I’ve noticed a trend in the past year or so in productivity circles. It’s called “theming” and has you do tasks on certain days or months according to your theme.
On the surface, it seems like a good plan. Most of the people I have heard rave about have great success. I noticed one thing in common with all those folks: they are either self-employed or run a company. For those people who don’t have absolute control of their schedules, I would argue theming is actually restrictive and counter-productive.
Theming As Batching
The idea behind theming is that you assign a theme, or word, to a particular period. It might be a year, month, week or day. During that time you work on tasks associated with that word.
When this method is applied to days of the week, then you end up with a structure of which tasks you will perform. Some people would say “podcast Thursday” and only work on tasks for the podcast on those days. There might be an admin day where the person would do tasks that were administrative – returning phone calls and emails, setting up files, scheduling appointments.
As a batching tool, theming will allow you to group tasks together and make it easier for you to transition from one to another. So if you have to make three phone calls, it is easier to do it all at once than to find a quiet time three times to make the calls.
Theming Can Cut Down On Indecision
Theming can also cut down on indecision. When you theme a week, you can group your like tasks together and thus have a smaller list to work from.
Having fewer choices cuts down on the overwhelm that leads to indecision. When you have a smaller task list of things you can do at the moment, you don’t have to pick them out from a larger list. You are also able to put the other tasks out of your mind, knowing you will get to them on their appointed day.
So theming can help you group tasks and make it easier to pick out what to do next.
When Theming Goes Bad
But theming isn’t going to work as well for those who don’t have large blocks of time. Most people, especially those who work outside the home, have limited time in which to do things. And with that limited time comes varying demands on that time.
The first place theming goes bad is in its lack of flexibility. Let’s say you have a busy work day, followed by swim practice, a scout leader meeting, and having to make cupcakes for a bake sale. Your evening, which had been dedicated to a theme, is now gone. So you’re faced with the question: do you spread it out onto another day? Or skip it until the next week?
If you spread it out, you are getting away from the idea of theming. But that is better than skipping the tasks.
(I’m going to assume here that the tasks really do need to be done; if skipping them makes no difference, why are you doing them at all?)
So if you have to wait a week to get to the allotted day again, what gets lost? Do you not take care of important emails or bills? Do you stop working on a project that will lead you to the job of your dreams? I think not.
In this way, theming is inflexible for the average person. It’s different when you have large chunks of time at your discretion every day; but for the regular Joe, this is not the case.
What To Do Instead
I like the ability to be flexible, and rather than assigning a specific theme to a time frame, I like to load balance.
I look at what my schedule looks like, and then I start grouping tasks based on where they occur and how much effort they will take. If I have an hour and access to my computer, I can knock out a bunch of administrative tasks. That day may be on Monday, or Tuesday, depending on what the after-work schedule looks like.
When I have a larger block of time, I try to use that for the more brain-intensive tasks such as writing or planning. But if I get to that time and I’m exhausted I move it. Likewise, if I have a block of time I have put toward admin, but I have a great idea, I might choose to spend that time writing.
The secret is knowing how much time I have available, how much energy I have (and how much the tasks take) as well as an overall sense of what needs to be done.
Theming only works well if you have control over your schedule. Trying to fit it in with a typical busy professional will only show off its inflexibility and lead to tasks being pushed off too long. Instead, take a more flexible approach of considering the time available as it comes up, your energy and what needs to be done overall.