Get Organized with This Time Management System Inspired by Airline Crews
Photo above: Left: Belle in Canterbury, England on our spontaneous vacation that sparked this article. Right: Some of the keys to the system.
How important is getting organized? Well, sometimes it can make or break your romantic vacation to France.
Belle woke me up early at 5 am one Saturday morning, so excited that she was already wide awake. She had a surprise planned for me and wanted me to get dressed to go somewhere. What could she be up to, I thought?
She wanted it to be a true surprise, so we grabbed a quick breakfast and I started driving us through Southeast England. Maybe we were going on a day trip to London? I had no idea.
Eventually, we took an exit that ruled out everything other than the Eurotunnel to France. She then told me she had grabbed our passports before we left.
We made it through to France with no issues and were soon driving to Wimereux, a picturesque coastal town with wide sandy beaches. After stopping at a bakery for some famously good pastries for breakfast, Belle showed me that she had secretly packed our bags for a weekend in Paris.
I was thrilled because I love traveling and we’ve been close to Europe ever since I moved to England from the US last year. We headed down to walk the beach in Wimereux before driving onward to Boulogne to see their aquarium.
When we approached, there was a traffic jam that was complicated by one-way streets, so we had no ability to turn around. I instantly had a bad feeling about this traffic jam, because there were too many parking attendants who seemed to be taking fees for parking, but were slowing the process down to a crawl. I thought, why are these parking attendants so incompetent?
Pulling up to the crowd, the “parking attendants” turned out to be a group of protesters wearing yellow hazard vests who laughed at our Great Britain license plate as they said something about Brexit. After making us wait for a long time, they let us through. As we drove down the coast, online searches showed that these protests were across the whole of France and roads everywhere were blocked.
After trying to salvage the trip by shopping at Cité Europe, we were again blocked by yellow vested protesters. We parked on the street and walked to the shopping center, which closed in twenty minutes due to the protest. By this time, we were disenchanted with the idea of getting around France and I wanted to drive to Belgium instead. Belle didn’t want to take any more chances on blocked roads, so we headed back to the Eurotunnel, paid a ticket change fee, and decided to spend our weekend in Canterbury, England instead.
On the way back, the customs official flagged me for not having my UK residency card even though I had a valid visa in my passport. While we were taken aside for a delay, I remembered having taken pictures of it on my phone and showed them to the official. He wrote down some information and left. When he returned, he let us through with a strong warning to take my residency card with me.
Fortunately, we had a nice vacation in Canterbury, which made for an enjoyable trip after all we’d been through on our first day. Afterwards, I thought about how we can both organize our life individually to reach our own goals and as a couple to make sure we’re always on the same page.
Your Time is Your Own
The most helpful place to start is to remember that I am in control of my own time. Everything stems from this concept, whereby you take ownership of the time you are given each day. The idea of ownership is one of my favorite Golden Rules.
This brings us to Golden Rule #4: Only use the tool if it saves you more time than it takes you to use. Some people sell complicated time management or productivity systems with strict rules that require constant nurturing.
The law of diminishing returns is at work here. If you spend your too much of your time maintaining a productivity system, that’s taking time away from actually being productive.
Other systems are so basic that they aren’t adaptable enough to be useful. Because of this, I’ve tried and rejected many of them. Instead, I’ve applied the essentialist mindset of an airline pilot to the business world and came up with my own system.
I call it The Golden Goose Guide to Productivity (GGGP).
The Golden Goose Guide to Productivity (GGGP)
As I know from being an airline captain, flying a plane is simple in concept. The difficult part of flying, or performing surgery, or any difficult job, is that they require you to execute a complex plan perfectly using a huge experiential knowledge base. When things don’t go according to plan, they require you to adapt the complex plan perfectly.
I think we can apply what flying has taught me about “perfect execution” to everyone.
The system uses four “pillars” to stay organized. The First Pillar is from the business world: the to-do list. The Second, Third, and Fourth Pillars I’ve adapted from my airline career: the flight plan, flight log, and the checklist.
1. Three Task Lists
In the business world, the priorities can change from day-to-day. Once we know the plan, we use three task lists to execute the plan and track our progress: the Do List, Upcoming List, and To-Do List. They can be shared for crucial shared responsibilities. Importantly, a Task List is different from a checklist, which I’ll explain in more detail in the Fourth Pillar.
2. Plan for the Best-Case and Worst-Case
Nobody takes off without a flight plan. In fact, not only do we flight plan for the best-case scenario, we plan for the worst-case scenario. The same should hold true for any plans we make. A calendar is used while planning because like the flight plan, it gives a visual overview.
Similar to a flight log, a log adds new tasks and gives you a place to reflect or scratch out notes that you need later. It can take many forms, from detailed notes to basic outlines or keywords.
Even something as complex as flying a plane or performing surgery can be broken down into a step-by-step procedure that makes perfect sense once you understand what’s happening.
I’m taking some ideas from modern flight deck design, where only important information matters and flashing lights and bells are minimized unless absolutely necessary. It’s quiet and calm to allow the pilot to focus on flying the plane. In an emergency, information is even more minimized. The same should be true for us. Using the same principles, we will only use notifications when absolutely necessary to accomplish our goals.
You can keep a calendar, log and lists on paper or in digital form if you want; there is no “killer app” required. I’ve tried both paper and digital methods and it comes down to personal preference. For my demos, I’ll use Apple’s productivity tools, which I use at home. If you’re on another platform or use Microsoft Outlook at work, I’ve tested this on many of the most popular apps and any full-featured productivity app (such as Microsoft To-Do, which also permits sharing) should work with GGGP.
GGGP is designed to save time using these principles:
- Remember key information.
- Navigate in the right direction.
- Prioritize the forest without losing the tree.
- Focus on the essentials.
- Reduce unnecessary actions.
Time is given to us by the Golden Goose we need to protect every day. Each morning we receive a new golden egg worth 24 hours of time, and we choose how to use it. Productivity is one of the few ways to reduce cost, maximize our income, maximize our lifespan, and better balance work and life all at once.
I’ve used this system to change industries from the airlines to finance, study for a graduate degree in finance and graduate with honors, and work my way up to management in the corporate world. For examples of using these strategies in the real world, look no further than the wise advice of billionaire and philanthropist Sir Richard Branson.
The First Pillar
Three Task Lists
To keep on top of daily shifting priorities, I use a set of three task lists:
Plus any number of lists for everything else:
- Wish Lists
As we know from reading other Golden Goose Guide articles, language is extremely important, even when it comes to naming a list. That’s why the most important tasks go right to the top of the Do List. Put it on the Do List if it is urgent and must be done. The Do List tasks are designated with the color green for go, like a traffic light.
For tasks with due dates, the Upcoming List is used for tasks that are not urgent, but will become urgent because of a deadline. The Upcoming List serves as an assembly line to flow tasks with due dates from the Upcoming List to the Do List. You decide when to move it onto the Do List and start working on it. Although I usually order my Upcoming List by due date, I also like having the flexibility to prioritize as needed. The Upcoming List is designated with the color yellow, like a traffic light ready to turn green.
To stay prioritized, only add tasks to the To-Do List when they are important tasks we plan to do that are not urgent. This is a key difference from most systems, because it fits with the language used to describe the list. To-Do tasks also flow to the Do List when they become urgent enough to start working on. The To-Do List header designated with the color blue, because it’s advisory.
Maybe you have a list of things you plan to do, but you don’t have to do them. I like to call those “Wish Lists.” These should be entirely separated from your Three Task Lists. “Recreation” is a good example of a wish list, because I might have 55 things on that list, but I don’t want to clutter my Three Task Lists by including them there. Therefore, they go on their own Wish List.
I prefer to keep my work and home life lists separate, so I use one set for each. This helps me to mentally separate work from my home life. Looking at the big picture, we have projects and tasks. It doesn’t need to get any more granular or you’ll waste time organizing it, because you will use a checklist for tasks with many steps. Using my first example, a project might be a vacation, while a task might be bringing everything needed on the ‘Travel’ checklist, including passports.
When should you add something to the Do List, Upcoming List, or To-Do List? At first, you’ll add everything from whatever you’ve been using to store this information – even if it’s only in your head. When you first set up the system, it shouldn’t be difficult to add the critical items first, because they are already on your mind. From that point, let it grow organically. Let your subconscious tell you. I call them Eureka moments.
If done correctly, each task on the list should start with a verb. If multiple tasks can all be accomplished together, it should be all one task. The descriptions should be simple enough to permit you to move the task between lists to recycle the task, like a water bottle. The idea is to minimize the amount of movement from one list to another, and the amount of times you have to check a task off a list. We want to practically eliminate administrative work.
For example, if studying is urgent, it goes on the Do list and we prioritize it there, moving it to the top if necessary. If it can wait, but has a deadline, put it on the Upcoming List. If it’s not urgent and has no deadline, it goes on the To-Do List in order of priority. When we complete an item off the Do List, we can close the task out if it does not repeat. If it repeats infrequently or irregularly, we can move it to the Upcoming List or To-Do List so it can be recycled. If it repeats often or regularly, use a recurring task to generate a new copy of the task.
If you have an urgent item come through, and you are working on a higher-priority item, do as any good airline captain will do and distribute the workload among your crew. That’s why they are there, and you’ll be giving them valuable experience.
Reassess the Upcoming List and the To-Do List each day and when a task becomes urgent, move it to the Do List. In the flow chart: “Is it urgent now?” I define urgent as it’s time to begin work to complete the task by the deadline. What if we can’t remember to check our lists? Then create a single reminder for each day until the habit is formed, or make it part of your morning or evening ritual. I check it each morning. Other than that, you shouldn’t need to cross everything out each night just to write it down again the next morning. Just let any works-in-progress carry forward until they are completed or moved to another list. If you use this minimalist method, once everything is added, it shouldn’t require more than five minutes a day to maintain. If you spend longer than that, fiddling or over-engineering is probably eroding your efficiency.
After our vacation, I found that Belle and I can easily share the Three Tasks Lists or Checklists with each other using Apple’s share functionality. This helps us to check that either of us hasn’t missed something important before we embark on a trip.
Theoretically, you can branch out this system to handle even very large projects, each with its own Do List, Upcoming List, and To-Do List, with any task containing a checklist. Two examples of projects big enough for me to do this are when I sold my house and when I moved overseas from the US to the UK.
The Second Pillar
Plan for Best-Case and Worst-Case
That vacation we took to France where our first day was spent trapped by protesters blocking the roads? A friend and frequent traveler to France had warned me about disruptions, but neither of us had looked ahead. Similarly, planning can save you from even taking off in the wrong direction. Maybe you’d find it’s a better weekend to eat Belgian waffles instead of French crepes after all.
If you understand the best-case and worst-case of each scenario, then you understand the reward and the risk, which is invaluable in knowing the best direction to focus your efforts. You can always adapt your plan to make the most of your time. If after weighing the decision scales, the plan creates long-term value, you can proceed in adding the plan to a task list in the First Pillar. What creates long-term value? Any plan that invests toward your life goals with long-term improvement or gain. Family, happiness, time, money; any of these areas can benefit from a long-term value mindset.
Use the same level of imagination for big decisions. Before moving to England, I went through every scenario to find that staying with my employer and working from home south of London created more long-term value than any alternative.
By considering the worst-case, you might research documents needed for cross-border travel, because you don’t want to be turned around at the border or detained, like my example situation.
As part of this planning, the calendar is a useful visualization of how or where to fit in plans where you need to be at a time and place. I remove all extra information from the calendar until it only shows me where I have to show up. This is my minimalist personal calendar. For me, it’s invaluable because I can plan my trips or activities in one time zone even while I’m in another.
The Third Pillar
This solution arises because the mind works on a conscious and a subconscious level. When your subconscious works something out, it likes to let us know immediately, regardless of how relevant it is in our current situation. These are the sometimes-subtle Eureka moments that remind us of someone or something important.
Sometimes it’s a creative burst of inspiration, but you’re not sure what to do with it yet. The best way to handle ideas is to get them stored in a log and process them later. I use Apple Notes to handle my personal logs for convenience because my phone is always with me and my logs are saved forever, but any application with similar features can be used.
In the office most people will already expect you to understand and know everything that is written down and provided to everyone in your job. To know and apply that knowledge is nothing special. However, to understand and know everything that is not written down sets you apart from everyone else and gives you an advantage. I use a spiral notebook for speed on the job because it’s dedicated purely for one purposes – the log. I’m usually in meetings when I need to write something down, so I put a plus sign (+) to the left of anything requiring my action. If they will take me longer than that day, I’ll transfer them to my Three Task Lists in my next review. When someone teaches me something new or I’m reminded of an earlier discussion, I can easily refer back to the log.
It’s best for heavy usage during the first year on the job to help learn the language, because just like immersion learning, you’re flooded with information from the firehose. Once you’ve established a working knowledge of the job language, you can accelerate learning on your own because the notes you write in the log don’t require as much explanation.
Even though it’s tempting for organized people, the log is not where organization happens. It’s only a place to write down notes as quickly as possible which feels sloppy, but is efficient. It’s a place to sketch diagrams, visualize concepts, and whatever flows from the moment. We build the structure in the other pillars where it’s easier to prioritize.
The Fourth Pillar
Checklists save lives every day. It’s saved me from big problems more than a few times as an airline captain, because my livelihood depended on it. The hectic pace of managing a flight is followed through thousands of checklist cycles, to the point where it was more stuck in my head than the most annoying song that has ever been stuck in my head.
But then, one day, I hit the fuel section of the checklist and realized that the numbers didn’t match. As it turned out, my flight was short on fuel because it was fueled up for Pittsburgh instead of Philadelphia. My airline had swapped planes in the schedule too late for it to be communicated to the fueling personnel in time. I called them up and we straightened things out, but I was grateful for the checklist.
A shared checklist is what we use now as a couple. I’ve added every single thing we might need on a trip and shared the checklist with Belle. We run through it before we travel and it provides an amazing peace of mind. I also use checklists with due dates for our finances.
When you must execute a detailed plan, if you go grocery shopping, for example, instead of using the Three Task Lists, you’ll use the Checklist in the Fourth Pillar and put “Pick Up Groceries” on your Do List, which will remind you to do the task. Once you do the task, you’ll run through your Checklist before you leave the store to make sure you didn’t forget anything.
The checklist is also an extremely important tool because it exposes the undocumented process and forces it to be transparent. If the process can be streamlined or automated, the checklist is where to start, because writing it down forces you to be thoughtful about how wasteful actions can be removed from the process.
At the office, I choose to publish my checklists and make them available for anyone, because it gives others ownership, insight into the process, and the ability to improve it. Both the log and the checklist perform a very important task in maintaining the discipline needed to succeed in the early stages of a job – they prevent you from having to ask the same question twice. If you use checklists, you’ll be setting yourself apart as the person who can’t remember things instead of the person who learns the basics quickly and moves on to more advanced challenges. The process of using and improving them helps to remember how it works.
The Golden Goose Guide to Productivity Flow Chart
This is the Holy Grail if you’re like me and want to see ideas presented in their most basic form – a flow chart that ties together the Four Pillars of GGGP. Click here for a PDF version of the flow chart you can save or print.
Notice that rather than reacting to outside forces and allowing those to drive your day, this workflow is more thoughtful in protecting your time in order to create long-term value. Try it out for two days and I think you’ll find it’s simple to learn, yet effective.
How does GGGP compare to any productivity methods that you use?
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