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Monday Master Class: The Visual Panic Schedule

Visual Panic Schedule

Busy, Busy, Busy…

I have, once again, entered one of those delightful busy periods that threatens to rip all of one’s best laid productivity plans into a pile of once good intentioned but now useless shreds. The reasons fit the standard litany: end of the semester work colliding with a random cluster of grad student-ey administrative work colliding with three trips in four weeks.

We’ve all been here…

The Panic Schedule

Most students follow a similar strategy to cope with this scenario: the panic schedule. The idea is simple: you list out everything that needs to get done during the crazy period and then make some attempt to come up with a schedule that covers the crunch. Sometimes, however, this mega-list approach fails to provide the desired salve to your aching productivity soul. You don’t trust it. You find yourself constantly reviewing what’s coming up and trying to re-convince yourself work will get done. Deadlines collapse into other deadlines. Too much work is squeezed into too tight spaces, and soon your days fall back into chaos.

In this post I want to describe a simple variation to the panic schedule that helps me both plan busy periods and remain calm throughout.

Go Visual

For me, my panic schedules begin and end with the visual. Specifically, the first step I take when faced with a busy period is to print a blank calendar for the month(s) ahead. (I get my blank calendar templates from this web site.)

I then follow, roughly speaking, a process that looks something like this:

  1. List out all the projects that need to get done during the hard period. Label each with its deadline.
  2. Add all deadlines plus relevant travel, appointments, and other date-specific obligations to the calendar. (I tend to draw dark boxes around these items to make them pop out.)
  3. Estimate the number of work days needed for each project.
  4. Start adding project work days to the calendar. I sometimes invent extra visual flourishes to help distinguish certain important work. This helps me quickly visualize exactly when the most important projects are going to get done. (A necessary stress reliever.)
  5. Shuffle, edit, and tweak until you feel confident that no one day is unrealistically packed and everything has a place.
  6. Panic when you realize there is too much and you can’t satisfy (5). At this point start canceling and negotiating. Following the 4D method, you might start getting rid of obligations or re-negotiating different future dates for non-urgent tasks. Then go back to (5).

Case Study: My Visual Panic Schedule

I’ve included at the top of this post a scan of the visual panic schedule fueling my May. Notice the visual improvisation. I have stars around the editing work for my big research paper due next Monday (because not getting this done is a particular source of worry). In some places I added arrows. The big deadlines and travel dates have nice drop-shadows because, as everyone will admit, drop-shadows are awesome. Etc.

The big picture idea here, however, is that I have taken a lot of work that has to get done in a short period of time, and then made the plan to handle it visual. A 10 second glance at the calendar reassures me that everything will get done and that the schedule makes sense. A long list containing the same elements would not provide the same relief. My mind sees a list and thinks: “This looks long, is this really going to happen?” And then it stresses. On the other hand, it sees this calendar and can say: “Oh, I edit today. Good. ” And then it relaxes.

It’s a simple trick to improve a common strategy. And like the best simple tricks, its impact is significant.

17 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: The Visual Panic Schedule”

  1. Great tip! I think it’s very important to put everything down on a piece of paper so you know it’s there and you won’t have to panic about forgetting something important or remembering a deadline. Thanks for the insight.

  2. really interesting tip. 😀

    I’ve just been reading all your posts on studying and strategies since my semester will still begin about a month from now. I hope I get at least a few of these up and running by then. 🙂


  3. @Cory:

    I’m jealous of your iPhone. Does it run iCal?


    Excellent. Next time I have a block of free time I was thinking of putting together a sort of “best of Study Hacks” eBook collection to make that type of crash course easier. Maybe I could recruit someone to help me with that…

  4. @Study Hacks:

    I might be able to help. Depends on the study load at that time though; no problem if it’s this month. I feel like I’ve read a lot of the posts already lol.

  5. heya! I use the n95 for calendars. If u turn the active display on in the SymbianOS phones, the day’s activites will be displayed like a list. A pic of this :

  6. Heys Cal! sorry the link like vanished in the prev comment. Just click on my name and u can see the screenshot of active standby :D! But imho, the paper calendar that I stick on my wall with deadlines and “Most Important Tasks” of the day is the main calendar that sets my phone’s one :).

  7. I use iCal to schedule things up. Usually I add tasks as all-day events and then shimmy them about and schedule up my day in the morning or the evening before.

    When things get too busy, like you I plan out the whole two/three week bocks in advance.

    @Cory: I’m pretty jelous of your iPhone, I’m fed up with copying my schedules out in the mornings!


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