An Inbox for Your Time

This week's dive into using scheduling instead of task management (see previous articles here), involves the step I get the most questions about: how do you track all the actionable stuff in your life that you can't schedule.

There's two somewhat shallow answers to this (with more nuance below):

  1. You're trying to track things you do not have time for and you need to ruthless about cutting stuff out of your life. Have a direction and eliminate anything you can that doesn't advance you in that direction.
  2. Stick to the fundamentals. Have a trusted capture system you can evaluate weekly. Process the most important actions into your schedule and eliminate everything else.

Option #1 works well when you have a greater amount of agency over your time. Most people don't. Those who teach about productivity topics are usually self-employed to some extent and do have the agency to employ option #1. Understand how much agency you have.

Option #2 is where most of us fit. I believe we should all strive to have as much agency over our time as possible, but if you have an employer and/or children (also known as employers), you will likely not be in full control of your time. You will have openings of time in which you can squeeze important actions. It's critical to identify those times. That's the power of scheduling for those with little agency.

Look at what happened when CEO of Basecamp Jason Fried found out that he's a rare option #1 guy surrounded by option #2 readers. There's a real disconnect between the two types and it's all about agency.

The tactic I recommend for those solidly in option #2 is to have a GTD-style inbox. Most proponents of scheduling do keep inboxes, whether they admit it or not. This could be a notebook, a series of lists in an app, or an assistant. For example, Richard Branson uses a pocket notebook, then passes the info along to several assistants. Several writers I know use paper journals. I use lists as described in GTD. The important thing is to have a place you totally trust to unload and maintain those actions outside of your head.

“Cognitive science has now validated that if you try to keep more than four things in your mind at once, you’ll lose objectivity about their relationships with each other and denigrate your performance. Less important things will bother you more than they should, and you won’t give the tactical and strategic stuff the objective attention it deserves...Similarly, if you don’t fully trust your personal systems, you are likely to be dedicating inappropriate and unnecessary mental attention to details and content, often with a resultant negative emotional component. You’ll feel pulled, overwhelmed, and often like you’re close to losing control.” - David Allen

Some may see this as an excuse to run fully back to to-do lists with no scheduling component. That's OK. Having a trusted capture system in place is an important first step. If you don't have a trusted capture system, get that first.

Time is the common denominator of all tasks and projects, though. To be honest about what we can really do in a day and what's really important to us, we must work toward taking control (or at least a full accounting) of our time.