The response to yesterday’s post caught me quite off guard. I was a bit worried that the general response would be “well duh!”. Goes to show I wasn’t the only person struggling with getting from next-actions to actual actions.
I’m going to walk you through my process for managing my calendar. There are a couple of software specific tricks to it. I use iCal – the Mac’s built in calendar. I’m not sure what Bill packaged for my PC cousins, but I’m sure there are options available.
Let me state at the outset that this system works for me because my work CAN be planned ahead of time. Through experience, I know roughly how long certain tasks are going to take. Also, all my work is time-based. That is to say that when I write a proposal, I base my estimate on actual hours worked. Which is where we’ll start today’s journey.
I use a program called Omni Outliner to brainstorm a project’s requirements when coming up with an estimate. I simply make a list of every element I can imagine will be required to get from point a to point b. Then, I go back and put a time estimate in a column next to each item. It’s a quick and easy way for me to put a dollar value on even the most complex projects.
Now, this works for me because I have a pretty good idea how much time it’s going to take me to do each task. This comes from experience. It also comes from breaking each task down into small components.
One of the reasons I favor Omni Outliner is how simple it is to nest lists. I start by making top level tasks, then revisit the big items to break them down in a nested list. The number of levels I break something down into is a function of how complex the task is. See the example below from a recent print project.
At this point, I’ve got almost all the information I need to schedule my project. Omni Outliner and iCal play together pretty nicely. It’s possible to convert an Outliner list into an iCal to-do list, saving one the necessity to re-type each aspect of the project. (If you want to know how, just google “omni outliner to ical”)
Next, it’s a matter of creating a new calendar for each project. In iCal, it’s simply a matter of clicking a button, naming the calendar, and choosing a colour (to change the colour, make sure the info pane is open [button at the bottom right of the ical window], select the calendar you want in the calendar pane, then lick the colour next to the calendar’s name in the info pane, then choose ‘other’ to select from apple’s colour picker).
In iCal, I can simply drag a to-do item onto the calendar. Easy as pie.
This system does require a bit of maintenance. Moving items forward when they inevitably snag is a pain. I’ve gotten into the habit of simply scheduling blocks of time for a given project. Then, at the start of the week, I’ll refine the schedule to reflect specific tasks. Moving a large block of time is easy. Moving a whole bunch of little blocks is still easy, but it’s a real pain.
iCal can sync with any palm device or ipod, meaning I’ve always got my schedule with me. I do leave a fair bit of flexibility in each day though, and I think that’s key to the system’s success. For example, I rarely schedule more than 8 hours of work, yet I work more like 12 hours a day. This flex time means that I can still take care of the inevitable delays or emergencies that always come up.
This is my life schedule, not just my work schedule. If there’s something I really want to do, putting it on the schedule greatly increases the odds that it will happen.
If you’d like to see a larger view of my calendar, to get a better idea of exactly what I’m talking about, please click here.