Priority Based Scheduling:
Is your mouth writing cheques you can not cash?
Read Time : 8 minutes
As the ball dropped in New York, firework displays lit the Auckland Sky Tower in New Zealand, children roamed Romania dressed as bears to chase away evil spirits and the Danish broke plates on their friends' doorsteps as a gesture of good luck, the majority of people of these nations unknowingly had something in common.
An estimated 80% of people worldwide, and some 188.9 million adult Americans, spent the closing days of December reflecting on their year, gaining clarity on the trajectory they would like to take their lives, and setting priorities and plans for the coming year in a bid to improve their quality and enjoyment of life (Choi 2020). Ballard (2020) asserts that the most common resolutions were 'exercising more (50%), saving more (49%), eating more healthily (37%), [. . .], reducing stress (34%), getting more sleep (30%)' with almost a quarter of Americans intent on improving relations with and spending more time with family.
Haden (2020) suggests that that '80 percent of people who make New Year's resolutions have dropped them by the second week of February', while research conduct by Strava, a popular online exercise tracking app, predicts that 'Quitter's Day' (19 January) is the most likely day for people to renege on their New Year's fitness journey. As a result, reflection upon and reconsideration of our priorities are of paramount importance at this time if we are to make 2021 really count.
Undoubtedly implementing these activities would increase both life expectanacy and life experience exponentially but as we move into the second week of February, it is important that we evaluate our success and recalibrate our course if necessary. We must honestly evaluate if our schedule reflects our priorities.
Our schedule has one function; to act as 'a time budget to help you decide how your hours should be used given the priorities you have identified for yourself' (Belludi 2008). Although the majority of people use some form of scheduling, the data show that the efficacy of these modalities are lacking. The preponderance of scheduling techniques and strategies certainly help us to allocate time to activities but few align the activities we are undertaking with our priorities.
Many, including myself, waste much of our time with low impact, meaningless tasks (by whatever definition we personally attribute to that) that don't bring us any closer to our purpose or goal. We fill 'to-do lists' that never end, seem constantly busy yet spin our wheels in the sand. I was 'working hard' yet not producing as many articles as I'd hoped, I was 'training consistently' but not hitting my cycling numbers and I was 'making time' for family and friends but not connecting as much as I'd like.
Why was this? Afterall, I was doing everything I could!
I decided to crunch the numbers and analyse my schedule over the month of January to assess what my average week looked like. My four main goals, outside of developing in my current career, are:
Learn to code (Python)
Improve body composition and cycling stats
Sleep 8 hours per night (10:30 - 06:30)
Training plan adherence
Connect more with friends and family
With 168 hours in a week, here's how the average week of January looked:
Upon looking at the data objectively, it was abundantly clear that my schedule did not match my priorities and as a result I was not making the desired progress in those areas. I was not investing in the process, in fact the contrary was true; I was wasting 6 hours 21 minutes per day doing meaningless activities - watching television, catching up on news, scrolling on my phone or playing computer games. Although I appreciate that down-time has its place in a well structured schedule, wasting almost a quarter of my day on things I felt were meaningless was a real eye opener.
This nonchalent disregard for time management had also spilled into schedule nonadherence. For example my sleep time had slipped from 10:30 to an average of 11:42 which resulted in morning cycling sessions being moved to the evening thus eating into writing blocks. One bad decision compounded into a litany of bad decisions which I would always 'rationally justify to myself'.
Disconcerted and astonished by my findings, I replicated the exercise with some clients and friends, all of whom are very successful within their fields and to our amazement, all but 1 out of the cohort of twenty showed a daily burn of at least 4 hours of activities which brought them little to no fulfillment and certainly didn't move the needle on their life goals.
The data are clear; if we don't schedule stringently to our priorities and protect that time, our time will be filled by meaningless activities or worse yet the capricious agendas of others.
Scheduling to Match your Priorities
Scheduling to match your priorities will require some tweaks to your current scheduling protocol but will exponentially improve performance, streamline the process involved and consequentially improve outcomes. Researchers within this field advise that we use the following strategies:
Schedule with intentionality
Create a regular time block for weekly scheduling (The Sunday Session) and each evening for daily planning. This distraction free space will allow you to schedule intentionally and carefully select the high impact, meaningful activities that will help you on your success journey.
Having a copy of your main goals and priorites along side your scheduling planner will allow you to ask 'Is this activity essential in ensuring my life is on an upward tradjectory?'. If not, cancel the activity, which will free further space for your real priorities. For those engagements which are essential, such as meetings, ensure a strict agenda and a finishing time to allow you to schedule around this. This ability to reject or limit meaningless engagements coupled with an accurate overview of the week will allow you to combat the Achilles' heel of effective planning - overscheduling.
Overscheduling ultimately leads to an intensity over consistency mindset. Intensity, defined as 'the quality of being felt strongly or having a very strong effect', is neither sustainable nor tenable in the long run and will lead to inadherence and regression if attempted for an extended period of time. The data are clear: complete the minimum effective dose for optimal progression and leave the rest to the magic of compounding.
Block time for significant tasks
Tasks of significance and complexity, our best work, require laser-like focus. With research unequivocally showing that multi-tasking, or multi-focusing as it is now known, is inefficient, reducing both quality and quantity of work produced, we must avoid being interrupted when undertaking 'deep work'. Research attests that it takes roughly 15 minutes for an individual to reenter flow state after having been interupted.
The cost of interruption is high, and with some professions claiming that interruptions are frequent, with the average principal being 'interrupted every 9 minutes' (Fullan 2014), the repercussions and consequences are obvious. The modern leader must protect this time ruthlessly, creating an environment where uninterrupted work is the norm.
Set a limit on distraction devices
Modern professional tools can be as distracting as those who work alongside you. Each and every e-mail, message, alarm and engagement ping like a Vegas neon sign on your screen demanding your attention. Even the sight of a notification has been shown to create an anxiety response in some people, diminishing their work flow, even if they choose to ignore it.
For those who decide to engage with the notification, work flow has been interrupted and you are now attending to the desires and agendas of others. All work e-mails, texts and notifications are a call to task - something else to be put on the to-do list and something else to take the focus off the task at hand.
This being said, I am firm believer in collborative work, but collborative work that works in unison with individual work. To ensure prompt response to the requests of others, but uninterrupted work flows, I choose to disable all notifcations from my phone, and schedule blocks of time to check e-mail, social media and messages twice per day. Of course, in the case of real a emergency, colleagues can always get in contact via phonecall.
Interestingly, some CEOs have ignored email for weeks on end to study the consequences of such and many have reported little to no impact on company productivity and ironically that the majority of emails were of no relevance or self-remedied over time. They found that colleagues, usually under stress, created emergencies out of minutia which disappated organically.
It is clear that we must use our time wisely to ensure that we live a life of meaning and fulfillment. Seneca (2005), in my estimatation, sums up both the problem and its solution exquistly:
'It is not that we have a short time to live,
but that we waste a lot of it'
Do I have a scheduling routine?
Is it congruent with my main priorities?
What activities do I need to remove?
What should I replace those activities with?
Ballard, J. 2020, Exercising more and saving money are the most popular 2020 New Year’s Resolutions, YouGov, Washington
Belludi, N. 2008, Budgeting Your Time by Your Priorities, Right Attitudes, London
Berkin, S. 2005, The Art of Project Management: How to Make Things Happen, Microsoft, San Francisco
Choi, C., 2020 New Year's Resolution Statistics, Finder, New York
Fullan, M. 2014, The Principal - Three Keys to Maximising Impact, Jose-Bass, San Francisco.
Haden, J. 2020, A Study of 800 Million Activities Predicts Most New Year's Resolutions Will Be Abandoned on January 19: How to Create New Habits That Actually Stick, Inc., New York
Seneca, L.A., On the Shortness of Life, Penguin Books, New York