Do you have a daily to-do list? How often do you check off every item on it? If you’ve been a reader of this blog for any amount of time, you know I rarely take hard, uncompromising positions. In fact, I pride myself on the personalized, iterative approach I bring to productivity when working with my clients. After doing this work for a while, however, I have one very strong opinion:
To-do lists are trash.
The reason most to-do lists are useless is because they’re divorced from reality and effective time-management techniques. You put a bunch of tasks on a piece of paper with little regard to how long they’ll actually take you to complete. Instead, you’re motivated by a sense of pressure that you have to do everything TODAY.
Here’s the cycle: you make a list of things you absolutely have to get done today. You then finish about half of them and move the other half to tomorrow’s to-do list. Tomorrow, you’ll only finish about half the tasks again. The to-to lists start getting longer because each one is littered with yesterday’s leftover tasks. You get more and more discouraged as the week goes on, because you’re further and further behind. That list that was supposed to keep you organized is now a symbol of everything you can’t get done.
The only way to effectively manage your tasks is to effectively manage your time. Here’s the approach I use, introduced to me by the life coach Brooke Castillo: On Friday afternoons, I make an exhaustive list of everything I have to do the following week. Personal, professional, etc. I then put a time estimate next to each. If it’s longer than 75 minutes, I see if I can break it into more than one task. For instance, if I have to edit an article, I’ll create a task like “complete first read – 75 minutes.” Once that’s complete, I start scheduling. I put every single task into my calendar. During the workweek, I schedule a time for lunch and a time for a break. I also try to overestimate my time predictions by about 10%. If I think something is going to take an hour, I usually schedule about five extra minutes (Note: if you haven’t learned effective planning strategies, overestimate your predictions by 25%). Once I schedule everything, I throw the list in the garbage.
Now, you might reach the point where everything on your exhaustive list doesn’t fit into your calendar. What do you do? You come to terms with reality. This might mean saying no to some requests, half-assing it on some tasks to get done faster, asking for help, expanding your work day, or becoming more efficient. It might mean doing all of the above.
I decided to use this approach for a few months before sharing it with you, and it improved my life considerably. Here’s what you can expect:
You’ll create realistic goals – and actually achieve them.
This is of course the greatest benefit. You’ll feel more in control, and won’t dread looking at your to-do list (because you won’t have one!). You won’t be left wondering how you’ll find the time to get everything done because it will all be scheduled.
You’ll work faster.
You’ll be surprised at how much you can get done during the time you allot for a task. Let’s face it, we all procrastinate or prolong tasks we don’t want to do. When you enforce the discipline of a schedule, you’ll work with the time you have, instead of against it.
You’ll get better at prioritizing.
Once you accept that you can’t do everything, you’ll become more selective about what you do. This is a skill that won’t just benefit your planning – it will help you throughout your life. You’ll learn how to say no (because with this planning strategy, you’ll get a lot of practice). Rather than working in a reactive mode, you’ll be proactive and choose what goes on your calendar. Before you know it, you’ll be prioritizing with ease.
Here’s some homework for you. Today or tomorrow, write your exhaustive list of to-dos for next week. Then, schedule each and every one of them. Look at your calendar and answer the following questions:
- Do I actually have enough time to get all this done?
- If not, what has to change?
Share in the comments or @ me on Twitter (@janejoann): how do you structure your work week?