Today’s “Big Three” Tasks:
✓ Recount my addiction to task management.
✓ Explore the prevalence of the condition.
→ Warn others of the perils of planning.
My name is Emily. (Hi, Emily!) I’m a recovering planner.
The year was 2019, and this article certainly wasn’t in the plan. You, dear reader, were supposed to know my name only by my exceptionally frequent and exceptionally ground-breaking investigations, achieved with an exceptionally efficient task-management system.
Almost one year ago today, I tore open the packaging, ran my fingers along the binding and beamed: The mostly blank pages seemed to radiate potential. A new daily organizer — the old-fashioned pen-and-paper kind, but with a twist.
January after January, I searched for the ideal online planning system. Todoist. Evernote. iCal. I tried each and, upon lamentable occasions, a chaotic combination of them all. But in 2019, I decided, I’d master the Full Focus planning system, complete with its symbols (such as → and ✓) to leverage every hour, indeed every minute, of every day.
I would reach peak performance as a journalist, athlete, church member and friend. How did I know? Michael Hyatt, the tool’s creator, told me so. So did 300,000 of his closest fans.
I would have four quarters to achieve my goals. My start date: Jan. 2, 2019. Yes, I was one day behind schedule but buoyed by hope — and blissfully unaware that the radical scheduler that promised to give me control over my life would soon control me.
Humans have been time managing since we hunted and gathered. Some 5,000 years ago, Mesopotamians used cuneiform writing to preserve information; the Roman playwright Plautus wrote that sundials chopped the day into pieces. In 1748, Benjamin Franklin observed, “Time is money.”
But what changed Americans’ relationship with time was what historians call the conservation movement. A concern for wastefulness pervaded the public, and in the late 1800s, an engineer named Frederick Taylor asserted that human resources were as limited as environmental ones.
“Taylorism” exploded, standardizing labor protocols to maximize efficiency. Frank and Lillian Gilbreth — the parents of 12 portrayed in “Cheaper by the Dozen” — evangelized Taylorism as vital to home life, testing the most efficient ways to complete household chores, down to 1/2,000th of a second. Efficiency had become an American value.
Neuroscientists say that our brains release dopamine — the feel-good chemical tied to addictive drugs — when we check items off our to-do lists. And in our information-overload, maestro-or-bust culture, that makes sense.
But to sustain life in the digital age, I needed to hack it. Cue the Full Focus Planner — a crisp 300-page volume that arrived on my doorstep every three months.
Designed by Hyatt, a chronically grinning Mr. Rogers look-alike (except he cares more about effectiveness than feelings), it served as a combination of all things organizational: my annual goal map, hour-by-hour calendar, to-do list and reflection diary. It also included other timesaving apparatuses too intricate to explain here. (Sorry, no time.)
Cue also the accessories, such as podcasts, books, virtual coaching and accountability meetings. And cue the testimonial videos of Full Focusers, teary-eyed with gratitude, recounting their conversion.
Air Force officers. Aerial artists. Law professors. Novelists. Systems engineers. Stay-at-home parents. They lived in Sydney, Singapore, Atlanta, Alaska, Italy, New Zealand. And they all shared the same passion.
I quickly learned why: It worked. By the end of Quarter 1, my planner and I had already landed a new job, purchased a car and moved across the country. We had joined a new church, reorganized our financial investments and, in one memorable article, enlightened L.A. Times readers to the medicinal value of monkey testicles.
Hyatt and his tribe were right: It was shaping up to be our “Best Year Ever.”
The Full Focus philosophy is this: Your goals reflect what matters most to you; your to-do list does not. So articulate your dreams, put deadlines on them and map out the steps to get there. Then throw away those sticky notes: Your Full Focus plan is your new, improved to-do list.
The system isn’t cheap. Full Focusers who pair the planner with supplementary courses and events could spend thousands on the framework each year.
It involves learning a symbolic language:
Task completed: ✓
Waiting on someone else: ∕
Delegated it: ○
Deferred to tomorrow: → (Tsk.)
Deleted it entirely: ✕ (Good for you. Probably wasn’t related to a goal.)
Hyatt supports the “elimination of non-essentials,” in the words of philosopher Lin Yutang. Thus, the Full Focus framework starts with a minute-by-minute tracker to identify and shed grave inefficiencies in your morning routine, or “ritual.”
You took four extra minutes packing your lunch. Were evenly sliced apples among your annual goals? I didn’t think so.
One Full Focuser positions his alarm clock in the shower to prevent hitting the snooze button and to jump-start his ritual. “In order to turn it off, I was standing in the shower after running across the room,” he explained to 17,000 of his comrades in the community’s online forum. “It worked wonders.” Many agreed.
Another said he fastened laminated weekday tags to shirt hangers throughout the closet to eliminate trivial decisions that could decelerate his progress.
Once out of the house, Full Focusers pursue their daily Big Three— three tasks that will move the needle on their weekly, quarterly and annual objectives. The analog agenda book breaks the plan into half-hour segments, so Full Focusers can detect a deviation within minutes.
And if your annual goal involves forming a new habit, the trademarked StreakTracker is for you: blank boxes you fill in for each completed task. Fail to get to the gym Tuesday night? In a string of darkened habit-enforcement squares, one will forever glare back at you, un-shaded.
The planner is an extension of the self. One Full Focuser captured a serene photo from a canoeing expedition, the planner spread open on her lap. And when users forget and leave their organizers at home, their comrades reply online in unison: “Thoughts and prayers.”
They share tips for designing planners for their preschool-aged children. (“Makes me so proud,” a father once wrote.) They solicit advice to maximize their sick days. (One was “facing hours and hours of uninterrupted time. I want to make the most of it.”)
As the end of each quarter approaches, Full Focusers complete an eight-step personal evaluation to review both life and annual goals. Some retreat to hotel rooms to reflect, ordering nothing but room service for days.
Most foreboding of all, a countdown bar stretches across the upper-left corner of a day’s page, shortening as the end of the quarter gets closer. Let the urgency sink in, it taunts. Your goals are on the line.
In late summer, it happened: My focus began to blur. I had a death in the family. I was three weeks behind schedule. I simply wanted to rest.
Meanwhile, hundreds of my fellow Full Focusers were engaged in an online discussion about pens.
Color-coding systems. Ballpoint thicknesses. Methods for fastening rulers onto the planner, lest any lines be drawn crookedly. One Full Focuser estimated spending a third of her life in office supply stores. “Going to Staples feels like therapy,” another commented. “You are not alone,” several replied.
Then, a shared disaster. Full Focusers who used erasable pens (to avoid distasteful strike-throughs) were bereaved to learn the fates of organizers left in sweltering cars: dozens of cases of disappearing ink.
“Toss it in the freezer!” one veteran advised. “Your records will reappear. Works every time.”
I was all for keeping a neat planner, but erasable pens? Half-amusing and half-mad, the episode captured an uneasiness I’d been feeling, bit by bit, for months: Full Focus planning had become the focus itself, and for many of us, fear of failure was the Adderall that impelled us.
I also had grown weary of fear-mongering and lecturing. “Nobody ever wrote down a plan to be broke, fat, lazy, or stupid,” a Full Focuser posted, quoting motivational speaker Larry Winget. “Those things are what happen when you don’t have a plan.”
I wasn’t the only disenchanted Full Focuser. A maverick named Chuck posted that he was considering switching back to his iPad.
“Hey guys… talk me off a ledge,” he wrote. Immediately, 56 reinforcements appeared: “You can do this. We are all here for you!”
I’ll never know what happened to Chuck. I submitted a post to the forum to share my impending decision to defect. I slid my planner into my bottom desk drawer and switched to a simple weekly desk calendar for appointments.
Every so often, I refreshed the forum page, waiting for the group administrator to publish my post. They never did.
I recently began calling psychologists to discuss my inadvertent experiment with extreme task-management. I assumed we’d discuss obsessive-compulsive disorders, along with toxic levels of productivity.
I was wrong.
“The ability to instill order in the chaos — to choose priorities and stick to them — that’s the most in-demand skill of the century,” said Todd Rose, a Harvard professor who studies fulfillment. “Trust me.”
Rose was naturally “the more spontaneous type,” and by spontaneous he meant earning a dismal 0.9 high school grade-point average and raising two children on welfare by his 21st birthday. For him, finally identifying his personal motivators — and then prioritizing projects that align with them — is what drove him to found a think tank on the subject.
Rose and other achievement researchers believe that Hyatt’s system works because it provides a tangible, hold-in-your-hands formula to help free spirits follow through on what matters to them. It also helps the fastidious types visualize how their natural tendency to plan can amount to something meaningful.
I took these Type B and Type A theories back to members of the tribe.
Carole Westerman, a Full Focuser who owns a yoga studio in Omaha, Neb., is more inclined to dream up choreography ideas than review the line items in her practice’s budget. That’s why she recently posed with her palms pressed together in a namaste pose — bowing before her Full Focus Planner. Along with essential oils and amethyst, she lives by it.
Meanwhile, when I called Megan Alfaro, a mother who home-schools six of her children and works full-time at her own brick-and-mortar business, she informed me in a chipper tone that, just hours before, she’d once again given birth.
Talk about productive.
I asked if she’d like me to call back after she recovered. “Nah, it’s baby No. 7,” she said. “I’m good to go.”
Alfaro explained that, unlike Westerman, her organized, attentive-to-detail mind relied on the tool not for guardrails, but for assurance.
“I’ve always been going, but didn’t always know where,” Alfaro said. The pages, she added, shout out to her, “Chill out, Megan. You have seven kids.”
The company behind the planner said that’s exactly the mind-set that Hyatt had hoped for. But Joel Miller, who is chief content officer for Michael Hyatt & Co., concedes with a laugh: “To people who struggle with checking every box and using every part of the system: Welcome to the club.”
The psychologists concurred: If it works for you, keep it. Just take heed that the only thing worse than lacking a task-management system, they said, is — well, getting too crazy about it.
“Let’s not all go join some efficiency cult,” Rose chortled.
As I reported this article — and while juggling others — I had to stay organized. That meant lists, goals, deadlines. And with that came a revelation.
In December, a colleague moseyed by my desk to ask about my beware-of-the-planner article. She stopped dead in her tracks, her gaze trained on the Full Focus Planner. It was propped open, right in my line of sight — exactly where Hyatt said it should stay.
My daily Big Three each had a nice big ✓. And the night before, I had replaced my pour-over coffee gizmo with a Mr. Coffee that I could pre-program.
Less delicious but more efficient.
“Oh no,” she said, her eyes wide. She already knew. “You’re one of them.”