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power points

Most of us start the day by checking the calendar and the to-do list. The calendar tells us about scheduled events, notably meetings. The to-do list collects the items we’ll want to fit in between events. We might make some rough calculations of how we’ll combine the two over the day – squeeze in e-mail between morning meetings, perhaps, and work in depth on a pressing project after the 1 p.m. meeting – but most of us don’t go as far as committing to those plans in our calendar.

After all, we want freedom to react in the moment and control our day. But tech entrepreneur Marc Zao-Sanders says we’re making a big mistake. We’ll actually reduce stress, accomplish more and feel more in command if we take 15 minutes every morning to fully plan the day, writing everything in the calendar that we expect to accomplish in the available hours, a process called timeboxing.

“You’ll spend less time on empty activities that don’t matter and compulsive behaviours that do you harm, because you’ll be acting out more of your intentions, devised when you were thinking clearly and calmly,” he writes in Timeboxing: The Power of Doing One Thing at a Time.

It’s a synthesis of calendar and to-do list. It’s a commitment, on your part, to get things done within the assigned box of time. It’s about exclusive focus on that task. It helps avoid procrastination and the tension throughout the day of figuring out what to do next. With practice, he promises, you will get better at estimating how much time a task requires. If work expands to fill time, according to Parkinson’s Law, he notes the reverse is true: You will often be working more intensely and cutting unnecessary tangents by the constraints of the time box. Needless perfectionism and less-helpful-than-it-seems multi-tasking will be less of a problem.

Mornings are the best time to structure the day, although it may offer peace of mind to plan things the evening before. He recommends pasting your to-do items into a spreadsheet, assigning a value of one to 10 for each, according to their importance and urgency. After you sort by those numbers, you know the critical ones to fit into today’s schedule. “An ordered list removes the anxiety-laden burden of choice and is yet another manifestation of the power of doing one thing at a time,” he notes.

The calendar will include all activities in your life, including commuting time, which often gets neglected. Putting it in the calendar can be an opportunity to consider how you will use it effectively. Also mark in some scheduled breaks. He recommends a short period as well before each meeting spent on preparing. Some items are tiny and can be bundled together with similar tasks, usually administrative. Some emails require extra thought and will need to be scheduled separately.

You may be wary of estimating the time for activities but he says you have previous experience with tasks like the ones before you and can estimate with sufficient accuracy to make timeboxing work. You’ll also start to pay greater attention to how much time various activities take as you immerse yourself in timeboxing.

He recommends just picking three box sizes – small, medium and large – rather than getting into a myriad of calculated time slots. He prefers 15-, 30- or 60-minute slots. Tasks requiring less than 15 minutes are bundled. He finds tasks greater than an hour onerous and so he breaks them down into one-hour chunks. His default time slot is 30 minutes, similar to the popular Pomodoro method for intense work periods of 25 minutes and a break.

“Just start. Your estimated time boxes won’t be right straight away. So expect to make mistakes and adjust,” he says. And don’t be deterred by seeing your calendar fully filled. See it as reassurance: At any give time, there is a single thing to do, which he calls “the peace and power of doing one thing at a time.”

Quick hits

  • “The person who carefully designs their daily routine goes further than the person who negotiates with themselves every day,” argues Ottawa thought leader Shane Parrish
  • Consultant Mike Figliuolo suggests throughout a negotiation you should be assessing what’s happening, tracking major negotiating points over time. Document prior offers that you make because the other party can bring them up later and use them against you.
  • After testing five time-tracking tools for project management Charter Work Tech picked Toggl Track as best.
  • Author James Clear asks: What if you stopped looking for new ideas and focused instead on the best idea you have now?

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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