There is no shortage of blogs and resources on how to effectively manage our time, however there is a problem with the tools that are available to us. To-do lists and calendars are both restrictive, each in their own way.
The problem with flat to-do lists
Keeping a to-do list is a great way of taking the individual items off your mind to allow you to focus on the task at hand. However, problems arise when your list grows overwhelmingly long. No one wants to scan a long list of tasks, before they choose what to work on. Not only is a long to-do list de-motivating, but picking a single item to work on creates a sense of opportunity cost. No matter what you choose you will be left feeling “Is this the optimal use of my time?”
Have you ever wondered why when you have too much on your to-do list you end up checking your email every few minutes, or surfing the web instead of working on your tasks? Psychologist Barry Schwartz explored the effects of having too many choices on our well-being. Schwartz found that when people are faced with having to choose one option out of many desirable choices, they will begin to consider hypothetical trade-offs. Their options are evaluated in terms of missed opportunities instead of the opportunity’s potential. This increases our negative emotions. He argues that eliminating choices can greatly reduce anxiety.
The problem with number ratings
Too often to-do lists try to solve the problem of prioritization with a priority number system. Something like 1 for high priority, 2 for medium and 3 for low. The problem is that high or medium doesn’t mean anything unless you define it. Unfortunately, the usual attempts at such definitions is a categorical description. e.g. high for a task with major impact. In reality this only shifts the ambiguity by one layer, because terms like major and minor are just as subjective as high and medium. In my experience, number ratings end up being a waste of time. When such systems are deployed, all tasks eventually get assigned a number 1.
The problem with calendars
Daniel Markovitz wrote an interesting post explaining the problem with to-do lists. He suggests “living in your calendar” as an alternative. This way you can look at your calendar and immediately find out what you need to work on next. There is no choice of tasks. The obvious downside of this method is the large overhead of putting every single task in a specific calendar spot. We need a speedier approach! Something easy to stick to.
In addition to the large overhead flaw, calendars solve the problem of too much choice by offering no choice. It is on the other extreme of the choice scale. Forcing rigidity and inflexibility into an otherwise flexible schedule will only set us up for failure. If your creative juices are flowing, wouldn’t it be a waste to work on something mechanical just because it’s what you put in your calendar?
The solution – Give yourself just the right amount of choice
The solution is to break down your long to-do list into flexible milestones. The milestones can be weekly, monthly or anything else that fits. Think of it as a marriage between a to-do list and a calendar—splitting a long to-do list into small manageable chunks. This allows for greater flexibility than “living in your calendar”, while keeping your choices limited. How is this method superior?
1. Ease of planning
Splitting your tasks into rough time-frames adds less planning overhead than giving each task an exact slot in the calendar. You only need to decide roughly when you want to get a certain task done. It’s enough to say I’ll put it in for next week.
You can more easily shuffle things around as you go. Unexpected things happen, and being able to handle the situation and quickly re-prioritize your work is invaluable to getting things done. Quickly adapting your schedule is an invaluable skill to acquire.
3. Give your milestones context…
… when you can. Working towards incremental goals is motivating and allows you to celebrate your incremental successes along the way. If you can split your milestones in such a way that each milestone represents a goal, go for it. For example, if you’re working on a website, one milestone can include all the tasks you need to do before the first launch of your site. If you’re writing a book, it can be the first chapter of the book. If you’re working on a project for a customer, it can be all the tasks you need to do before your next meeting with the customer… and so on. To keep your schedule flexible and keep room for the unexpected, you can vary the milestone length as needed.
4. The right amount of choice
When it comes to choosing your next task, you only need to look at your current milestone. It’ll give you a good range of alternatives, yet not too many to lead to a decision-making paralysis.
Please tell us your thoughts about to-do lists and other task management tools in the comments below!
Photo by robstephaustralia.