Recently a friend asked me how my to-do list worked.
I replied by saying I keep my list in my physical diary but also use Google Keep for noting things down when I can’t get to my diary (while driving for instance, by talking to Google Assistant).
I sent my friend the link to the article in which I explain my task management plan … and then paused. I realised that in fact I don’t really use that system at all any more.
Instead, I now do something called time-blocking, explained at length in this article by Nir Eyal.
If you had asked me a year ago if I thought I could manage without a to-do list, I would have insisted that the list is the foundation of being organised. And yet, here I am without a to-do list (except for that central one I have in Google Keep) and doing fine.
The foundations of time-blocking
I really do urge you to read the full article by Nir Eyal, and then try out his system, which is explained in detail here. But here is the foundational principle, as explained by him:
Don’t get me wrong—time management practices, like any tool, aren’t inherently harmful or helpful; it comes down to how they’re used. A hammer can be used to build a house or bash someone’s head. When it comes to using to-do lists, getting tasks onto a piece of paper, or into an app, is a very good thing. I do this all the time. No problem there.
What I argue against is the way many people run their lives with a to-do list, as I did for decades. Every morning, when I’d start my work day, the first place I’d look was my to-do list. I’d start checking off boxes, unaware that I was using the tool all wrong. It’s a broken operating system, and I’m glad I’ve updated it.
He offers a downloadable schedule maker and says:
A schedule maker is a tool for building a weekly template for how you intend to spend your time. With a weekly template in hand, you’ll always know the difference between traction and distraction. If you find yourself doing what you planned, that’s traction. Anything else is a distraction.
There’s nothing wrong with scrolling Instagram, playing a video game, or watching Netflix, as long as that’s what you intended to do. Taking a break can be good for us. It’s when we do these things unintentionally that we get into trouble. For this practice to work, you must schedule every minute of your day on your schedule maker. This technique is called, “timeboxing” or making a “zero-based calendar.” (my emphasis)
Yep, you read that right. Schedule every minute of your day. I am sure that sounds deadly boring and controlling. But in fact, it is the exact opposite because of one thing: you build spontaneity into the plan!
For instance, my weekly schedule has a large block of time on Friday afternoons which says: Do anything you like. And I do – sometimes
I read a book. or potter in the garden. Sometimes I go out for a beer with my family (at an outdoor venue, people). And whatever I am doing is clearly marked in my head as okay – no guilt required about something else I “should” be doing.
How it works in practice
Now that I have been doing it a while, I know the pattern for the week. There’s a template in an Excel spreadsheet that I adjust as a I go along (I got the original template here). On Sunday, I write it all down in my diary (which says, for instance, on every weekday: 12.45pm to 1.30pm – lunch and nap. And that means, walk away from your desk, eat lunch and lie down for 20 minutes).
I make adjustments around unusual events (a doctor’s appointment, for instance) and consult that to-do list in Google Keep, slotting tasks into their appropriate slots. And then I just live my life, doing things in an order that makes increasing sense as I refine things. That Friday slot came about because I realised there was no point in allocating work to that time: I just can’t find the energy to do it.
Right – it is 5pm, and the slot I allocated for writing a blog post is drawing to a close. That’s an important thing, done and dusted. Next slot? Catch up on all my newsletters, where I will be looking for interesting things to share in my social media sharing slot on Friday afternoon.
This really is getting things done!
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Main picture: Elena Kloppenburg on Unsplash