Alex Chiri's Blog

Healthy planning - the theory

productivityplanning

In the previous post, I described how I started re-introducing some of the healthy habits that kept me going before the COVID-19 madness. That already improved my mental and physical state. But I felt that I am still wasting a lot of time in meaningless things, like social media or worrying and being annoyed that I am not accomplishing as much as I wanted in different areas of my life.

While brainstorming about how to change this, I remembered about Cal Newport and his approach to structure his days using blocks of time that he reserves to specific tasks or purposes. All of his work or productive time is scheduled and dedicated to accomplishing something specific, as a way of making more opportunities for deep work. I remember giving it a try in the past, but with this occasion I revisited his work to see if there is something I can do differently or if he came up with more ideas on this topic.

Cal is now recording a podcast as well and he talks about his approach in some of the episodes he released so far (see 1, 2, 3). Listening to these recordings inspired me to give it another try, armed with new ideas and tools. In this post I will describe his way (as I understood it) of managing his time and obligations to maximize effectiveness and to facilitate as many opportunities as possible to do deep meaningful work.

The Way

I found multiple issues with how I spent my time on things during the last few months. First, I tended to focus on one thing or another, without having a big picture of everything I should do and how important and urgent are each of them compared to others. Second, I tended to spend too much time on non-important stuff to fill-in the holes in my schedule. While some of these activities can be useful, I was also getting caught in all kind of stupid rabbit holes (very common with social media) that would leave me empty and frustrated by “the current world state”.

Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself a pretty organized person, always striving to do my work well, be on time and manage well expectations others have on me. But that doesn’t mean I am doing what is the most important for me and others in the most effective way. I needed some other way to visualize and organize everything I do. Here comes what I will call Cal Newport’s Approach to Productivity and Accomplishment (CNAPA, in short), my term, not Cal’s, and hopefully he will not hold it against me.

The 3 Cs

CNAPA is inspired from Getting Things Done by David Allen, with some quirks and simplifications (or at least that’s how I perceive it). According to Cal, in order to go from non-productive to productive, you need to do three things:

  1. Capture
  2. Configure (similar to the Clarify, Organize and Reflect stages combined from GTD)
  3. Control

Capture

One essential step is to never try to hold things in our mind that are not useful to what we are doing, so we should have an easy way to capture all kind of thoughts, ideas, todos that come to our mind, in whatever moment of our day, and transfer them on paper or digitally. This way, we free our mind to be busy with other things and we get rid of that annoying feeling of loss when I get an idea, I try to remember it, only to get distracted, lose it and spend minutes or hours thinking about it and trying to remember what it was.

Cal has a notebook always with him that he synchronises at the end of the day with his master list, which is a bullet list in Workflowy.

Successfully transferring all these thoughts immediately on some other medium, I get them off my mind, knowing that I can review them whenever I want or need them. And it’s important to review them, otherwise I captured them for nothing.

Configure

As the capture list will only get bigger and most likely the items there won’t take care of themselves, I need to review this list periodically. How often depends on everyone’s needs. Also, if there are small things I can do right away without taking much time, then I should do them and get rid of them on the list. In GTD, anything that takes less than 2 minutes should be done straight away.

During this stage, we should take the time to remove things that don’t make sense anymore, we should combine items that go together and split things further, if we decide it’s useful. Like pruning a bonsai, this is something we must do periodically, as our context changes, so do our requirements on what we need to do.

When he reviews his list, Cal first reorganizes the items there based on which of his roles do they apply to (professor, writer etc) and this is an extra step from what GTD advises. Cal considers that this extra classification gives even more clarity on what’s on one’s plate and helps further control how we spend our time and direct our efforts.

For each role, the items then are put in different buckets, based on their status. For example, is the task something that needs to be followed up on, or is something that can wait and be put on the backburner? Is it urgent? Is it something that needs to be further elaborated before it is actionable? Again, all this makes it easier to decide later on what is the one thing I should work on now? Also, these should be visualized in some kind of dashboard, for each role, items divided by status.

Cal has a separate Trello board for each of his roles, with each item being a card that is placed in a column corresponding to its status. With all these periodically reviewed and updated, we can have better control on what we spend our time on.

Control

In the third stage of CNAPA, we take control of our time. I look at my schedule ahead and see what time I have available between my already set engagements. The idea is to give every available timeslot a purpose. So wherever I have some time in my schedule that is not promised otherwise, I reserve that block of time and I dedicate it to an item from my lists of items. Essentially, I ask and answer 2 questions over and over again: “What time do I have available?” and “What do I want to do with it?”.

Based on personal needs, one can do this every day, every week, every month or every quarter. Typically, the further I look into the future, the harder is to schedule these blocks, since usually other obligations arrive and take priority. Cal mentions in his podcast that initially it will be hard to fit an item perfectly in the block of time available, but this improves with practice.

I chose to take a slightly different approach here. Instead of assigning a block of time to a specific item from my lists of obligations, I assign blocks to one of my roles and groups of items I have and relatively shortly before the time of the block comes I select a specific item, whichever I consider it has the highest priority. I might finish that item or I might not. When the next block of that type comes, I might continue working on that item, if it’s still the most important and urgent, or work on something else. Basically, I see the blocks of time I put in my schedule as slots of time dedicated to a specific category of tasks, when I make progress on that specific area of my work by working on the different items and obligations I need to do in order to advance.

Rinse and repeat

I capture all the time, right away when something comes into my mind that I think it’s worth remembering (that extends to simple notes I need to remember, not just things I need to do, but that is a different discussion).

I do configure and control once a week, typically on Sunday (I have a time block for this), sometimes I adjust during the week as well, but no major changes. If possible, I try to reserve blocks of time around the same time and days, this way I get used to it and it becomes natural, I don’t even have to check the block planning: it’s Wednesday, 15:00, time to work on my writing.

It also happens that I have to move or cancel a block, because something more important comes up. That is totally fine. At that point, I have a look at my global overview of items and decide if I need to create somehow an extra block to compensate.

I haven’t done this for many weeks now, but I get better at it week by week and I find more and more angles where I can improve things. But most important, I give myself the opportunity of working on all the things that matter to me. I have an overview of everything that needs to be done, it is outside my mind and I intentionally reserve time for each area of my life that I want to dedicate my attention to. And since I don’t have any dead time, it’s harder to slip and waste time on social media.

This is theory, what about practice?

I wanted to separate the theoretical part from the practical part, because this system can be implemented in many ways and it’s useful to understand it at a conceptual level first. Yet, I guess there is also value in showing how I implemented all of this and what tools I use. This is the topic of the next post: how I do the capture, configure, control and manage the time blocks. Stay tuned!