Why putting tasks in your calendar is like driving nails with a wrench

Posted by in Productivity

If you want to be less productive, narrow your perspective and increase your stress level, there’s one surefire way of doing it: manage your tasks poorly. Such as using your calendar to keep track of them. Millions do it every day, and are blissfully unaware of the side effects. It’s time for the madness to stop.

One. Hundred. And. Thirty.

Walk into any office anywhere in the world, and chances are you’ll find someone using their calendar for task management. The most terrifying example I’ve come across to date was a female higher-up whom, in the course of a two-hour quarterly review had her Outlook calendar reminder window pop up no less than five times during a presentation to remind her of various tasks that required her attention. Not only did this break up her flow, but also revealed an even uglier truth: she had more than 130 items in her reminder list. One. Hundred. And. Thirty.

Fate, however, intervened rather amusingly in the shape of her colleague whom – out of annoyance and without realizing the extent of his actions – clicked the ‘Dismiss all’ button while the higher-up was making a quick phone break. Needless to say, she was rather displeased when she found out what had happened – after all, you should never mess with someone’s task list, regardless of its location.

Tasks are not necessarily appointments, but appointments are tasks

There’s a good reason tasks shouldn’t be in a calendar: they’re not appointments. It’s no wonder people confuse the two, however, as they share many traits. Both, in their own way, represent units of work, which people are inclined to keep in a system of some sort – preferably one that will in some way remind you of actually doing them. In varying degrees, they’re also time sensitive in the sense that they require action at a certain point in time, and both of them take a certain amount of time to complete.

What this means is that tasks are not necessarily appointments, but appointments are indeed tasks. An appointment requires you to be at a certain place at a certain time for a certain length, optionally with certain people present in order to get something done. It’s a coordinated effort, and something that needs to be executed. A task, on the other hand, is something you can execute upon beyond these strictly confined boundaries, and we’re about to explore just why calendars are the wrong tool to manage them efficiently.

But… I put tasks in my calendar and it works just fine!

Perhaps – and perhaps not. Allow me to illustrate this with two examples, the first in which tasks are just dumped indiscriminately into the typical half-hour slots offered by popular calendar software such as Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes. They’re now recorded in a system; you can to a certain extent indicate their duration and deadline, and you can even shuffle them around visually to achieve some sense of priority – which, in fact, is a shortcoming of many task management applications. Thus far, all is well.

On average, though, a work week clocks in at around 40 hours – which gives you 80 half hour slots. If you have zero appointments, that is. Assuming at least one meeting per day at a length of one hour, you’re suddenly down to 70 slots. Most people who have the sense to break projects down into tasks and tasks into manageable pieces and make sure to list recurring tasks to avoid having to remember them have at least 50 tasks running at any given point. The higher-up I mentioned had 130. What do you think happens when you try to cram all of that into a weekly, or even monthly calendar view where entries often are truncated?

An often-hilarious productivity equivalent of a beginner’s course in line dancing: a whole lot of shuffling around and everyone bumping into another as they go, that’s what. Well, hilarious for the observer, at least.

A modern workplace is one where priorities change and interruptions run rampant, leading to a vicious circle where tasks are shuffled and postponed en masse, numbing the relationship between a person and one of their most valuable resources: time. Some people try to avoid this by compressing tasks into projects, or by leaving out “unimportant” tasks – which means the task of holding the information that’s left out is now relegated to… their brains. One word: ouch.

In the other example, tasks are meticulously inserted in to a calendar based upon their priority and allotted a certain time for completion. This creates a rigid schedule which tends to cause friction in workplaces where priorities change and interruptions run rampant (oh wait, that’s just about everywhere), and takes more than a little time to manage. This method is often attempted by those who realize that they’re living proof of exhibit one and realize improvements are in order, only for them to return as the rigidity-induced friction mounts to a climax.

What both methods have in common is that they clog up ones calendar, making it difficult to get a realistic overview of what amount of time is actually available for executing tasks. Worse yet, though, is the insidious manner in which ones focus is pulled in the direction of how much time is spent on executing something rather than how well it is executed – thus favouring efficiency over effect.

Why we actually put tasks in our calendars, and what actually works

The psychology behind why we place tasks in a calendar is deceivingly simple: we either think we’re clever, or we’re lazy. Clever because by putting everything in one view sounds like a logical way to gain perspective; lazy because we don’t explore other alternatives. Both are akin to driving in a nail with a wrench: it works, but if you – after one month of doing this – finally find the time to stop by the hardware store to ask if there’s a better tool, you’ll end up going home with a hammer… that you’ll be using to smack yourself in the head with.

The right way to handle tasks is also deceivingly simple, even though a first glance at any advanced task manager will scare the living daylight out of you. It’s a bit like with Word: at first, you use three of the buttons, and the rest are just for show until you get the hang of things. Here are some quick guidelines, though:

  • You need to be able to set start and due dates as well as reminders
  • You need to be able to create hierarchies to order tasks and subtasks in a manner which makes sense to you, such as projects for when you’re in a meeting that revolves around one
  • You need to be able to “tag” and sort tasks by contexts that make sense to you, such as @Errand for when you’re going out and want a quick rundown of errands from different projects
  • You need to be able to create a prioritized queue of tasks, either semi-automatically or in a wholly manual fashion to exploit your gut feeling about what needs to be done first
  • You need to be able to attach notes to tasks so as to get reference information out of your head
  • You need to be able to trust its backup solution 100%, or your brain will refuse to fully relinquish control – thus spending resources remembering instead of doing
  • Preferably, it should synchronize with your mobile device so it’s always on hand if you need to write something down or look something up

If you have no former experience with a task manager, the best way to get to grips with this is to try a piece of software so you can get a feel for the general principles. One of these will suffice nicely:

Lastly, there is one way that your calendar and your tasks can do the tango: by blocking out time slots in your calendar for working on your task list uninterrupted. If you’re prone to interruptions, this can be especially helpful for focusing when you’re working on your most important tasks – and if I may make a suggestion, it would be to block out a window in the morning for those. 60 to 90 minutes will do nicely; then let the mayhem of everyday life ensue.