The results are in and the experts agree: we are abusing our to-do lists.
I know that may sound a bit dramatic, but whenever people get stressed out they by default will turn to making a list of the things they have to do. The idea is that if you get it out of your head and onto paper, you’ll stop stressing about potentially forgetting something. While reducing stress is great, writing it down does not serve to increase your productivity.
The thing about to-do lists is they are a list of things that you needed to get done anyway but you just needed to take the extra time to write them all out. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not criticizing people for making to-do lists (I make them all the time). I just want to emphasize that operating off of a to-do list does not do anything for your time management or your productivity.
Why? Because to-do lists give you no reference to how long you’re going to spend on something which means you have no clue whether or not you’re spending your time efficiently.
What I suggest is to either replace or supplement your to-do list with a to-do schedule. Essentially, instead of jotting down your to-dos at the beginning of any day, you’ll pull out your calendar app and schedule your to-dos for specific times during the day. This will act as a time management worksheet that molds to your day.
A side benefit of this is that it will decrease your chances of procrastinating. One of the reasons we procrastinate is because we will spend so much time making decisions over what work to do (or whether or not to do work at all). When we have scheduled what we are going to do, we reduce the number of decisions we have to make which increases our productivity.
Add Time Management Activities
Pick one day of your week to do some time management activities alongside your scheduled to-dos. One time management activity you can do is to go back at the end of the day and record the progress you made on each item and if an item isn’t finished, estimate how much longer it will take.
You can also make this an activity you build into your schedule. Say you have 9:00am-9:55am blocked off for blog writing and 9:55am-10:00am blocked off for time management feedback. Spending 5 minutes at the end of any of your scheduled to-dos to provide feedback for yourself on the item you worked on will enhance your ability to schedule your to-dos in the future.
Another time management activity you can put to practice with your time management worksheet is to create a rankings feedback system. Instead of typing up descriptions of how the task went for you, rank yourself from 1 to 10 along the lines of:
How far did I get in this task? (1 = hardly got started; 10 = completely finished)
How was my energy level for this task? (1 = wanted to nap the entire time; 10 = couldn’t shake my focus)
What’s the minimum energy level I should have for this task?
How did I do at minimizing potential for distraction? (1 = left a lot of room for distraction; 10 = this was thing open on my desktop the entire time)
How many distractions did I have during the scheduled time?
How many of the distractions could I have avoided?
By keeping a log like this, you’ll be able to give yourself feedback metrics and improve your time management abilities over the long term. You’ll also be able to assess where you have the most energy in your day and start scheduling to-do tasks that require more energy during those times.
Remember, you don’t have to do a time management activity like the examples above every day. Just choose one day a week or one day every other week to provide yourself with some feedback to ensure that you increase your awareness around how you spend your day.
Benefits of Scheduling Your To-Do List
Many people scoff at the idea of scheduling their to-do list.
“So many things come up in my day that it is impossible to schedule things! I’m just bound to be interrupted so what’s the point?”
Well the point was never to be perfect at scheduling your to-do items. I know as well as anyone else that the world doesn’t give a rat’s behind what kind of “flow” we might be in; it will interrupt it with whatever minutiae it determines more pressing. So leave your expectation for perfection at the door.
Even though you’ll undoubtedly be interrupted in your schedule and distractions will inevitably pop up, you’ll have your schedule to lean back on as soon as the interruption passes. This again will reduce you need to make a decision after you refocus on your work. All you have to do is look at the time and look at your schedule and the decision is made for you.
You will also keep yourself from biting off more than you can chew on any given day. When you have to set everything to a schedule, you’ll see it is impossible to cram 15 items into your day. The typical to-do list will have everything you need to get done listed on it whereas a time management worksheet will have everything set to a specific time. If you don’t have time for it, it isn’t getting scheduled which helps to keep your tasks at a more reasonable level and keeps you from feeling like you “failed” since you didn’t get everything checked off.
If you record feedback using one of the time management activities listed above, you can also start to understand your work patterns better and manipulate your schedule so it matches your energy levels. As several successful entrepreneurs have noted, energy management can be much more effective than time management.
One of the greatest benefits of scheduling out your to-do items is that you are much more inclined to break bigger tasks down into their smaller components. With to-do lists we typically lean toward being more broad which ultimately hurts our productivity. When we schedule our tasks, we will put down in more exact terms what we specifically need to get done during the time that it is taking up on our calendar.
Who shouldn’t schedule their to-do lists
This is not a one-size fits all solution to improving your time management. There are some professions where scheduling your to-do list just doesn’t make sense.
For instance, if you are a member of a software support team you likely have a system in place when you get to the office to answer tickets as they come in. As such, it doesn’t make much sense to schedule your to-dos as you have very little way of gauging how long it will take to respond to each person and you can’t leave the tasks half-way completed.
Another example would be someone like a hair stylist who already has a rigid schedule of clients coming in for the day. While you may be able to schedule some time for marketing related activities at the end of the day, the bulk of your schedule is already determined.
To-do list scheduling is primarily for folks with multiple disparate tasks in their day-to-day work who need to perform at high levels of productivity to advance their business. It’s great for entrepreneurs, small business owners, and many creative professionals who often find that they are splitting their focus between tasks.
How do you handle making your to-do lists? Do you scratch a list of things down every morning or do you just work from your head to try and figure out the next most important thing that needs your attention? If you already work from a rigid schedule for your day to day tasks, what have you found to be the biggest benefits? Let us know in the comments below!