Flexible Structures

Most of the techniques which have helped me become more productive and purposeful in life-GTD, morning routines, checklists, long-plans-all share a common theme: flexible structures.

I have a checklist for my morning routine, with items like make breakfast, wash face, do morning review, and brush teeth. Anything that I routinely want to do before leave is in that list. That is what we will call a structure. A collection of items or tasks that you want to complete for a particular reason.

However, reality sometimes gets in the way and I can't get through everything on the list. Sometimes the review takes a bit longer, I run out of bananas for breakfast, or I need to leave earlier for a meeting. When things change you have to adapt. What part of my morning routine can I move or skip so I make it to the bus on time? If I move the morning review to be completed when I get to work, I don't lose anything. I can carry on with my day with minimal impact. This is the flexiblity part.

The benefit of a flexible structure is clear. Having a prescribed plan can reduce the stress in achieving a goal. It means you are more aware of all the moving parts, making it easier to start. More importantly, having a clear inventory in front of you helps to reduce the negative impacts of making changes. You get the same effect-being ready for the workday-while accomodating for change.

Too much structure?

Getting into the productivity space and GTD you might feel like things will get too structured and rigid, to be compatible with your hectic life. After all, reality is change.

The answer, in my opinion, to best deal with this constant change is not to throw out structure wholesale, but to create a flexible set of actions that are held together by a clear and detailed goal or outcome.


So where can these flexible structures be useful?

Meal Plans

Weekly meal plans are a great way of saving valuable time through-out the week and avoiding wasting money on takeout or "oooh shiny" purchases at the supermarket. But what if you don't want pasta on Tuesday as you'd originally planned? No problem just shuffle the meal to another day.

Because you already have the pieces in front of you, moving things around is much easier. You know the consequences of rearranging and are in the best position to do it. If you know that you're bumping chicken teriyaki in favour of pizza, then the chicken has to go in the freezer.

I've dedicated one of my small whiteboards in the living-room to this task. I have the week written out with lunch and dinner dishes* on post-it notes. I can easily get an overview of my food for the week and shuffle things around as I see fit.

Publishing Calendar

I plan the blog out on a calendar a few posts in advance. This is simple, just a calendar with post titles on publishing dates. It's easier to move articles around as I see fit to either put similar topics together or to fit my mood.

Daily Plan

I've recently talked about my daily planning routine. This can seem too prescriptive at first. What if your boss asks for a favour or somebody needs your help? You now have to throw out your plan, and you wasted the time you spent on it. I would suggest that having a daily plan helps you deal with these interruptions better than no plan at all.

Consider the alternative, you're working on Project A with a deadline for tomorrow. You're don't know how much time you have in the day or how long the task will take. You work furiously to cram as much time as possible into this set of tasks. Then your boss comes over and asks you to make some slides by the end of day. Chaos! Now you have two things to do in an unknown amount of time. How much time can you dedicate to either? Dammit! There's a meeting at 11:00! Now you have 1 less hour out of that unknown amount of time to finish two tasks.

You see where I'm going with this, having a plan makes you aware of the time you have so you can better allocate it towards whatever turns up. Maybe you can easily push this task to tomorrow, maybe you have enough time in the afternoon, or maybe you need to tell your boss that there aren't enough hours in the day, with clear evidence. You can look at your daily plan and with confidence say yes or no to a commitment.

So how do you introduce flexibility into your daily plan?

  • Schedule a little more time than you think you need to complete a task. This is a nice and easy way to avoid running around from task to task.
  • Schedule free slots through-out the day to be filled with whatever most needs my attention. Are you need in the flow with a particular project? Carry on. A nuke gets dropped on your lap? Lucky there's a free slot in the afternoon.
  • Have the plan in front of you and look at it as you work through your day. This makes you aware of what's ahead and you can reasses things when the need arises. Being aware of your day enables both focus and flexibility.

Projects and Next Actions

This is akin to the daily plan, but over several days, weeks, or months.

At work, I'm a do it all person. I primarily work on a large EU-funded data science project, but I've also deployed and manage our groups intranet, I've developed an application to help the operations of the group, carried out smaller data science projects for other team members, was part of creating group promotional material, and edited internal communication slides for executive meetings. All in less than a year. Projects pop-up all the time, and usually at the worst possible time.

Having the flexible structure of projects and next actions, together with a calendar, has enabled me to consistently keep these different spinning plates in the air and make decent progress on most all of them. Without driving myself crazy.

Some slides are needed for tomorrow? No problem, these projects will need to be pushed back to make room for that. The server is broken and I can't do any EU project work? No problem, I'll start reading that book on geo-spatial analysis for that other project we need to progress.

New opportunities or commitments might take a lot of your time. It could be a while before you return to Project A. Having planned out the next steps for Project A means that you can return to them with less time and attention investment.

The key for enabling flexiblity with your projects is understanding what your constraints:

  • Have a clear goal for each project. A clear goal is the string that holds your tasks together. you can move actions and tasks within projects around and even reasses an entire task list based on changes in circumstances if you have a clear goal.
  • Consistently review your projects and calendars to understand how you're progressing and how much time you have left to complete tasks.

Writing and presentations

Whenever you write or present something-whether it's a paper for a journal or some slides for upper management-keep your goals right in front of you as you work and be willing to move things around.

The common adage for crafting a great presentation is to figure out what story you want to tell. I always start with the feeling with which I want to people leave. For example:

I want people to feel confident in the team and that our work is valuable

With that anchor in place I make a rough outline of the presentation. This becomes the story that-hopefully-leads to the above conclusion. The various pieces of the presentation can be moved around to best suit the story and build a certain rhythm into the presentation. Do I talk about the team members first or about the projects first? Should I lead with a description of the product or the gap in the market that it fills? As I practice I can easily move content around without much effort.

Almost all the things

Once you start looking out for these flexible stuctures you'll see them popup everywhere. On my end I'm gonna try to incorporate these in more areas of my life and report back on the results. So far they've been helpful.

Have you run into any examples of flexible structures? What can you do now, that you couldn't before?

Have a good one. Until next time.

-- Jay Blanco

* I cannot over emphasize how useful small whiteboards can be. They're relatively inexpensive and you can use them to leave little messages to your significant other, common reminders, shopping lists, plans for the week, temporary important information, the list goes on and on. If you're struggling to convince your partner to keep a board in plain view, write little messages to tell them you care. A cute drawing is highly effective.

** Useful for keeping an eye on your diet