Unconvinced: To Do Lists are Evil, Schedule Things Instead

Prolific productivity writer Eric Barker – hang on, you can’t have lazy productivity writers, can you? – argues that whatever doesn’t get scheduled doesn’t get done. He has a point. I disagree with the logical extension of this that To Do lists are therefore worthless and the calendar is king. Here’s the core of is argument:

To-do lists are evil. Schedule everything.

To-do lists by themselves are useless. They’re just the first step. You have to assign them time on your schedule. Why?

It makes you be realistic about what you can get done. It allows you to do tasks when it’s efficient, not just because it’s #4.

Until it’s on your calendar and assigned an hour, it’s just a list of wishful thinking.

How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m. – Eric Barker, The Week (18 September 2014)

Read the full piece for more but I’m unconvinced. I seethe logic and I am actually scheduling times for certain things every week yet, I don’t know. I have a recurring task to check the Writers’ Guild email inbox that I’m responsible for. It takes about two minutes if there is email in it, less if there isn’t. I could schedule an hour for that and relax for 58 minutes.

But I think you’d argue that it would be sensible to schedule an hour for doing, say, all Writers’ Guild stuff. That’s certainly less time-consuming than taking each Guild task and assigning a time to it.

So let’s say Tuesdays at 9am, I do Guild work. That’s what I need to schedule, not every single damn task in it. And come Tuesday at 9am, what will I open to start work? My To Do list.

I nearly skipped pointing you at this piece because I think it’s one good point puffed up to be a whole article. But there is an interview within it with a professor who sounds remarkable at getting a lot done. So do have a look, if only for that.

Airbnb’s Co-Founder on productivity

I’ve used Airbnb many times and it is as good as they say. Here’s one thing that its co-creator says about handling his workload:

I try to fill my calendar in reverse, from the end-of-day to earlier; I try to reserve the morning for doing “real work.” I find I can focus more in the morning whereas it’s harder to get focused after having been bombarded by meetings, so I try to save meetings for later in the day.

I’m Nathan Blecharczyk, Co-Founder Of Airbnb, And This Is How I Work | Lifehacker Australia

Read the full piece.

Make a tickler file be more than a nice name

I like tickler files but really just because I like the name. They’re a system for making sure you don’t miss events that happen some months off or tasks that should be done at certain times of the year. They’re also meant to be paper files, specifically the kind of cortina-expanding file folder I can just about distantly remember. And that’s why ticklers are just names to me: I need a software equivalent.

Here’s someone with a solution. But first, their definition of what a tickler file is good for:

Put simply, a tickler is a method of ensuring that information that you need gets to you at the right time. For example, if you receive tickets to a concert that takes place on 21 Feb 2015, then you don’t need those tickets until that day. With a tickler, you can make sure that your tickets resurface on the correct day but you can forget about them until then. The concept works with meeting agendas, invoices, subscription renewals and any other task that needs to happen at a specific time.

The reminders function of many software programs can be seen as a tickler function but the most effective ticklers won’t just remind you of something at a specific time, they’ll provide all of the relevant information at the same time. Lots of apps can do this but my preferred solution is Evernote.

Four Steps to Create a Digital Tickler File – unnamed author, Productivity SOS (29 December 2014)

Possibly the only thing you need to know in order to work out this whole process is the last word in that quote: Evernote. I’m an Evernote user and even today was glad that I was: a telephone support line said something like “Well, when did you phone us before?” and because of Evernote I was able to say “17 November, next question?” like a right smartarse. I actually think that this particular use of it takes more effort than I’d stick with but take a look: it’s smart and it clearly works if it works for you. Read the full piece.

Bollocks to New Year’s Resolutions

Look, it’s your choice: say bollocks to them now or say bollocks to them in a few days, weeks or maybe if you’re very strong, months. The start of a new year comes with more engineering strain than it should, given that the whole thing is an artificial construct and – wait, that does sound like engineering.

I mean this in the same way that you see when we change our clocks, putting them forward or back an hour. Every single time I can guarantee I will end up in a conversation where it’s 8pm, say, and someone tells me that: “Of course, it’s really only 7pm”.

No, it isn’t.

It isn’t 7pm, it isn’t 8pm, the very most you can say about it is that it’s now. (I have a watch that just says ‘Now’ instead of having any hands or digits at all. It is by far the most accurate watch I’ve ever had though I think it’s lost some time lately. That’s my excuse for buying an Apple Watch and I’m sticking to that.)

Anyway, we just collectively agree to call now 7pm or 8pm or whatever it is. There’s a rich source of drama in this – Alan Plater did two terrific radio and then stage plays about when the UK adopted one single time zone and it’s the only time I’ve resented him for finding the drama before me – but now, right now, the clock and the calendar are the same. They are artificial constructs, things we created and that we choose to agree on.

Which all makes sense and is in all ways sensible, practical and – yep – productive. What isn’t is all this stuff we hang on to certain days like pegs. Our birthdays. Shouldn’t it be our mothers getting presents? Anniversary of some seriously painful stuff there. And New Year’s Day. If you didn’t make any resolutions, you at least thought about how you’re not making resolutions.

And if you did then you also know that the New Year’s Resolution Effect lasts but a very short time. Come a rotten wet Tuesday in February, the resolution field is at best membrane-thin.

Which means at some point you go from feeling you must and/or should make resolutions to feeling bad that you failed at them. Come next New Year’s Eve and the next cycle, you go through the same thing but now you have last year’s failure weighing on you. You have every year’s failure weighing on you. If there were ever a resolution that you might actually succeed at, you kill your own chance by the certain and correct knowledge that you have failed every single time before.

Seriously, then. Bollocks to it all.

Don’t make a resolution for the New Year, don’t plan to change something for your life, do something to change today. Do something different or better or new or worse or stupid or anything today. Then tomorrow you have a success on your hands. Possibly a regret too, but we need a few of those.

We want so much and we can do so much. But we can do it one pixel at a time.

Listen, I am by nature a pessimist and I fight it chiefly by racing to do the next thing before the current one dies. Christmas and New Year is sometimes tough for me because I can’t do so much racing. But I used to believe – and I used to think I was clever in believing – that the walk of a thousand miles ends with but 10,997 steps.

(I worked it out.)

This is true. It is also true that the usual form of that saying, about beginning such a walk, is trite and cliché.

But it has a point.

I just think we need to add one more point to it.

Work on something you enjoy doing now and get the enjoyment out of it now. Whether it becomes something bigger, whether you finish the novel or get the TV commission, there is pleasure and satisfication and accomplishment and art in the journey. So enjoy the journey.

Lighten up about the new year and bollocks to new year’s resolutions.

Busy doing nothing – official

It’s possible that you cannot clear any time in your day to do nothing. It’s entirely possible. But Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, says he does precisely this and that it is a boon for him.

If you were to see my calendar, you’d probably notice a host of time slots greyed out but with no indication of what’s going on. There is no problem with my Outlook or printer. The grey sections reflect “buffers,” or time periods I’ve purposely kept clear of meetings.

In aggregate, I schedule between 90 minutes and two hours of these buffers every day (broken down into 30- to 90-minute blocks). It’s a system I developed over the last several years in response to a schedule that was becoming so jammed with back-to-back meetings that I had little time left to process what was going on around me or just think.

At first, these buffers felt like indulgences. I could have been using the time to catch up on meetings I had pushed out or said “no” to. But over time I realized not only were these breaks important, they were absolutely necessary in order for me to do my job.

The Importance of Scheduling Nothing – Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn blog (3 April 2013

Read the full piece for the details of why he does this and exactly how it has helped.

Hat tip to the Sydney Morning Herald for mentioning this today.

“To Do lists are evil, use your calendar”

To say I don’t agree with this is to emphasise how I put the advice in speech marks. Tasks and events are different and if you try mixing them you are screwed. For instance, say you have to phone the Mormon Tabernacle Choir – wait, that’s exactly the example that popped into my head when writing the book of The Blank Screen:

…you can be tempted to start putting some tasks in your calendar and some in a To Do app and that way begins with a certain amount of sanity but ends in an overwhelming amount of madness. You start putting things in that are really obvious like that phone call to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that you said you’d do on Thursday, that’d go in to your calendar easily. But the MTC is a busy bunch, if you’re not to waste the call, you need to plan what you’re going to ask them and when exactly do you put that in your calendar?

Maybe you pick a date for that and go into this cycle of moving the task to tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow until you end up doing it right before the call. Or you put the planning into your To Do app and then you are stuffed. If you look at the To Do app, it doesn’t tell you when the call is due. If you look in your calendar, it doesn’t tell you whether or not you’ve finished the planning. Sooner or even sooner, you end up having to look in both and you end up having to keep looking in both. Over and over. And each time you think about whether this task in your calendar has an associated task in your To Do app, or vice versa, you’re wasting time you could spend on doing this stuff. I’m more okay with wasting time than I sound but I’d rather waste it doing something I like.

Now, a To Do application that includes a calendar: that’s different. Those I love. It seems such a simple thing, but to have my list of things I’ve got to do today followed by a stolen peek at my calendar is just great. It’s everything I need to know in one glance.

The Blank Screen – William Gallagher (2013)

But just because I believe this, it only means I’m right for me. Your mileage may vary and since I want you to be more productive more than I want you to say nice things about agreeing with me all the time because I’m a special little snowflake, I’d like you to take a look at someone who disagrees with me. They have many points. But they boil down to this one plus a lot of justification:

To-Do Lists Are Evil. Schedule Everything.

To-do lists by themselves are useless. They’re just the first step. You have to assign them time on your schedule. Why?
It makes you be realistic about what you can get done. It allows you to do tasks when it’s efficient, not just because it’s #4.
Until it’s on your calendar and assigned an hour, it’s just a list of wishful thinking.

How to Stop Being Lazy and Get More Done – 5 Expert Tips – Eric Barker, Barking Up the Wrong Tree ( 10 August 2014)

Do read the full feature: I usually think Barker has a lot of good things to say.

Am I dumb or what? Why Fantastical dropped its price

Short version: the calendar app Fantastical dropped its price as a launch offer to promote the new features it has for iOS 8. Thick William here just saw the price drop and reported that.

In my defence, the first word I had of it was an alert about the price drop and that didn’t mention new features. I even went into iOS 8’s Notification Centre to see if Fantastical had added anything and it hadn’t. But later that same day, an update to Fantastical 2 appeared and it has Notification Centre stuff, it has sharing stuff, it has all sorts of goodies. So on the one hand I will let myself off for missing what wasn’t there at the time, but on the other I’d now like to hand you over to someone who didn’t miss a trick:

Fantastical 2.2, available today on the App Store, brings iOS 8 features that allow the app to be more easily integrated with iOS workflows thanks to a share extension and that extend the app beyond its silo with actionable notifications and a widget.

Before iOS 8, I never turned on Fantastical’s notifications because they couldn’t have the same level of integration found in Apple’s native Calendar and Reminders apps. I enjoyed the ability to mark reminders as complete or snooze them from Apple’s notifications, and I didn’t want to miss that kind of shortcut with Fantastical notifications.

iOS 8 allows Fantastical to send interactive notifications that are (mostly) on par with Apple’s. In my tests, I turned off Apple’s notifications and activated Fantastical’s for events and reminders. For events, Fantastical can show banners that, once swiped down, reveal a Snooze button to postpone an event. Tap the button, and Fantastical will open showing the selected event with a popover for snooze shortcuts and manual controls.

Fantastical 2.2: Interactive Notifications, Share Extension, and Today Widget – Federico Viticci, MacStories (22 October 2014)

Read the full piece. And then go get Fantastical 2 for iPad and for iPhone.

Small but good price drop for the excellent Fantastical 2 for iPad

I still use Apple’s Mail, iTunes, Maps, Camera, pretty much everything: I’m not much of one for ditching the provided apps in favour of replacements by other companies. I get it and I do try them out, but those Apple apps I keep are good and usually I don’t find alternatives to be compelling.

Except Fantastical 2.

That has replaced Apple’s Calendar on my iPhone and iPad. It’s the way I can type “Lunch at York’s Bakery with Bert next Tuesday from 12 to 3 /a”. (The /a at the end adds the appointment to my joint calendar with Angela. It just needs that first letter to know which calendar I want.) And it’s also now, right now, this moment, talking to you, that I like it for how it detected that lunch example. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t steering you wrong, that this slightly more complex than average line would still work. So I copied it, went to Fantastical 2 for iPad and was going to paste it in but didn’t have to: Fantastical popped up a little note saying that it had detected an event in my clipboard, did I want to add that?

So I did and it worked perfectly. That’s impressive and I thank you for it, I hadn’t seen that before.

I’m glad of it because I like there being specific things I can point to that are good. For me, the reason to stay with Fantastical 2 is more a general, nebulous, comfortable one. I like the design, mostly, and when I go back to Apple’s one I’m missing the look and the feel of Fantastical.

I like it enough that having used it on iPad, I bought a copy for iPhone. I don’t like it so much that I’ve also bought it for my Mac, but I keep thinking about it.

Along the way of thinking about the iPhone version and whether to buy it, I did find that during my trying out of alternative apps, I had at some point bought and discarded Fantastical 1 for iPhone. I tried using it again and I couldn’t see why I’d chucked it away before. I think in the end the reason I spring for a new app with Fantastical 2 is that I liked it so much on the iPad that I wanted to reward the makers a little. A very little: Fantastical 2 is cheap.

But it’s now that little bit cheaper. Fantastical 2 for iPad is down from £6.99 to £5.49 (and if you like, from $9.99 to $7.99 which does seem like more) and you can get it here.

The iPhone version has also dropped from £2.99 to £1.99 and from $4.99 to $2.99. It’s here.

And because I don’t think I’ve conveyed the benefits of Fantastical 2 very well, here’s a video from the makers, Flexibits:

Check your calendars and contacts: iOS 8 not syncing reliably

If you check this out online with a swifty Google search you’ll find many reports and some solutions to a problem about syncing. For instance, this: Apple Support page.

But it’s not working for me. And given how reliant I am on this stuff, it’s becoming a big issue: calendar entries on my iPhone don’t make it to my iPad and vice versa.

I’ve no solution myself but wanted to warn you: check your calendar to see that it’s all copying across the way nature intended.