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Discussion Forum > The (maybe) Incredible "Timeless Calendar"

MrBacklog,

<<I can see this system could create quite long lists of deferred tasks. A robust system to handle deferred tasks would be great.>>
(from Blog Post "Real Autofocus?" at http://markforster.squarespace.com/blog/2017/7/19/real-autofocus.html )

Earlier this year, I finally found a way to do this. I call it "sequencing," as opposed to "scheduling."

Scheduling is the practice of assigning all deferred tasks a specific time block, e.g. writing them on a calendar. Unfortunately, this is one of those plans that rarely survives contact with the enemy: it requires constant reshuffling of your calendar as tasks take unexpected amounts of time and other schedule constraints shift. These difficulties have led to the common advice that the only items you should write on your calendar are those intrinsically tied to a specific date/time.

That's great, and it leads to a very stable and reliable calendar, but then how do you defer all those tasks *not* intrinsically tied to a specific date/time?

My favorite approach is the "Analog Kanban," which I've lamely described here: http://markforster.squarespace.com/forum/post/2660575 . But since no one is likely to follow that writeup without a picture, and I'm still not interested in making one, here is something roughly equivalent... and maybe easier... and maybe something I want to try! (not that the kanban is lacking, but it's always fun to try something new)

The Timeless Calendar!

Imagine a calendar without dates. It is just a grid, approximately 7 blocks across and 5 blocks high, each block able to hold about 5 items. You could make one on a spreadsheet or word processor. Unlike our daily AF-style lists, this is probably best done digitally rather than on paper, so that we can easily move items around.

To defer a task, write it into one of these blocks. As the blocks begin to fill up, you will have a map of "what comes before what," a.k.a. a sequence. I will clean out the garage after I've unpacked the boxes in the basement. I will read Book B after I finish Book A. I will start writing the report after I check in my code for the current release, but before I accept any bug-fix tasks. No matter what system I use, these sorts of little decisions are always on my mind, floating around with nothing to stick to... unless I give them an Analog Kanban or Timeless Calendar to stick to. Then they stick there, and they leave my mind alone!

Each block in the Timeless Calendar becomes a batch of tasks that you have decided belong together, and you are able to record all these decisions easily and intuitively. It is just like writing them on a calendar, but they never need to be reshuffled--at least not merely due to the passage of time. You only need to reshuffle when actual priorities have changed. Pretty quickly, you develop a static picture of what is coming up, so that future priorities are off your mind and not popping up fresh on your catch-all list, and I find that this cuts way down on what I write on the catch-all, as most things that come to mind are already tucked somewhere appropriate on the Analog Kanban / Timeless Calendar.

One more word about the vertical axis: I see each row as a separate topic/thread/category with its own time line. As you write things into these blocks, you may find that you've grouped home chores and projects into the first row, work items into the second, personal concerns into the third, etc. The idea to is group things together which truly flow in a sequence, such as reading a certain book before another book, whereas I probably don't care whether I clear all the clogged drains before or after I finish the book. So I write "clear drains" in a different row from the books; maybe "clear drains" belongs in the same row as "spray weeds." Things that have a natural sequence (to *you*) belong in the same row, whereas others do not.

We can't have 37 different rows, of course, or we'll never get our heads around it all, so I recommend something about calendar size, or five rows. So you will be forced to group together some things that don't really have an intuitive sequence, but just do whatever feels best to fit things into the limited rows. Maybe I will indeed end up deciding not to clear drains until I finish Book A. If that feels like the best compromise, fine; I can write it in, and be done with the matter, because it's there in black and white, and I won't forget. If I end up stalling on reading the book, I will eventually see that the drains have suffered for spurious reasons, and I'll drag them into a more suitable block.

When you check your calendar for today's tasks to write on your list, check the first column of your Timeless Calendar(tm)(lol) for a few items to pull onto your list as well. As you finish these items, strike through them on the timeless calendar. When a timeless block is finished, the block to its right comes into play. There are all sorts of ways to manage this: delete the finished blocks, move them onto a "Done" page, number them all so you can have a sense of momentum ("I'm on block 29 in the first row but only on number 14 in the second row; I guess I should focus more on the second row for a while...")

And so forth. I may like this better than the kanban. There is something more streamlined and elegant about it... if it works!
July 24, 2017 at 3:18 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
I like the concept!
July 24, 2017 at 4:43 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Thanks Bernie, that is interesting.
I notice my deferred task list is about 170 task items already so I may be a bit on the extreme end. Not a problem as I know I will clear them all in about 10 days so ok to just work through. The list will fill up with new tasks of course, but I have worked out that I turn everything around in about 10 days so that cycle works fine and keeps everyone happy. I'm no longer freaked out by having a large to do list as I now know how long it will clear.

I actually use my email as my task list, so it is not really practical to move them all into blocks.
As they are automatically sorted into date receipt order, then easy just to plough through.
However, I can see for those that have a much smaller task list it would work fine.
I'm finding the least work I do in managing my lists the better. Email seems to work well for me, but I know a lot of time management gurus say it does not work well. I beg to differ...
July 24, 2017 at 11:15 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
@Bernie, this post got me to your previous post of Analog Kanban. And and even "without a picture" I followed it! What jumped to mind is if you could combine your Analog Kanban with time. So that in addition to or somehow instead of "Result<--Project<--Goal<--Ongoing" you had now..today..week..month..year...life (or such). I read Analog Kanban and had this immediate thought, held off on comment until read this post, as wondered if that is what you suggested with "Timeless Calendar". I'm not sure if you do. As this time, I do believe I need a sketch to understand :)

Good either way, as now you have me further exploring.
July 24, 2017 at 20:48 | Registered CommentermatthewS
MrBacklog,
I've always hated email as a task list. More power to you!


matthewS,
You win the prize! You are the first to admit to comprehending that mess.

To me, the Analog Kanban's strength is that it is not tied to time. If I'm busy for a while, I can come back to it without reshuffling, dismissing, reallocating, or other rejiggerings. It's just there. Yet its progression of sizes (small Results, manageable Projects, large Goals, never-ending Ongoings), is very similar to a time progression. You might call it a timeless time progression.

The Timeless Calendar does not have that feature, not the way I've written it up here. It's just a train of same-sized batches, which works better for a deferral tool. I thought of it in the context of Mark's RAF deferral stage (in answer to MrBacklog's question), where the task is to take a collection of line items and find places to write them for later. That's a different application than what the Analog Kanban was designed for, but they share a common mentality and many features.

You certainly could put a "log scale" on the Timeless Calendar blocks by writing ever larger things toward the right. That would make it more similar to the Analog Kanban but less of a tool for RAF deferral.
July 25, 2017 at 7:40 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
I finally made a picture of that Analog Kanban! See afore-linked thread.
July 25, 2017 at 8:58 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
I love this idea Bernie! Do you have a picture to help visualise it?

The way I visualise it is a bit like an iPhone homescreen where the apps represent your blocks. The blocks can be shuffled around to suit priorities and if you insert a block in space 2, then all the other blocks shuffle along one place and the one at the end of the row moves to the row below (does that make sense?)

I like the idea that you could place things that you would like to do in the future a few rows lower down. That way they are out of the way and not cluttering up your current thoughts, but still written down for future reference. This system is also great for deferral - blocks can be moved to a more suitable place in the future.

This last week, I've been working on a method that sounds similar, but, ironically is based completely on time zones! I should write it up on here.
July 25, 2017 at 10:30 | Unregistered CommenterDAZ
DAZ,
I can't think of a picture that would help; it would look like a calendar with some items written on it but all dates missing.

What I have in mind is not that the blocks move, but the line items in the blocks move, in the same way that you move items on your calendar but not the days (blocks) themselves. You might be calling these smaller line items "blocks," as they are indeed smaller blocks sitting in the main blocks. In that case, we are saying the same thing.

The other major difference between this and a regular calendar is that I imagine each row is its own timeline, running in parallel with the other rows. In contrast, a calendar's rows run in series, with lower rows coming after higher rows. On my grid, I see the entire first column of blocks in play at once. When a block is complete, it vanishes (with a satisfying sound effect!) while its row shuffles to the right. The other rows proceed at their own paces, shuffling only when their own left-leaders are done.

Why do I see these rows in parallel? Because most tasks do not have a sort order between them that makes any particular sense. I want to finish one book before I start another, because they draw from the same "well" of time and energy, and likewise I want to finish one home improvement project before starting another; but it probably does not matter whether I finish the book before or after I start the project... unless I am using the same corner of my schedule/routine to do both my reading and my home improvement. Most people probably are not.

I see the deferral question as simply "What comes before this task?" If any two tasks had a clear order, I could defer them into one long list and never again thing about what comes next. But most pairs of tasks are unordered. Only a pair drawn from the same category of time/schedule/routine/energy/project have an order. I can't imagine how to articulate a formula for that, except to say that if it's not obvious which one comes first, then they probably don't belong in the same row.

You will need, then, enough rows to put the major threads of your life in order such that they can each progress at their own natural speed without traffic jams that force you to re-sort the whole thing. If we had computer brains, we might end up with 59 rows, allocating a new one every single time an item failed to fall into order. As humans, though, I recommend no more than five. That still leaves plenty of "lanes" to weave through the traffic, and realistically, it only matters that your first column is sorted properly, because that's all you are actively working on.

I hope that makes more sense!
July 26, 2017 at 4:28 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
Bernie,

Sorry, but I can't understand a thing of what you are saying. And that's why DIAZ asked for a visualization. I second it.
July 26, 2017 at 17:37 | Unregistered CommenterIlse
Bernie:
I get it!
You may want to have a look at Trello as that is a Kanban based system and certainly does a good job. Also, it might help with the visualization of what Kanban is all about and your idea might fit in very well with that.
I just Trello but just for the checklist part. Very useful to have something online to easily pull up a checklist to cover a process. I've always been a fan of checklists as you don't have to do much thinking and just follow the steps....
July 26, 2017 at 17:50 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
Let me try to distill this for people (and hope I get this right):
Take a large sheet of paper, divide into a grid of 7 horizontal squares by 5 vertical squares, with a category label to the left of each row.

when you defer an item, make a stickynote and write that item on it. put that in a square in the appropriate row. feel free to move sticky notes over to get this new item in the right spot in terms of priority among things on the same row.

When reviewing this table, you may take an item out of the left column and put it back in your working list. If you do, other things in that row may be moved left to fill the gap.

In addition to the above, I gather somehow Bernie's system will allow multiple items on a single square. I'm not clear how that factors in.
July 26, 2017 at 23:28 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
MrBacklog, Yes, Trello is similar but it won't let you see more than one row at a time. You would have to make several "boards," each board as one row, and then imagine them all stacked up.

Alan, you're pretty close except for the part about moving one item out of a block and it causes others to shift. Maybe there's something to that idea, but it's not what I'm proposing.

Really, mine is just a calendar without dates.

So... you know how you write items on your calendar right now? That. That's all I'm saying. Except, what if the calendar waited for you? What if it didn't turn to the next day until you finished the current day? What if you always worked from that first day of the "week," and when it was finished, you pulled the next day's contents into it? Why not? If none of these items are time-determined, "hard-landscape" items (because those don't belong on a "calendar"), then why not? If we're only talking about the items that normally slip on your calendar anyway, then why not call a truce? Stop the madness!! Quit letting those blocks push you around. I'll work on this block here for five whole days if that's what it takes! And when I'm done, I'll work on the next block. Maybe I don't like it taking five days, so I learn to write less in each block. Or, maybe it's fine if each block is really a week. Time is frozen, so what's the difference?

It's a train of box cars. Each box is full of goodies for you, and instead of whizzing past you, it has broken down and stopped. Easy pickings! Okay, except one train isn't quite enough, because of the sorting problem I mentioned. Putting *everything* you are doing into one queue is what drove us crazy in the first place, right? (What do I do next? Huh, huh? So many priorities!!) So we get a few trains, a few threads of life to give us some context to sort by. Each row is a broken-down train. Box cars lined up side by side, looking down on it from above. You end up with a stack of rows. You get to work through them at your own pace. You've deferred your work into a few parallel sequences of your choosing, and it won't all fall apart just because you guessed wrong about how many can fit into a day.

As for shuffling, moving blocks, watching them shift to the right... Nah. Not really. All I mean is that when you finish all the goodies in the first train car, you get to dig in to the next one. You might implement that as the deletion of the left block and the pushing leftward of its row, but it's not really about that. Moving items around inside the blocks? Yeah, sure, just like you do now on your calendar; nothing special about it, just moving things to wherever you want them to be. Only, you'll have to do it a lot less, because we don't care how many times the sun rises and sets before we finish a block. Instead of being FORCED to reshuffle our items almost daily, we'll just do it when we've actually changed our minds about something, or received new information, or missed an actual opportunity, or seen a new one... something REAL, not just paper shuffling to keep up with a "date," a made-up number that has no bearing on these items anyway.

I can take a screenshot of my calendar and cross out the dates, if that helps. Better, you can take a screenshot of *yours* (wink) and cross out the dates. Then I won't need to anonymize it!
July 27, 2017 at 7:22 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
@Bernie, if I understand this correctly, could this easily be done with a spreadsheet? instead of a kanban system? as a spreadsheet has columns and rows, while a kanban only has columns.
so for online, google sheets instead of trello or asana (now has kanban feature).

true you would need to manually cut and paste instead of whoosh auto move, yet this should do it. although I'd be interested in figure how how to do with paper. sticky notes, pencil and eraser? otherwise if cross out and rewrite in, the rows would keep move down? or something?
July 28, 2017 at 3:11 | Registered CommentermatthewS
Sure, matthewS, the quickest way to implement it would be a spreadsheet or a word processor table. I mentioned that in my first post, but by now that was some-thousand words back! You can use the computer's clipboard to cut a task from one block and paste it into another.

For a paper solution, you can use any calendar that shows a month to a page, and ignore the dates. Use pencil so you can erase and rewrite, although you shouldn't need to do that too often, since time is frozen. When you finish the tasks in the first block, "X" it out and proceed to the next block.

If I were to implement this, I would use an app called VUE (Google "Vue Tufts" and you'll find it). It is a free-form mind-mapping/outlining program with some rather interesting features. If you drag a node onto another node, they become nested; and if you drag more nodes onto it, they stack up neatly inside the outer node. When you drag an inner node out, the ones below scoot back up to fill the space. So you can set up several of these "outer" nodes and drag and drop the inner nodes between them, making it perfect for building a Timeless Calendar. You would have to make the calendar blocks by hand, by creating 35 rectangular nodes and arranging them–I think the app has an auto-arrange that will pack them into a grid. Then start dropping smaller nodes onto them, and you're off.

Kanban apps can almost do this, but I don't think I've seen one that lets you make a 2D grid of blocks that can hold tasks. They usually want you to make one row. Swim lanes could get you there, but that usually costs extra. Vue is free.
July 28, 2017 at 3:39 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
@Bernie, yes, you did mention spreadsheet. Opps, sorry about that. So I've been looking and there are a huge new range of various spreadsheet, kanban, database, project manage software as a service products. Not sure if any of them could be used for your idea? Some do feel close. A few have at base level free version. I have NOT tried these.
Airtable. Domo. Wrike. Projectplace. Smartsheet.
What I assume is sort of needed is a spreadsheet with draggable cells?
July 28, 2017 at 15:41 | Registered CommentermatthewS
matthewS, I don't know whether I've ever seen a spreadsheet with draggable cells. I was thinking of just copying and pasting the text. Any old spreadsheet or word processor will do it.

Specifically, if you make a spreadsheet with cells tall enough to hold about five lines, then you can type five things into one cell, separated by carriage returns. You'll just have to find out how to type a carriage return into the cell. On my MacBoookPro, I can type option-Return to get an embedded carriage return inside the text I am typing, without the app treating it as if I've pressed the enter key to stop data entry. Windows has this too, and it varies depending on your keyboard, so you just have to experiment and Google it a bit, if you aren't already familiar with the concept. If you're really desperate, you can type the multi-line text into NotePad and then copy from there into the spreadsheet cell, but I don't imagine anyone would put up with that for long.

Once you are typing multi-line entries into your cells, triple-click usually works to select one whole line when you want to move it. Once an individual line item is selected, you can cut and paste to some other cell, or you can try the drag-and-drop feature that usually works on selected text, if that turns out to be convenient/smooth enough for your taste.

That's all I had in mind, really basic. The only app I know of that does anything more convenient is Vue, which happens to be pretty perfect, even though it wasn't intended for this.

There may be a drawing or outlining program that can conveniently drag and drop text rectangles from one container to another, but I don't know of one offhand.
July 29, 2017 at 4:38 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
Another idea - Both Zenkit (https://zenkit.com) and Airtable (https://airtable.com) allow different views of the same data. Calendar, Kanban, list and spreadsheet views. I do most of my work in the Kanban view but often switch to calendar view to get a feel for my next few days or spreadsheet view to sort and/or filter by various criteria. All views are completely editable so you can work in whatever view is most comfortable.
July 29, 2017 at 13:14 | Unregistered Commentertomcal
tomcal, that sounds like a useful feature.

BTW, several times over these last posts, I've described items moving/shuffling to the right. I actually should have said to the LEFT. When the leftmost block is done, the next block to the right comes into play, which is like scrolling all the blocks to the LEFT. Sorry if that confused anyone.
July 29, 2017 at 19:24 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
Here's a picture of a Timeless Calendar. I actually entered some realistic tasks.

http://i.imgur.com/aKapdAi.png - a Timeless Calendar sample

Read each row from left to right (and by a "row" I mean the large blocks labeled A through D). Lower rows are *concurrent* with upper rows, not like a standard calendar in which lowers come after uppers. See how each row has a loose theme—NOT an official straight-jacketed "category" that you have to conform to, just a theme that has arisen by grouping similar items together. The themes would evolve naturally over time. You don't ever sit down and "figure out a good set of themes." You just keep putting things in a natural sequence.

This is *sequencing* as an alternative to scheduling.

The blocks do *not* represent a unit of time. You might finish three blocks in the first row (i.e., all the tasks in blocks A1 through A3) while you finish only one in the second row (B) and don't do any in the other rows (C, D). At that point, you could decide to focus more on the other rows to catch them up, or you could decide to keep following the momentum in the first row. It's all up to you. They are your tasks after all, and you've written them here because they are not time-based (no upcoming deadlines, no scheduled appointments...) so they do not belong on your regular time-based calendar.

The music practice that I wrote in row D could be considered time-based. If you have a plan to do 30-day blocks back to back and you will be disappointed if there any gaps between them, then you should write those on your regular calendar instead. But by writing them here, the implication is that I'll start each 30-day block when I am ready, and there may be gaps in between them. Once starting a 30-block, if my intent is do 30 days in a row, I would write a daily reminder on my regular calendar until the 30 days are up. Then maybe I'll feel like taking some time off before the next 30-day practice. Or not.

I created this grid in Vue ( http://vue.tufts.edu - free download, any OS). The reason I left gaps in between the major blocks is they give me a place to click when I want to deselect. Otherwise, due to how Vue works, I would be in constant danger of clicking and dragging a major block when I really want to drag the minor blocks. I could lock the major blocks into their own layer, but then they would not be drop targets for the minor blocks.
July 29, 2017 at 19:58 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
@Bernie thanks for all of your spreadsheet tips, I did not know all of them. Guess what I just found!!?? This is for Google Sheets. Drag and Drop cells! In my search, it seems Excel has this as well, however I do not have Excel to test.
Now I just need to get back to testing this with your idea. As that is what is really important. (yes, I must be always a task project tester person, spending more energy fiddling with the tech or methods rather that what needs to be the focus ... )
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Google Sheets
Rather than cutting and pasting, you can drag and drop cells to move their contents. Select a cell, then hover the mouse over an outside edge of the blue box. The cursor will turn into a hand icon. Click and drag the cell to its desired location.
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Excel
To move some information in Excel using drag and drop, first select the cells you want to move. Next, hover over the edge of the selection until you see the cursor change to a symbol with four arrows. Then, just drag the selection to a new location.
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July 29, 2017 at 23:29 | Registered CommentermatthewS
@Bernie great that you put up examples, now very clear what this is.
Questions: the far right column, 7, would you suggest to have A7 yard, B7 read, C7 web, D7 music? And then maybe on some of the other columns, scale somewhat in between? So that perhaps B7 is read, B6 is learn world history, B5 is Europe and Asia, B4 is Asian history books, B3 is a list of books in the Asian history category and so on, so that there is also somewhat of a project structure or hierarchy? Could even have 7 cover two rows. A7 and B7 be wedding and then A be guests and B is events? Sort of a simple Ganntt chart, with no actual exact time limits. Although maybe my wedding example is not best, as that does have schedule. However, could be something more general, such as get fit. The kind of goals people get stuck on as they never hit their exact dates or even know when they start what the dates would be. Where with your method, get in shape on far right and on far left is directly to begin learn fitness walking.
Am I still understanding your idea correctly or going too far in wrong direction?
thanks again
July 29, 2017 at 23:46 | Registered CommentermatthewS
matthewS, that is good to know about Excel and Google supporting drag & drop at the cell level! In that case, you could make boundaries between rows of major blocks (like between the A row and the B row) by inserting one row of empty spreadsheet cells. So, e.g. spreadsheet rows 1-5 hold the items in all the A blocks, then row 6 is empty to act as a boundary, and then rows 7-11 hold the items all B blocks. Horizontally, the first column of rows 1-5 would correspond to my A1, the 2nd column of rows 1-5 would be A2, etc. Then skip row 6, and the first column of rows 7-11 would be B1, second column of rows 7-11 would be B2, etc. I first thought of doing this with borders between rows A and B, but if you drag the cells around, pieces of the border will probably drag away with each cell. So a row of empty cells is better, perhaps with a gray background, and set the height of that whole row to just 3pt or so.

The project planning structure you're describing is what I do with my Analog Kanban. I have a few big items on the right, and they branch out into more smaller items as you move to the left. You could do something like that with this grid if you wanted to, but I find that awkward with predefined rows and columns. I find that a big-picture map begs for free-form space and branching.

I wrote up this Timeless calendar as a deferral method, so the idea is you have a stream of unstructured items coming at you, most of them just individual tasks, that need to be given homes, and you need places to tuck them away in some kind of order. I see it as a bottom-up approach, whereas the project/goal map is a top-down approach. If I found a big project taking shape in my Timeless Calendar, and it was sort of begging for more structure, I would move it to the Analog Kanban ( http://markforster.squarespace.com/forum/post/2660575 for those just joining us).
July 30, 2017 at 0:23 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
matthewS, LibreOffice has drag & drop for spreadsheet cells too:

Moving Cells by Drag-and-Drop @ LibreOffice.org
https://help.libreoffice.org/Calc/Moving_Cells_by_Drag-and-Drop
July 30, 2017 at 6:51 | Unregistered CommenterBernie