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I Was Busy All Day, but Nothing Got Done!

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

“A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.” ~ Annie Dillard

The brain isn’t great at distinguishing “maybes” and “musts”

When the alarm goes off and super-productive you jumps out of bed, you might make a to-do list of all you have to get done for the day. So you pull out your calendar and start writing the tasks:

  • Call Naomi to follow up from our last meeting

  • Balance the books

  • Send off my quarterly strategy for my team

  • Pick up dry cleaning

  • Clean out the car

  • Ship package for client so it arrives on time

  • Look into getaways options for upcoming family vacay

And there you have it! Your roadmap for a productive day. So off you go to ready yourself for success. You go to call Naomi but remembered that you forgot to send her the product info for her to review before your call. So you dig through your emails and files trying to find it and then send it off. Along the way you see some unread emails from a client who isn’t satisfied with your product. No sweat, you immediately start engaging with quality customer service.

Finally you call Naomi. During the call she reminds you about the networking event your speaking for in a week (the one which you have yet to prepare for). You feel a few nerves ice your spine. No problem, you wrote down a few talk ideas somewhere. So you spend the next couple of hours searching, drafting, and finalizing your ideas for your upcoming talk. Remembering that the dry cleaner will close soon, you race to town to pick up your clothes. You kick away the pop cans and wrappers away from the pedals and off you go.

On the way your spouse texts you with links to a couple fantastic hotels. Those deals won’t be around forever, so you spend an hour or so booking your reservation. Great! Now for that package… that is, the package that was supposed to be shipped before the mail went out (which was 2 hours ago).

Great! The one task that HAD to get done today was missed. How does this happen? Why does it seem so many of us get surprised by deadlines, product launches, meetings, or important events? Even with all the color-coating and calendar-reviewing, we still get thrown off track.


"Maybe's" and "Must's"

The reason this happens is because the calendar gets filled up with “maybes” and “musts” hanging out together. Of the seven tasks we picked from our imaginary day, only one of those were truly important. But because it was crowded out by six other lesser-important tasks, the package got lost in the mix.

Our 3-pound brains are impressive computers. Despite all of its capability, it often blurs the lines between “musts” and “maybes” when it looks at a to-do list. Combined with our desire for a path with the least amount of resistance, the mind zones in on the easiest tasks instead of the more important ones. We sacrifice what matters most to the things that matter least.

If the traditional to-do on a calendar is insufficient for us to prioritize our time, how do we plan our days?

Right now you have appointments, commitments, and scheduled events that are “musts.” This means that life in some fashion will collapse should any one of these be overlooked. Cancelling any of those musts will result in damaging relationships, financial loss, put your health at risk, a black eye for your company, or some other major consequence. These all need a place for you to track and manage — a sacred place where no lesser task will dim the light of their importance. That place is your calendar.

When the Persians ruled the world in 550BC, they utilized a strict legal code to provide stability to the growing empire. A law would be proposed and submitted to the king to place his royal seal of approval. Once this was done, the law was considered to be unchangeable. Even the king did not have the power to rescind a previous law.

The calendar must be treated as a law book that should be considered unchangeable for the most part. These musts make up the foundation you build your life on, and removing any of them will bring the roof down. In a world where we have a single device for multiple uses such as smartphones, tablets, computers, or even watches, it may seem counterintuitive to keep musts in a sacred place. And yet in my work as a productivity coach, I frequently see people frazzled and bent out of shape because they try keeping everything together and manage to get nothing done!

Essentially, anything with a clock should get a spot in the calendar. Appointments, meetings, project deadlines, travel itineraries, and even reminders. The hand winding the clock shouldn’t be you, but you and someone else. For example, you may want to go on a vacation at the end of the summer. You know your family needs one to recharge from a stressful season. But unless you booked a hotel somewhere, agreed on a date with your spouse, cleared time off with your job, or included any other human being in the decision-making process, the vacation is just a maybe.

You can have the “maybes” too

Even though a calendar is sacred territory for the musts, you are allowed (and should) keep track of the maybes. Those familiar with GTD (Getting Things Done by David Allen) would classify these tasks and projects on a Someday/Maybe list. Build a collection of the things you’d like to do or even should do, but still lack a clock running on them. Productivity authors and coaches encourage people to review these maybes on a frequent basis, either once a week or at least once a month.

Other lists you can keep are a Hold list for tasks waiting on someone or something else before you can complete it. A Today list or Next Action list can keep track of the very next tasks that are necessary to move the ball forward. Have all the lists you desire, but keep them away from the calendar as much as possible!

Keeping musts and maybes separate helps them thrive

Productivity is one of two crossbeams by which we move through life. By productivity, I mean the management of our time and resources to complete the tasks and projects we commit ourselves to. At the core of productivity is the calendar, which is both the windshield and review mirror of our lives. It helps us see what’s coming up next and where we’ve been.

The second crossbeam is Purpose, which refers to the reason why we’re living in the first place. Behind your work, your relationships, your habits, and your interests are a lot of WHY’s. These “WHY’s” are puzzle pieces that you can fit together to see an overall purpose for living.

The musts and maybes of our lives are waters flowing from two streams — productivity and purpose. The things you’d like to do with your life are areas of purpose you wish to explore and discover. It’s the realm of creativity. And some of the musts that float in our hearts find their way to fertile ground, where they sprout into something stronger than a maybe. Now it’s become a must!

Take for example someone who wants to explore Paris one day. Thoughts of visiting France, seeing the Eiffel Tower, and savoring the culinary empire of the world captivates the imagination. But no language courses have been purchased. No hotels booked in Paris. No flights scheduled for takeoff. This idea is only a maybe.

One day our French-loving soul is hanging out with a friend who also wants to visit France. As they both share their dreams, those maybes get excited — so much so that on a whim, one of you pulls out a laptop and you both book a place to stay in Paris! Your flight leaves in 2 months. Now this maybe has because a must, because there is something to lose if it doesn’t happen: you disappoint a friend, lose money on the reservation, or experience regret of not following through.

A lot of other musts will spring up: setting aside time to pack, take a language course, contact your phone carrier, etc. Since these all have been hallowed by a deadline, they must be carefully tracked on a calendar or a good task-manager. They can’t remain stashed away in your scrapbook or left to chill in a filing cabinet somewhere.

Keeping the musts on a calendar and the maybes in some kind of archive allows you to live at the intersection of Productivity and Purpose. You won’t have to live at the mercy of your commitments (which results in burnout) and you won’t have to feel disconnected from enjoying life for what it is (resulting in depression).

Time-management is more about life-management than anything else.

How to implement this idea

Block off an hour or so to take a 12-week glance at your calendar. If you see any to-dos that have virtually no risk (in other words, they’re maybes) migrate them to a list of their own (A Someday/Maybe list, notebook, or filing cabinet).

Now do a brain dump of all the things that HAVE to get done in the next 4 weeks. If you need inspiration, you can glance at your email inbox, paper tray, or messages to be reminded of commitments you already made. If any of these obligations have a deadline that will result in great damage if unfinished, put them on your calendar. You can also put reminders on certain days if you wish as well if you wish.

Review the maybes and musts in about a week (More on this in Chapter 5) to keep your life at the intersection of Productivity and Purpose.

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