The Non-Technical Life Tip for Getting More Things Done

T-SQL Tuesday

This month’s T-SQL Tuesday topic comes from Kenneth Fisher.

T-SQL Tuesday
T-SQL Tuesday 127

How about for this months TSQL Tuesday let’s do another month of tips and tricks. But just to be a bit different, nothing to do with SQL Server (in fact let’s say nothing related to a DBMS). No SSMS tricks, no T-SQL tips, something completely unrelated. For example did you know that, in Windows, if you grab a window and shake it then all of the other windows will be minimized? And then if you shake it again they all pop back up.

So give me a non SQL related tip or trick. OS (windows, mac), Cloud (Azure, AWS), etc. Something you think will be handy for the rest of us.

Today, I’m going back to a classic.

The Non-Technical Life Tip for Getting More Things Done

You can put special emphasis on “the” there if you’d like. But that tip is managing your calendar. Back in 2019, I talked about a strategy I had put together over the prior couple of months. The gist of it is, fill in your schedule with the things you want to do. Here’s what it looked like back then:

This worked pretty well, but it had a couple of problems:

  • I still had multiple calendars, so the only place where I had my schedule in full was on my phone.
  • My phone is where I go to lose lots of time.
  • When I do need to be flexible, rearranging the calendar becomes a mess.
  • It’s hard to keep track of the things I want to do but don’t have strictly scheduled times set up already.

So what ended up happening is that, over time, I switched back to using a todo list, landing on Todoist given its functionality.

ToDo Lists Aren’t Perfect

Using a todo list did help me with some parts of the problem, particularly around flexibility and wanting to do things later but where “later” isn’t on a schedule. Eventually, I stopped filling in the calendar entries altogether.

But that led me back to the original problem I had: I wasn’t getting stuff done. I’d have 60-70 items on my todo list, knowing that my regular cadence was maybe 10-12 items per day, with 15-18 on a very productive day.

The math doesn’t work out, so let me walk through a dramatized version of my day:

  • Add a few items to my todo list that need done today.
  • Finish my normal 10-12 items.
  • Figure out how to reschedule the other 50 things on the list, bumping them back by a week or two.

The problem is that todo lists don’t really give you any of the discipline of having a plan or knowledge of what you can achieve. So you end up with eyes bigger than your stomach (to misappropriate a metaphor) and a huge list of things to do but hey, there’s still 6 hours in the day to accomplish these 50 tasks so let’s watch some TV for a while.

Becoming Indistractable

Not too long ago, I started listening to a book called Indistractable. I’m roughly halfway through it and most of the book is stuff I’ve heard, done, or otherwise know. But in the book, Nir Eyal recommends keeping a calendar with specific entries…sort of like what I did in 2019. But there are two extra catches.

Here’s what my new calendar looks like:

Calendar 2: Calend Harder

The first difference is that this is all of my calendar entries in one, including work, community, and personal. I don’t have to use my phone to see the whole thing (although I still can).

The second difference is in the colors. I now have several colors, which represent different things. Green represents personal time; yellow and orange represent work and work-related meetings, respectively; and dark grey represents relationships and time with others. I have a couple other types of entry such as presentations I’m giving are listed in blue + salmon, but it’s mostly green, yellow, and dark grey.

The color difference is big because it gives you a feel for what you’re doing with yourself. It helped me realize that, aside from dinner, I didn’t really see my wife often at all despite her being mere feet from me. Eyal mentions that for a lot of people, relationships get the remainder of whatever time is left over in your calendar, but if you don’t actively make time, other things encroach to the point where you just forget about them altogether. I know that scheduling time for relationships sounds a bit weird, but it’s really not—you’re protecting that time and ensuring that you don’t schedule meetings over it or feel the need to fill it with something “more productive” because calendars, like nature, abhor a vacuum.

Lightning Round: Bonus Tips

All of these revolve around the core notion of having a calendar in place, but I’ll burn through them quickly to keep this from being an essay.

Keep That Todo List

Todo lists are still important even when you have a calendar. The calendar is your commitment to yourself (and others) as to what you will do in the near term. The todo list then becomes a reminder of what you need to do in the near term, as well as things you’d like to do over time. The trick is, you don’t need to schedule all of the todo items up-front.

Every Day: 30 Minutes for Day Planning and Prep

Alongside the todo list, I have an entry at 9 PM to do planning and preparation. Early on, this was the time I spent simply getting those calendar entries in. Now that I am in a rhythm, I can spend this time looking at what’s left in my calendar and deciding what I want to do. For example, I had a few courses on my todo list for months; I’d bought access to them and wanted to learn, but never really felt like I had the time or motivation. Now I can put them in at certain time blocks, and know that I’m going to work on these. Importantly, I have others that I don’t put in or even think about. I’ll get to them someday, but I don’t need to fret about it in the meantime.

Timebox Most Things

This might make sense for people like me rather than the general population, but timebox things. Commit to 30-60 minutes on an item and then be done with it. If you need to get back to it, that’s fine—schedule another entry. My problem is that I tend to get squirrely after about an hour on a single thing and so I have a bunch of different 15-60 minute tasks throughout the day. If I really get in the zone on something, I don’t have to quit, but can reschedule other things. But that leads me to my next point.

Understand Your Limits

The point of timeboxing and calendar-based commitment isn’t to become some sort of machine that can work 18-hour days. I purposefully stop scheduling productive work at 9 PM. If I’m feeling really hyped about something and just want to keep going, I can, but I normally reserve the last few hours of the day to unwind, play games, read, and relax.

Focus on One Thing at a Time

Very few people can juggle multiple tasks at the same time. Even the best multi-taskers tend to be pre-emptive interrupt types rather than truly concurrent—they switch between several tasks but focus on the one task at a time. The problem is, the modern world is designed to take you out of focus. Between your phone, computer, multiple screens, group chats like Slack/Teams, social networks, and flashy services, everything’s trying to get your attention all the time.

Turn off most notifications. If an app spams me more than once, I turn off its notifications altogether. Spam, here, is simply unwanted messages. The American Airlines app notifies me when my plane is about to board—that’s a helpful message. If it started messaging me about how I can buy bunches of miles, I’d turn off notifications immediately.

Going further, I keep my phone on silent and sometimes even turn on Do Not Disturb mode (Android and iOS both offer this). Specific people (like my wife, my boss, my employees, and my parents) can still notify me immediately, but other people can wait a bit. I’ve timed this a few times and realized that during certain stretches of the day, I would get a work-related notification every 90-120 seconds. That could be e-mail, group chat, or whatever. Most of those messages I could ignore (e-mails which don’t require immediate action, group chat messages not directed toward me), but the phone buzz interrupted me nonetheless because hey, maybe this time it’s important!

The other exception is the calendar entries themselves–I have notifications on all of my calendar entries so that I do get a message that it’s time to move on to something else. That means I don’t have to check the clock quite so frequently and won’t get sucked into notification swamps.

When you end one task and are ready to go to the next, go ahead and check those e-mails and chat messages, but if you need to act on something non-urgent, set up a calendar entry and do it during that time. If it’s urgent, of course this goes out the window, but you’d be surprised how little is truly urgent.

Spend Less Time on Social Media

If you really need to be on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, whatever, schedule that time. Eyal recommended uninstalling the apps from your phone and just using the web interface in your pre-committed time. I don’t go quite that far, but I also spend very little time on social networks at this point and frankly, I’m not sure I’m really missing that much. I’ll check for notifications occasionally, maybe hang out for a little bit, but it just doesn’t form a big part of my life.

Sometimes, Call an Audible

Remember that you rule your calendar, not the other way around. If the weather is beautiful, go out and take that walk right now instead of waiting two days. Aside from meetings or hard deadlines, you’re filling out this calendar to get the most from your life. You can leave a bit of slack (hopefully more than I have) in case you need it or move/remove items as you determine that the world isn’t quite what you imagined it to be a few days ago when you created the calendar. And sometimes you get done with something early; in that case, you’ve got bonus time, so do with it what you will and indulge all of those time-sucking notifications and frivolities until the next calendar block hits.

“But What if I Don’t Like Your Advice?”

So you’ve gotten this far and decided that you don’t like what I’m saying, or you have loads of objections (or maybe “well, I like it but with this twist”). I am a normative individualist, so I fully believe that you know better than I do what works for you. If you want to take 30% of my advice and go in a wildly different direction on the rest, go for it and I hope it works out great. I won’t pretend that this is the only—or even the best—way to do things, just that it’s a method which works for me.

As I mentioned the last time I hit this topic, you might not be able to pull this off due to your job (e.g., working in a support role where you can’t necessarily schedule when you get to work on things), your kids, or other circumstances. This isn’t a universal trick, and I think you have to hit the characteristics I keyed in on last time for it to work to the utmost:

  • You have some flexibility in your schedule right now. If you’re already booked solid for the next six months, there’s not much we can do here.
  • You can commit to performing some action for a block of time. Having young children will likely make this technique all but impossible.
  • You are at least a little neurotic. If you don’t care at all about skipping appointments or ignoring mechanical devices blinking and buzzing at you, this technique probably isn’t going to work.
  • You have a semblance of a plan. One important thing with this technique is that you can switch to the task without much mental overhead. A task which reads “go do stuff” won’t help you at all. By contrast, a task to continue reading a book is easy: you pick up where you left off. For things that are in between, you can always fill out the calendar entry’s description with some details of things to do if that helps.