There’s something really satisfying about writing a to-do list and then checking off tasks as you work. In fact, I bet we’ve all written something down that we’ve already done just so we can check it off, right?
But let me ask you this: do you feel like you’re good at managing your time and tasks? Can you take a break and actually enjoy it without feeling like you should be doing something “productive”?
Because here’s what’s weird: we often love using to-do lists, but simultaneously think we’re bad at managing our time and tasks. And really think about that – if the time management system you’re using makes you think you’re bad at time management, well, it’s not the right system for you.
I used to love my to-lists, too. But then I realized my use of to-do lists was actually contributing to my stress – oftentimes creating more stress than the work itself. This happens for three main reasons, and all three of those reasons are why we should break up with our to-do lists and why we should fall in love with a different time management technique.
Flexible time-blocking in a digital calendar (and yes, even you paper lovers should check this out, too). So, let’s dig into those three reasons.
Reason 1: Your action items are scattered – so, you are, too
Most people have multiple to-do lists, to-do’s written in notebooks, in soon-to-be-forgotten phone note apps, in email, buried in meeting notes, and in post-it notes stuck to their computers.
When action items are scattered across all of those places, you don’t have a single clear view of everything on your plate, which means you definitely don’t have a clear view of how you’ll get it all done. Or if you can get it all done. Especially if you take that break tonight.
And that uncertainty causes a whole lot of stress. Because you don’t know how/if you can get it all done, you stay trapped in “productive mode,” constantly whirring around to give yourself the best shot of getting it all done. Enter, overwhelm and exhaustion.
Instead, we need a system that shows us all of the things on our plate, across all of our roles (personal and professional), and how we can get them done over time—in one view. To understand how we’ll get everything done, we need to know when we’re going to do each thing, how long the thing will take, and whether it fits with everything else you plan on doing that day or week.
This is where your digital calendar comes in handy. Using a digital calendar, you can plot out all of the activities and tasks. You can plan for when you’ll do each thing, how long it’ll take, and see whether it fits with everything else going on that day.
Unlike a to-do list, this lets you see everything in one place and gives you clarity about how each thing can get done over time – including if you take some downtime.
Reason 2: Decision-fatigue-inducing mental gymnastics
To-do lists are great for laying out what needs to be done, but they fail – and fail hard – when it comes to showing you how those things will be finished.
For example, let’s assume you have one master to-do list where all your action items live. Every time you sit down to do something (which happens multiple times a day), your brain has to decide what to do. That requires a ton of mental gymnastics. While everything looks the same on a to-do list, some things take five minutes and some things take five days; some things require you to be on your A-game, while others can be done when you’re tired. Some things require a colleague to be working, while others can be done at 9 p.m. But a to-do list doesn’t tell you any of that, so you have to perform those mental gymnastics every time you sit down to work.
Instead, use a system that lets you assign tasks to time (preferably once or twice a week during a planning session) so that you conserve your energy for the actual work. Want to call the doctor on Tuesday during your lunch break? Schedule it. Want to put together that slide deck during your best energy window on Wednesday? Schedule it. Need to call your friend who’s going through a rough time? Schedule it when your time zones line up.
Using a digital calendar to flexibly time-block your tasks and activities helps you set-it-and-forget-it regarding when you’ll do each thing, avoiding the decision fatigue that comes with constantly having to run through every possible scenario to figure out what to do next.
Bonus benefit: Once you schedule the tasks, you can cross them off your to-do list. They’ll pop up exactly when it’s time to take care of them, so you don’t have to have those things stare you down and stress you out between now and then. Ah, more peace of mind.
Reason #3: To-Do List Defeat
How familiar does this sound: you rock your day and get this huge project off your plate. You’re feeling good! You go to cross it off your list, and all you see are the 84 things you didn’t get done. Your state of pride quickly deflates, and the stress of getting those other things done takes over.
This is what I call To-Do List Defeat. That defeated feeling to-do lists cause that is completely unproductive and unwarranted. In no world would you get those other 84 things done today, but for some reason, because they’re on our to-do lists, we have this compulsive feeling like we should have gotten them done – and because we didn’t, we beat ourselves up.
No, thank you.
We need a system that helps us focus on and celebrate what we did accomplish, not fixate on what we didn’t. This, again, is where a digital calendar shines. By laying out when and how long each task will take, you get realistic about what you can get done today. In addition, those other 84 tasks now have their own separate time protected to get them done in your calendar in the future, so they’re not pressuring you to get them done now. Because of this, when you hit a day out of the park, you get to stay in that frame of mind. And when we feel accomplished at the end of each day, it’s a whole lot easier to get up and do it again tomorrow.
It’s time to switch up that system
At the end of the day, if you think you’re bad at time management, just know that you’re not – but your system likely is. If you’ve relied on some combination of to-do lists, post-it notes, and scattered to-do’s in the past, give time-blocking – and flexible time-blocking – a whirl. Aim to get 95% of everything that requires your time represented in your calendar, and give yourself the freedom to move your tasks around as curveballs hit. And then reap the benefits of having a clear game plan of how you’ll get it all done, less decision-making-power spent each day figuring out what to do next, and more nights going to bed feeling accomplished about today and calm about tomorrow.