is a very simple layout that allows you to estimate the time you need (make a vertical mark after the appropriate number of 15-minute boxes) and record the time you actually spent (shade/check each 15-minute box used).

Down the left hand side you populate your schedule with meetings already agreed, time slots you plan to use to get things done and any planned breaks.

Finally the form contains a “free form” area to record any ‘unexpected’ items.

In my particular example, I picked two (and later added one more) items from my next actions list that I considered to be key achievements to get done today.

I then filled in the left hand side of the form with my schedule, which coincidentally happened to be absolutely full to bursting with meetings (black is pre-scheduled meetings, red is non-meeting time). Excuse all the redactions in the image, but you can never be too careful.
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“I don’t know what shocked me more: the fact that my day was entirely full of non-critical tasks or the fact I had to write it down on paper to realise it.”


At this point I realised this:

None of the meetings I have today will help me to achieve my key actions.

I don’t know what shocked me more: the fact that my day was entirely full of non-critical tasks or the fact I had to write it down on paper to realise it.

An opportunity to learn

What does this mean? Am I a productivity failure? Do I spend my life in pointless meetings? Should I give up all hope?

Of course not.

All the meetings I had today (well okay, most of them) were valuable in their own right. They all had clear purpose and contributed to my wider, “important/not urgent” tasks.

What I hadn’t done up till that point was consider how I was going to find time to achieve the things that would make today “a good day” – those things I really wanted to make progress on.

Ultimately there was little I could do to change my schedule (other than bail out on my commitments), but reframing up front what was achievable that day helped my re-frame my attitude towards it. I was also able to keep an eye out for unexpected free time (such as meetings finishing early, or the one that got cancelled) and pounce on those as opportunities to work on a key action.

However if any of my key actions today had been Important/Urgent and Due Today, the process would have made it obvious that I needed to clear some diary space to enable me to complete that task (or at least start managing the message early that I’m going to be late home).

For me it starts to explain why days like this can be so frustrating, and so frenetic (aside from the obvious challenge of when to eat and when to pee). How many times have I set out to achieve the impossible by trying to achieve my priorities in addition to having a full day of tasks scheduled?

I’m staggered by how a simple tool like this can be the trigger of such an eye-opening moment and I’m excited to see how using it regularly could improve my scheduling and day-to-day task management.

I’ll keep you posted.

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