From Micro-Scheduling to The Three-Task Rule

Read the article on the Evening Standard website >>

The CEOs have said it: scheduling meetings, lunch breaks and workouts is no longer enough. To hit peak productivity, micro-scheduling is the best option: in other words, planning every minute of your day, down to checking your phone and making tea.

It’s all the rage in Silicon Valley: Bill Gates and Elon Musk both split their days into five-minute chunks. And New York-based entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk reportedly plans his day out to the second.

“If someone gets to a 10am meeting at 10.02am, I’m not very patient,” says Elaine Lui, founder of celebrity news site Laineygossip, who splits her day into 10-15 minute slots — including three-minute breaks to go to the toilet.

Mere mortals: don’t do this alone. Call in the machines: from AI secretaries to apps that prioritise your top tasks, here’s how to hack your way to efficiency.

Block booking

“What would your perfect day look like?” asks Cheryl Isaacs, a chartered psychologist at OPM Consulting in Wandsworth. Work it out, then create a “realistic” schedule that fits, allowing time for each task but also challenging yourself.

Cut your day into chunks, whether in hours or minutes — what’s crucial is giving everything a “label”, says Dr Joan Harvey, an occupational psychologist at Newcastle University. “Be honest about what you’re using the time for. You only need 30 minutes for a power nap,” she adds, so schedule in 30 minutes, then move on.

Apple’s default Calendar app lets you schedule your tea break to the minute with the help of a trick: once you’ve created an event, tap the start or end time and the section will expand, unlocking more precise options.

Flat Tomato breaks your day into 25-minute intervals, known as the Pomodoro Technique, while Plan lets you quickly schedule time blocks: part to-do list, part calendar app, so you can drag tasks straight into your diary.

If time is tight, let Clara be your PA: an AI email app that sorts your calendar out. Just cc Clara into any email and it’ll book in your meeting around your existing schedule.

Power of three

To-do lists are essential but don’t make them too long, says Isaacs. The answer lies in what business leaders call the “three-task rule”: taking the first 10 minutes of the day to decide on the three key things you must achieve. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg calls this “ruthlessly prioritising” and says it’s key to keeping calm amid a busy schedule.

Start your simplification process with Google Tasks: a to-do list app for setting tasks and sub-tasks against certain due dates. Google presents these in clear, bulleted form, while 30/30 is for colour-coders: a more in-depth list app that lets you assign times for each task and alerts you when it’s time to switch.

Download 135 List to supercharge your checklist. Every day it asks you to write down one big item, three medium-sized ones and five smaller ones to get done that day.

Work out what to prioritise then gamify each task with Habitica, an organisation app that gives you an avatar and rewards you as you tick things off. A fun way to make yourself tackle meeting prep — just don’t let your boss see you playing.

Inbox zero

Don’t become a “slave” to your email, says Graham Allcott, author of How to Be a Productivity Ninja. Research shows a third of email users gets stressed by the volume they receive, while another study says it takes up to 23 minutes to regain your focus each time you get distracted.

Try what Isaacs calls “stacking” — completing similar tasks together. “If you’re making calls, make all your calls,” she suggests. “If you’re emailing, power through an hour of emails then switch them off.”

Let Adiós be your guide: the free tool for Gmail limits incoming emails to three a day. Set power hours — Allcott recommends 7am, 1pm and 5pm, with 45 minutes for each session — and add any recipients whose messages you need to show up immediately (your boss).

Pair with Boomerang for Gmail, which lets you schedule an email to be sent later. When you’re in your inbox power hour, Gmail Smart Reply saves you time by using AI to predict what to say next.

Spark’s app shows you your most important emails first while Spike makes your emails more conversational, presenting them in chat form instead of formal threads.

To save on typing time, Loom lets you send a video instead of words. Rather than scheduling a formal video call, the app lets you film yourself or narrate a presentation at the click of a button.

Natural habits

To be productive, work to your own “natural circadian rhythm”, says Isaacs.

Tackle complex tasks early if you’re a morning person; leave emails and more routine tasks for lower energy times when you don’t need as much juice.

Productive’s app will help you decide how to divide your day according to your habits, while Rescue Time tells you what’s wasting your time.

Humu uses AI to learns habits: the software monitors productivity at work then sends you emails and texts according to mood. “Nudge” reminders include speaking in a meeting or going for a walk.

Credit: OPM Consulting / Katie Strick

Working with OPM has been a great experience. OPM Associates are incredibly talented and responsive, willing to be flexible to meet our changing needs. Feedback from our staff and managers is always positive, in particular how well OPM Associates have been able to overcome difficult challenges and provide inspiration to others.”

Anna Petts, Assistant Director,
Organisational Development & Learning at London Business School

June 29, 2020