The scheduling trick that supports incremental and ongoing success
Saved by the bell. Again.
It’s a figurative bell, but no matter.
This bell is often saving me. From myself. From distractions. From interruptions. From days that would otherwise go off the rails.
It’s because after 35+ years of self-employment and years of hacking my way through the jungles of overwhelm, shiny object syndrome, financial see-sawing, procrastination, busy work, and firefighting, I arrived at some point years back at a place of relative peace, perspective, productivity, and sustainability. A schedule and mindsets that keep me oriented to all the things I care about with losing it.
But this peace comes with bells. It may be all bells and whistles for me, but it’s not for everyone. It’s the School Day Model of organizing the workday, one of several scheduling models championed by author Barbara Sher for those of us with so-called too many projects, interests, and responsibilities. Hey, is this most of us?
See how this works…
Decide the broad umbrellas of your day The many small business owners, solo pros, creatives, freelancers, etc. I’ve known and worked with that arrive at similar organizations of their schedule tend to conceive of the broad areas that require their attention in one of these three ways:
Work responsibilities — Organize your workload by areas of responsibility, for example, sales calls, marketing, accounting, writing, networking. For most freelancers, writers, and solo pros, a typical division of labor allots 50–60% of the workday for substantive work (coaching, consulting, design, writing) and the remainder for business development and maintenance work (marketing, sales, admin, accounting, outreach).
Projects — For some, a focus on one’s various projects may make more sense as the way to break up the day. In this case, it still is important to account for the maintenance and administrative work, either as tasks under individual projects or as a “project” of its own.
Goals — This has become my categorization of choice over the years — grouping tasks under broad goals, things like “Grow coaching business,” “Do excellent client work,” “Develop freelance writing stream,” “Meet annual income number,” and for all the miscellanea, “Keep business admin and finances organized and up-to-date.”
Name these categories This simply means gathering all your tasks, responsibilities, and projects and finding a grouping for all of them with an identifiable name. When a new to-do item pops up on your radar, it should be obvious which heading you’ll be putting it under.
Choose how many hours you want to work in a day Be honest and take a moment. This is one excellent chance to construct a workday with balance built in and a decent, sustainable life. Consider what’s a reasonable, desirable, and realistic amount of time to work in a day, especially in light of your other obligations, the stuff of daily life, and necessary down- and fun time. Think about home chores, errands, and projects; your kids’, partner’s, and pet’s schedules; hobbies, exercise, self-care, civic commitments, and outings; Netflix, chilling, sleeping.
Assign blocks of time Now select how long you want to devote each day to each category, based on typical time requirements, relative importance, etc. I have one 3-hour block, two 30-minute blocks, and four 1-hour blocks, one of which is devoted to lunch and personal errands, meaning I typically work a 7-hour day.
Order blocks of time Finally, strategically schedule your blocks of time to line up with critical factors like ease, energy level, focus, other people’s relevant needs, how you actually function, etc.
Those were just preliminaries Now that we’ve set up the workday, let’s see the magic of being saved by the bell.
Categorize every task or to-do item Every to-do item that crops up from now on should get assigned to one of your broad categories, each of which is now assigned to a block of time. So, for example, if you organize your day by areas of responsibility, you’d be filing tasks like “Make monthly collection calls” and “Reconcile checking account” under the “Accounting” umbrella. If you’re organizing the day by projects, you might put “Check in with agent” under “Book 1” and to-dos related to promotion under “Book 2.”
Hard stops, aka The Bells For this system to work, you have to treat the end of each block of time as a hard stop. When it’s done, you’re done with that bucket for the day. Over time, you will get a sense for what you can accomplish in a given chunk of time and schedule a reasonable number of tasks accordingly. You will also come to realize just how little time some of the things you regularly put off actually take. As you’re waiting for the bell to ring, as it were, you’ll discover how you can squeeze in one or two more little tasks or sub-tasks. Answer an email. Schedule a meeting. Make a decision. Or you can blow off those last few minutes and grab a snack, take a spin through your Facebook feed, or throw in a load of laundry. You do work for yourself. And you’re not derailing anything because your next work session is just about to start.
Transitions The transitions between work sessions are a key piece of the success of this model. Think back to the 4–5 minutes you had in between classes at school. Use this time to pack up one area, take a breather, and prepare for the next one. Each time you leave an area of work for the day, make sure it’s ready for tomorrow. De-clutter your desk. Look at unfinished tasks and what’s on your calendar for tomorrow. Reschedule and reflow your to-do items for tomorrow and beyond as necessary. Make any notes or reminders you’ll need to that nothing remains open, hanging out in your head as a distraction.
Allows for the unexpected The beauty of the bell, the hard stop separating each category of work/block of time, is how well it absorbs interruptions and distractions. At least for me, this system prevents one thing going wrong from throwing off a whole day. I do what I need to to address the thing that came up unexpectedly, including taking whatever cushion of time I need to slow things down, manage triggers and emotions and pesky incidentals related to the interruption, re-orient myself, and bring everything back to a sustainable norm. Then I resume the workday with the next block of time and its specialized task list. On those days when the entire schedule goes awry, I can relax knowing my structure is waiting for me tomorrow and I can pick things back up right where I left off.
Allows for choice Multiple built-in stops/transition points throughout the day allows what is for me a harmonious blend of discipline and choice. In each 30-, 60-, 90-minute block of time, I can assess what’s urgent and tackle it. I can then chip away at important tasks that aren’t under time constraints and spend time looking ahead and strategizing. This system also helps me undertake less desirable workday chores by reminding me that the bell is only x minutes away and it will save me from mucking around with this crap task for too long. I will either finish it or it will have to wait until next time.
Saved by the bell builds incremental and ongoing success In deliberately structuring time every day for all the things that matter, your most important tasks are less likely to fall through the cracks. You’ll also be chipping away, piece by piece, at those bigger milestones on the way to your goals in each area. The bells save you with discipline, habit, and organization on the one hand and variety, choice, and time limits on the other. The hard stops of the bell save you from the distractions and interruptions that can derail a day, and build in clean-up, planning, and breathing in between sessions.