There’s a moment when even the most orderly to-do list needs to be transmuted into action. After you’ve labored to identify what you must do, comes the crucible of figuring out when, exactly you’re going to do it. And then, once you’ve done that, you will inevitably have a meeting crop up that will require rejiggering it.
Such time-sink adjustments are what time-blocking software Reclaim promises to eliminate. The smart service says it can save up to 40% of your workweek by optimizing your schedule and making sure your to-dos have scheduled time to get done.
What is Reclaim?
Reclaim is a currently-free service that bills itself as a time-blocking and productivity tool. You sign up with your email and sync personal and work calendars through Reclaim, giving the service access to write events and decline them on your behalf. From there, Reclaim will use machine learning to “defend” your work time by moving around your priorities based on the time you have, and declining meetings once you’re fully booked. When you have more flexibility, your calendar will appear more open to others, but as you become busier, your calendar will reflect that as well.
At its best, Reclaim will give you a clear roadmap to getting your work done. It can also show you (and your boss) that you don’t have enough time to actually get your work done. Both are valuable outcomes.
The service is primarily the types of occupations that are often done remotely and on a computer, but it could also be used to schedule personal projects in blocks of off-time. The company says data is encrypted at all times, and it only stores data that is necessary for the software to work.
How to get started with Reclaim
After you’ve signed up and your calendars are imported, the real work begins. Start with Settings, along the left rail menu. Inside, you’ll be able to choose the privacy settings for your calendar events, and whether you want Reclaim to account for travel time and give you a buffer to decompress after meetings with video conferences.
You can change the colors of different types of events, which Reclaim will also track and send you a report on each week if you’d like. For example, you can see what percentages of your time are spent in “solo work” or “team meetings.” This feature, and Reclaim’s tracking in general, will probably be more useful to people who work in larger teams or organizations.
As a solo person without many meetings, I didn’t find this tracking all that necessary, but more on it below.
The most important option in the Settings menu is the “Hours” submenu. Here, you’ll set your overarching working hours and personal hours for each day of the week. These are the parameters Reclaim uses to schedule your activities.
You can set more than one window each day, so Monday’s working hours could be 9-5 while Tuesday’s could be 9 – noon and 3-6. These aren’t meant to be changed from week to week, so if you know a child is off school on a Thursday a month from now, you’re better off blocking out that day individually than changing your working hours in Settings.
Experimenting with these settings will help you visualize what your work week will look like if you took a regular afternoon off, or have certain hours of the day inaccessible because of childcare needs. Perhaps you can still meet all your deadlines ending your work-from-home day at 4:30 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. and using the last half hour for exercise.
Adding Tasks and Habits
Once your calendar events are inside of Reclaim and you’ve established your working hours, you’ll likely want to add habits and tasks. Habits, in Reclaim, are recurring activities that you want to make time for, such as “Daily Planning,” “Lunch,” or “Exercise.” You can adjust the amount of time you want to spend on each activity, the window in which it should ideally occur, and how often each week you want them to be scheduled. In addition, you can change the “Time Defense,” or priority level, which designates how hard Reclaim will work to prevent having to move these blocks.
Reclaim will rearrange habits and tasks around your other obligations, but if it runs out of permutations, the block will be locked and immovable.
Currently, Reclaim can be connected to Slack, Google Tasks or Zoom. Connecting to Slack allows for managing calendar events and Zoom integration imports events (and is likely one way Reclaim knows which video conference events you need to decompress after). You can RSVP to Reclaim events from inside Slack, and the bot will update your Slack availability based on your calendar. The Google Task integration syncs tasks between the two services. More task integrations would be a game-changer of an upgrade, as I’m currently putting everything in manually. Integrations with other systems – including Trello, Asana and Todoist – are planned, which would save a lot of time for users of those services. While duplicative entry time is a problem I’ve encountered with other services, the payoff in Reclaim is high enough that I’m willing to put up with it.
I’d love to see what would happen if Reclaim was adopted by a corporate team or department and used regularly. Would people accept that meetings couldn’t be scheduled?
What does a Reclaim schedule look like?
For me, Reclaim has been a great tool to incorporate as part of my weekly review and forward planning. Recently, I made sure all my tasks and deadlines were in Reclaim, then let the Planner run. Looking at the next two weeks of committed work, including exactly when that work would get done helped me see that a new project I was considering accepting needed to have a longer lead time to fit into my schedule.
If you overcommit, you’ll see a list of items in the Planner window under “Unscheduled.” These are events that Reclaim wasn’t able to schedule based on your work hours and other commitments. From there, you can move these around to schedule them yourself, or change the priority level on other events to accommodate them.
Reclaim’s co-founder Henry Shapiro said in an email that while users can drag events to schedule them outside of their working hours if they need more time, Reclaim won’t do it for them. Rather, the goal is for people to “reflect on their limited amount of time and make these trade-offs,” he said – surely a memento mori for our times.
Since users will be syncing personal and work calendars, Reclaim’s privacy controls are detailed. You can choose how you want events on each calendar, task, and habit to appear to you and to others. You can also tweak the autoresponse Reclaim sends on your behalf when it’s guarding your time. If you delete your account, the company says your data will be erased within an hour.
How long does it take to adjust?
I’ve been using Reclaim for several weeks now and it’s taken at least a month for me to feel like I’m getting into a useful groove. It’s not a terrible time investment and so far the payoff is good enough that I think I’m likely to stick with it.
If you don’t complete the work that Reclaim scheduled for you, you can delete the block or mark it as not done in the planner. Then it will get reshuffled back in according to the parameters you already set.
To use Reclaim most effectively, I also informally divided my projects into dependent phases. For instance, completing an assignment might take 10 hours, 3 to research, 3 to interview, 2 to write, and a final 2 to edit. Since I can’t write the story without the interviews, it makes sense to put each of those chunks into Reclaim sequentially, with the scheduling windows for the latter phase occurring after the earlier ones. That way, Reclaim won’t block off hours for a project that you’re not ready to use.
Reclaim has its quirks
Sometimes Reclaim would split up tasks into shorter blocks than I thought made sense. Often, I’d rather keep working on one project throughout the day instead of switching among three. It was easy to adjust the blocks once they were in place though, and the system reshuffled after my edits, sort of like how a maps program responds when you take an alternate route or miss a turn.
If you schedule over a block within 30 minutes of its starting time, the system can’t adjust well. You’ll need to delete the block entirely to reset it.
The biggest risk with Reclaim is that you still don’t build enough slack into your system. You have an elegant arrangement of work blocks that gets shot to hell when you realize you forgot about a project or an appointment, or a new meeting gets scheduled. Perhaps you fail to put in enough breaks in your day. Part of me believes that these are solvable problems, but a larger part worries that this might just be a beautiful smart calendar that sets you up to fail. I’ve noticed that I need to build in breaks and times to check email or prep for meetings. Habits are likely helpful here, but you’ll need to be thoughtful about the scope of all your work, including the administrative stuff.
To avoid the worst of those outcomes, one option would be to use reclaim on a limited basis. Block off a chunk of time in your day for projects or focused work and let Reclaim defend those hours only, leaving other space open for meetings. This would work well if your office has designated “maker” (or meeting-free) hours, as some have experimented with.
You could also restrict a habit like email to a time in the day when you know you’ll have the right energy for it, like the afternoon.
All-day events like an anniversary, birthday, or holiday throw off Reclaim. These events are usually just reminders – you might be “attending” but you’re not actually busy. For example, Reclaim interpreted my father-in-law’s birthday as an event that precluded scheduling any tasks or blocks, taking a whole day out of my schedule. I had to change that all-day event to a shorter window outside of my working hours, or move it to a non-synced calendar, in order for Reclaim to readjust my assignments.
A smarter, saner schedule
Overall, Reclaim is the type of smart software advancement I’d like to see more of. It tackles a meaningful, complicated, and quotidian problem well. Even marginally improving how people’s days are scheduled can make a real difference in their quality of life and work, and there’s never been a more important moment for that than amidst a pandemic, scattered among homes and offices.
Turning a list of tasks into a concrete plan is one of the most difficult parts of knowledge work. Reclaim will work best for people with some autonomy over their schedules and who can reliably estimate how much time they’ll need for their tasks. If you’re just starting out in your career, be generous in your estimates.
Reclaim could also be a useful tool for forward-thinking managers to use with their reports. It can make visible how much work time is left over after meetings. Much of this is visible through a cursory glance at a calendar, but having a weekly report that says a worker spent 70% of her time in meetings and only 20% of it in solo work can ground anecdotal experience. If whole teams and departments are showing similar numbers, that could be a much-needed wakeup call.