Getting My Projects and Tasks Unstuck with My Task Manager and Calendar

Getting My Projects and Tasks Unstuck with My Task Manager and Calendar

(Wilson Ng) #1

image courtesy of

Life keeps me busy and prevents me from getting to my task manager’s projects and tasks lists. Oftentimes, I deal with the daily demands that come from the boss, co-workers, friends, and any emergency that sets me off-track. I get that frustrated feeling when I’m doing everything else but that Big Rock project or a Most Important Task (MIT) I wanted work on.

I try to split my time between Life’s daily demands and my own projects and tasks. Sometimes, I fail miserably. My own goals, projects, and responsibilities will get shoved aside for someone else’s priorities. I’ve been trying different methods in my personal experiments to see what I can do.

In my previous post, I described how I use my task manager as a menu to hold all of the projects and tasks that I want to work on.

My task manager holds all of my projects and tasks that I’ve committed to but haven’t scheduled yet. I am already committed to whatever is on my calendar. But I haven’t fully committed to what is in my task manager.

I tried to work from my task manager by keeping it open and visible all the time on my Mac and on my iOS devices. I thought that keeping the task app visible on my computer or on my iPhone would help me keep track of all my commitments and complete my tasks. But Life interrupts me as I scurry from daily walk-in clients to the latest emergency and other interruptions that creep upon me.

I have two friction points that occur with my task manager:

  1. I never schedule time with the projects hiding inside my task manager. My projects hide themselves safely in the task manager. I’ve been meaning to get to them but I never do. I’m taking care of all my calendar events and all of Life’s interruptions. If I don’t schedule a Big Rock or MIT, it won’t get done. It just sits inside my task manager.
  2. I get distracted when I finish a task and I return back to my iPhone to look for the next task or project to work on. I might look for easy wins and choose brain-dead tasks instead of the tasks I really should be working on. Or I might go into procrastination mode and start tweaking projects and next actions.

I started to realize that I was using my task manager at the wrong time. My task manager should be used during planning time. I should be using my calendar during work time. I’ll explore what I’ve changed to my personal workflow.

I experimented with integrating my calendar with my Today List. My calendar is a view of my hard landscape - deadlines, appointments and periods of busyness when I can’t possibly get to my Most Important Tasks or Big Rock projects. My task manager holds the projects and tasks that should be done but does not need to be done at a particular time.

Using pen-and-paper with my task manager

I use my calendar to show the day’s workflow. In another post (A Different approach to the OmniFocus Today Perspective), I explained how I used OmniFocus to store my tasks and create a short list of the tasks I really want to work on in the new few days:

TL;DR: Choose a small handful of tasks from my task manager. I have a variety of tasks that will keep me interested. I choose a handful of tasks from different contexts and write it down into my daily notebook.

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I choose two to three tasks from my @Mac context. I choose another two to three tasks from my @Office context. Then, I’ll select a few more tasks from a few other contexts.

@Mac contexts (2 tasks)

  • Backup computers to external hard drives (@Mac)
  • Work on the October advertisement in InDesign (@Mac)

@Office context (3 tasks)

  • File scanned receipts into folders (@Office)
  • Train new employees - new POS systems (@Office, @Employees)
  • Check inventory levels of jewelry (@Office, @Sales Floor)

@Reading (1 task)

  • Read new credit card policies (@Reading)

I like to choose a handful of similar tasks. It’s easier to work in batches when I don’t need to changes contexts.

Then I’ll choose two to three Big Rocks that I want to make significant progress on for the next week:

  • Big Rock: Complete employee training survey forms for annual review
  • Big Rock: Prepare for October trade show

Printing my Weekly Schedule

I’m still a paper guy when it comes to calendars. I like to use Fantastical to keep the alarms on my iPhone. But when I’m working, I’ll print out the weekly schedule on US Legal paper size (8.5" x 14"). The longer paper sizes gives me extra room and the text isn’t so tiny. Here’s a sample of a typical schedule for me.

I could work in digital and stay with Fantastical. But I love having that calendar printout on my desk. I don’t need to summon Fantastical on my Mac.

I can’t work during on my task manager tasks during certain events such as picking up the kids or attending a meeting. But when I do see an empty time block (usually 30 minutes), I’ll quickly refer to my task list in my notebook and pencil it into my calendar sheet. If something interrupts me, I can always erase it and pencil it in for a later time block.

I realized I was working more efficiently when I worked from my calendar sheet. Penciling in tasks during the day reminds me of what I am focused on. Sometimes I pencil in a task at 1 pm and a walk-in client shows up. When I finish with the walk-in client, I can refer back to the calendar and remember that I was supposed to work on the pencilled-in task. It’s easier to return to a task when I remembered what I did before the interruption.

I keep my task manager app hidden on my Mac. I don’t reach for my iPhone to look at the projects/tasks list. I just look at my calendar and my task list in my notebook.

If I go back to my task manager, I might get distracted and look for easier tasks or start tweaking a current project endlessly. That’s a classic form of procrastination that I try to avoid. Instead, I can look at the calendar sheet to remind me of what I need to get done in the limited time before the next appointment shows up. I refer to my notebook and quickly move it into my calendar. There is no need to tweak my calendar app or my task manager app.

photo courtesy of

At the end of the day, I return back to my task manager, check off several tasks as completed, and revise or add tasks based on today’s activity.

The less time I spend in my task manager, the more work I get done. Using a paper task list together with my calendar sheet reduces screen time for me. I’m in the real world. Even if my job requires me to stay glued to my computer, I might still just stick with my calendar sheet and daily notebook. I’m too easily distracted if I keep my task manager and calendar open on my Mac or iPhone.

Building the Daily Gameplan


I create my Today list like a coach’s game plan. I select all the Big Rocks and MITs I want to work on. I close my task manager and then go to the calendar. My calendar gives me the broad landscape of where my pockets of free time are. When I am free of an appointment, I pick one of the tasks or Big Rocks to work on. I don’t refer to my task manager. I work from my Today list which already holds the MITs and Big Rocks I want to work on.

Finishing a task and then going back to the task manager takes me out of work mode and back into emergency scanning mode. I will burn up more time scanning for the next task. The calendar and daily notebook keeps me on track and in work mode.

The less time I spend in my task manager, the more time I have to get work done.

I’m still experimenting and trying to stay “in the zone.” If you have any tips or strategies about how you focus on your Big Rocks and Most Important Tasks while trying to handle the daily pressures of Life, please share!

The Dynamic Duo: My OmniFocus and Bullet Journal workflow
(Avrum Nadigel) #2

Just finished reading Mark Forster’s latest and he suggests to abandon to-do lists, long lists, brain dumps, etc, and rely on intuition to choose the best task for the moment. He suggests a workflow in the book, which I adopted with these rules.

Whenever I have discretionary time:

  1. Ask: What am I willing to commit to (given the time, place, my energy, interest, etc)
  2. Write that down
  3. Do it.
  4. Repeat (Try not to break the chain of what I’m committing to).

His overall point (and something D. Allen, Covey discuss as well) is that (barring a seriou cognitive injury) most people have an intuitive sense of what they need to do at any given time. We don’t need lists (Mark believes they interfere with the intuitive choosing process), fancy software and complex rules. Most productivity talk/discussion is make-work projects… stuff to avoid what your intuition already knows.

And if you’re really confused, all your fear of a task/project to guide your choice of action. Fear and dread is often a good North Star to indicate what you truly need to do, or care about.

Side note: Much of what I just typed I’m sharing more for me than anyone else :wink:

(Wilson Ng) #3

Ah yes! I remembered Mark Forster’s AutoFocus and Final Version.

I couldn’t get into it during the time I read it because I felt like I was emergency scanning the pages over and over again until I settled on a task. This created my friction when I was attempting the Final Version experiment.

I do like the dropping of tasks when it has overstayed its welcome.

That’s why I had to settle on pulling MITs and Big Rocks from my playbook (The task manager) and writing them into the gameplan for the day/week. Then I worked on whatever is in the gameplan. I was trying to eliminate the project/task scanning that I was frequently encountering.

I’ll have to revisit Mark Forster’s Final Version again. I remembered that he was updating it frequently. I’m curious to see what tweaks he has put it in.


One method that I’ve used a couple times is to use index cards.

Write each MIT on its own index card. Binder clip them together. What’s on top is what you work on. When you finish it, tear it in half and throw it out. The next task is there ready to be worked on.

Works great on days when you might be frequently interrupted.

(Wilson Ng) #5

It’s great to have different methods of getting our tasks out of our task manager and right in front of us!

The task manager helps us remember projects and next actions. But it’s up to us to actually get things to surface. The task manager can help but we need an extra push along the way.

(Wilson Ng) #6

Another way to re-create using the calendar and tasks together is to use OmniFocus 3’s Forecast Tag. With the Pro edition, you can choose a Forecast tag and any task tagged with it will be shown in the Forecast perspective.

I could go to my perspective that shows all available tasks or Due Soon/Flagged tasks. Then I select a small handful of tasks and assign the Today Forecast tag. This will show up in the Forecast perspective.

I’m somewhat resistant to this because I’ve been trying to stay away from my digital task manager and stay focused on the printed calendar schedule with my daily notebook with the handful of tasks.

Whatever works best for your mental model is the best route to go.

(Avrum Nadigel) #7

After reading Forster’s latest book, I’m keen on adoption intuition (the internal knowing, moment by moment, of exactly what I need to do) to choose my next action. Mark suggests abandoning all list making tools, etc., which he feels interferes with the intuitive process.

Anyone ever experiment with anything like this?

My current approach: Whenever I have discretionary time, I ask: “What is the best use of my time right now?” By “right now”, I’m referring to the place I’m at, energy level, time I have, etc.

Whatever I choose, I write down (pen/paper), and commit to doing that thing. I adopt Mark’s “little and often” approach to work, and progress from there.

(Justin DiRose) #8

This is how I tend to operate on a day to day basis. I do write down a plan for what my day may look like, but I also use a todo app to store the big list. It’s part of my hybrid system I use because it’s easy to find, organize, and be reminded of stuff versus on paper.

(Avrum Nadigel) #9

Justin - how often do you tend to your task app? Daily? Weekly? Which one are you using?

(Justin DiRose) #10

I’m in it for at least 5 minutes daily, sometimes more if I’m working through lots of items. I’ve been a strong OmniFocus user for the last 4 years, but some of the recent changes (and bugginess) of OF3 led me to go looking elsewhere. Currently, I’m putting Things 3 through the paces.

(Jonathan Davis) #11

In college during certain times i would take all my tasks and attach them to calendar events. My calendar was jam packed then. In reflecting back it caused me stress when I planned my whole week and then things came up. Hence why for instance @wilsonng in scheduling stuff for being done a day or two ahead.

(Wilson Ng) #12

I did not like living life trying to catch up with overdue tasks or tasks that will be done at the very last minute. I prefer looking ahead and preparing for what is coming. I might have a classroom assignment that is due by Friday. I want to start on Sunday and hopefuly be done by Wednesday. I have one buffer day (Thursday) to fine-tune and tweak the assignment. But the work is capable of being submitted without worries.

I didn’t want the stress of running right to the deadline. I am actively trying to stay ahead of my responsibilities.

I remember a scene from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Our intrepid explorer is running away from a large boulder that is rolling towards him. If I can run faster than the boulder, I’m OK.

My calendar has all appointments that can’t be moved (class hours, doctor appointments, meetings). In the empty slots, I draw a box with my pencil and then write the theme for that block. If it’s Admin time, I work on administrative work. I might want to do some computer work. So I’ll write @Computer and look at my task manager for any @Computer work.

I don’t do hyper scheduling. My life is too variable with interruptions such as walk-in customers or my wife asking for my assistance for something that is suddenly important to her.

If I can find an empty time block, I’ll look for something in my Tags or Contexts list,

But there might be a project that I want to work on. I’ll pencil in a time block and schedule myself to finish that project that I might otherwise never get around to working on.

If I don’t schedule gym time at 4 pm, I’ll probably never work out. My projects sits in my task manager. I need to schedule time for these tasks.

I hold my 4:30 pm to 5:00 pm as important for my review time. I have the Due app to notify me to do the end-of-day review at 4:30 pm and nags me every half hour until I check it off. I used to be one of those folks who would do the review every now and then. But now, I’ve done it 95% of time. Illness or other things that affect my schedule dropped it down from 100%.

If you want something done schedule it. But make it the most important thing that you want done. Not everything needs to be scheduled or can be scheduled today.

Just listened to the new Bookworm Podcast hosted by @joebuhlig and @bobbleheadjoe. You can listen to their discussion about planning and task management in this episode. The conversation starts at 26:30 and ends at approximately 48:00.

(Wilson Ng) #13

Oh, some coincidence has happened.

@Sparky sits down with Katie Floyd to talk about task management strategies!


(Wilson Ng) #14

For more on the power of scheduling, see our friends at Asian Efficiency as @bobbleheadjoe talks with the developers of the Sorted app. They’ll discuss what they’ve discovered about scheduling and making time for projects and tasks.

The podcast show notes also highlights an interesting article that reinforces the idea of scheduling.

In this post, I experimented with using my calendar and task manager together. I’ve been wanting to do time blocks and casually tried it on and off but never got it to stick. I think scheduling ahead of time reduces the amount of stress placed on me when I am doing things at the last minute.

I knew I had to find a way to reduce my stress levels. Scheduling gives me that sense of control that I am conquering the incoming onslaught of tasks that comes at me daily.