In 2006 I came up with the idea for the cell as a sort of shipping container for managing creative work. The cell is a portable four-hour block intended for use by creative professionals as a unit for both the planning and accounting of time.

I had two design criteria for the cell. The first was that I had enough contiguous time to concentrate: an hour isn't long enough, but an entire day was too long, since I need to take care of business farther down Maslow's pyramid—like eating, for example. The second was that I'm not always in the mood to carry out the tasks I prescribe myself, so I wanted a unit that was convenient to shuffle around. This idea sat dormant for the better part of four years until last week, when a friend and I decided to give it a shot—paper prototype style:

We began with a 19x24" sheet of bristol board which we cut in half lengthwise, one half each. We then divided the width into eight three-inch slices: seven for the days of the week and the eighth to serve as a hopper for unallocated cell-sized tasks. We wrote the tasks onto 3x1" Post-It flags. In this particular model, we wanted to highlight projects we were taking on individually and those which we were doing together, which is why I made two rows of AM/PM cells, to reflect a typical work day. The top half is for my own projects and the bottom for teamwork. Kim laid hers out slightly differently, using the third row for collaborations and the fourth for notes. I quickly realized my design had a redundancy and amended it to reflect a synthesis of the two:

The first thing we noticed was that we could colour-code the tasks to distinguish between individual and collaborative efforts, which meant that the nature of the tasks did not need to be encoded onto the board. The other item that became apparent is that after an optimal eight hours of sleep and an estimated four hours of basic custodial activities, there is half a 24-hour day left, or room for three cells. Since our patterns of productive activity aren't exactly the most conventional in the world, it makes sense to just say that there are three slots per day, irrespective of precisely when they occur. They could align with the morning, afternoon and evening, or start at noon and go solidly until midnight.

Task Decomposition and Aggregation

The actual heuristic to turn tasks into cells is one that I had been obliquely considering for some time, and is part of the reason for stalling on this idea for so long. For some reason the other morning, a suitable procedure just materialized for me the other morning, right on the spot as we were about to fill our calendars for the week.

The first consideration is that a given task is extremly unlikely to fit neatly into a four-hour cell. Therefore, we must cut large tasks apart and pack small ones together. The second is that the nature of creative work is representational, and representations are discrete. This means that at the end of four hours you've either made progress or you haven't. Therefore, we should tailor each cell to produce a conspicuous result, erring on the side of caution that we'll have something to show for it when the time is up. The third and possibly most important consideration is that production without a consumer is meaningless, so we ought to consider for whom we are producing, even if the consumer is ourselves.

To produce the list of cells I took an ordinary sheet of paper and wrote down all the entities to whom I currently had obligations of work (including myself) and wrote their names down on the left side, with even space between them (there were five or so). I then worked left to right in columns, stating what it was that I had agreed to deliver, then the next action I needed to take to do it, then splitting and merging those actions until I had a list of cells on the far right. Again, Kim did hers slightly differently, putting the page in landscape orientation with the consumers in columns across the top. When we were done, we transcribed the cells to the Post-its and put them on our boards, most in the hopper but we allocated a few right away.

Results

We did okay for a trial run, each completing a portion of the activities we had set out to do. Both of us encountered unexpected diversions, which, while productive, weren't in our respective hoppers at the outset. It's important to recognize, however, that the cell calendar isn't intended to prescribe activity but merely afford it, because for creative work it rarely matters precisely when we carry out a task or even in what sequence. It does matter, however, that we carry out a given task at some point or another. I deem the exercise a success and expect to get better and more productive the longer we use it.