Discover more from Refilling the Cup
Schedule the Important Things
Productivity Principles #10
This is part 10 of a multi-part series exploring the principles of personal productivity, with the goal of making it the last thing you’ll ever need to read about the topic. If you missed it, you can read part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here, part 5 here, part 6 here, part 7 here, part 8 here and part 9 here (once all parts are published, I’ll create a proper index).
I first sought out personal productivity to solve a problem. After having coasted through most of my life, I hit a point — right around when my career was starting to take off and I was having to deal with the responsibilities of being an adult — where I was feeling overwhelmed, anxious and stressed. Whereas before I could waste away hours playing video games or binge-watching bad reality TV without a care in the world, now I suddenly felt like 24 hours in the day simply wasn’t enough.
So, naturally, I decided that if I could cram more stuff into the time that I had, then the stress would subside. This reasoning is a trap, because, as we saw earlier, you will never arrive at the end of your to-do list. That means that the more things you check off the list, the more new ones will pop up to take their place.
You’re battling a mythical hydra. Cut off its head, two more spring up in its place.
This is the reason that so many people who initially turn to personal productivity, ultimately end up turning against it. And it’s easy to see why. Look at some of the personal productivity techniques I’ve discussed in this series:
In Getting Things Done, David Allen teaches us how to organize our lives in order to, well, get things done. Yes, he talks about prioritization, but he doesn’t tell you how much time you should spend getting things done. In fact, I’d argue that the biggest flaw with Allen’s system is that it almost encourages workaholism.
In The Pomodoro Technique, Francesco Cirillo teaches us how to focus in bursts of 25 minutes at a time in order to maximize our effectiveness and get into a state of flow. But he doesn’t tell you how many 25 minute sessions you should do in a day. In fact, I’d argue that the numbers he uses in his examples are unhealthy.
In The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker introduced the world to a way to organize ourselves (and our teams) to be as effective as possible, and to generate the best possible results. However, Drucker never mentions at what point you should turn off being an executive.
The only person in the list of productivity gurus that I’ve discussed in this series that talks about limits is Stephen Covey. And there’s a simple reason for this, it’s because Stephen Covey’s system is the only one that revolves around a tool that most of us use, but few of us use properly: the calendar.
There’s a famous video of Dr. Covey (now available on YouTube), where he talks about scheduling your “big rocks.” The Big Rocks are the most important things in your life. Covey demonstrates (using actual rocks and pebbles) that if your life is a container, and you start by filling the container with little pebbles (unimportant tasks), then you’ll never have enough room in it for all the big rocks (the important stuff). However, if you start by putting in all the big rocks (ie. scheduling the most important stuff), you can then fill all the gaps with the little pebbles.
There’s another benefit to scheduling the big rocks that Covey doesn’t mention in this video, but that will become obvious to you if you adopt this approach. There are times in life, when regardless of our best intentions, our scheduling, our planning, and our organization, we just can’t do everything. There are too many rocks and pebbles and sand, and our container just isn’t big enough.
When this happens, if you don’t manage your time intentionally, you will surely end up neglecting the big rocks. However, if you start by scheduling time for the big rocks, then at least then, the things that won’t fit are the tiny pebbles. So, ask yourself, would you rather the house be dusted and the dishwasher emptied, or would you rather you took an hour to help your kids with their homework?
That’s why I believe that the calendar is the single most important tool we have at our disposal. Not because by scheduling every last minute of our day we’ll become machines. But rather because we know there isn’t enough time to do it all, but by making sure the important things are scheduled, at least we can feel good about the fact that in the grand scheme of things we took care of the things that mattered.
Applying the Principle
So, how do you apply this to your personal productivity?
Pretty simple, actually. For starters, figure out what your big rocks are. If you’ve done the exercise of understanding your “whys”, then this should be easy. Then, as part of your weekly review, make sure you schedule time for the big rocks. You don’t have to fill up every square in your digital calendar, or every time slot in your paper planner. In fact, I recommend you don’t do that. But you do have to schedule those important things. Finally — and this is the most important part — treat those appointments as if they’re sacred. Don’t move them around without a really good reason. And definitely don’t cancel them unless you absolutely have to. Respect the big rocks.
What Comes Next
That was the tenth principle. So, we’re done here, right? Well, kind of, but I couldn’t let you go without giving you just one more “bonus” principle. And ironically, the bonus may be the most important of them all, so be sure to check it out.