Throw Out Your To-Do List, Fix Your Calendar, Double Your Productivity
What if everything you’ve been taught about time management has been wrong?
You were told to keep a task list for your “to-dos” and your calendar for phone calls and appointments. Meetings at work, doctor’s appointments, kids’ dance recitals and soccer games.
But what if you used your calendar to schedule everything?
For example, have you ever taken a moment to think about what your ideal workweek would look like?
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If you’re a freelancer, consultant, or coach, it might include focused time to work on client projects, but also time to learn new skills or to be inspired by others’ work, or to work on your own marketing initiatives.
If you’re a mid-level executive, your ideal week might include one-on-one coaching time with some of your team members, time for a team meeting, as well as time to sit alone to think strategically about the year ahead.
Regardless of your professional role, you may also find that your ideal week—and even ideal day—has some recurring personal things: exercise, time with your family, time to relax or to pursue hobbies.
Mapping all of these items onto your calendar—and making them recurring appointments—is the right way to design your life. It’s a powerful way to stay consistent to those activities that give you the most return, and the most joy.
The Value In Scheduling Everything
My own calendar reflects many of my values:
• I value health, so I time block 60 minutes each day for exercise.
• I value coaching my team members, so I time block one-on-one meetings with each direct report on Mondays as a way to kick off the week.
• I value team alignment and breaking down silos, so I time block a weekly full-team meeting.
• I value writing so I have two to three blocks of time scheduled each week to write uninterrupted.
• I value my children’s education, so I time block evenings after dinner to help them with their homework.
• I value recharging and new experiences, so I block off long weekends or entire weeks—sometimes a year in advance—for vacations, even if I don’t know yet where I’m going.
Using a calendar to get things done is far superior to using a to-do list. Items on a to-do list can sit there forever, constantly getting bumped by things that seem urgent in the moment. And having this list of things that still need to get done is a root cause of underlying stress.
When you master the practice of time blocking—using your calendar instead of your to-do-list—you can literally see your life’s priorities by looking at your weekly calendar.
How does this apply if you’re a/an…
Entrepreneur: Would it be helpful to block time each week to talk directly to customers, review metrics against goals, or coach your direct reports?
Executive: Would it be helpful to block time for your top objectives?
Freelancer: Would it be helpful to set up time blocks each week to read industry blogs or learn how to use new tools?
Student: Would it help to time block study group time and your teachers’ office hours?
Stay-at-Home Parent: Would it be helpful to time block trips to the gym, weekly errands, and bill paying?
Surprisingly, the simple act of scheduling tasks on your calendar—instead of writing them on a to-do list—will free your mind, reduce stress, and increase cognitive performance. Florida State University Researchers showed that the Zeigarnik effect—the stressful conscious and unconscious thoughts caused by unfinished tasks—could be overcome simply by making a plan to accomplish a task—you didn’t actually have to complete the task itself.
As you begin scheduling more appointments, you’ll see your calendar begin to fill up. Before you know it, you might start to feel a bit overwhelmed.
And that’s why you also need to schedule time for “nothing.”
The CEO of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner, wrote a blog post describing how he time blocks “do nothing” time on his calendar. He wrote:
“If you were to see my calendar, you’d probably notice a host of time slots greyed out but with no indication of what’s going on. There is no problem with my Outlook or printer. The grey sections reflect ‘buffers,’ or time periods I’ve purposely kept clear of meetings.
In aggregate, I schedule between 90 minutes and two hours of these buffers every day (broken down into 30- to 90-minute blocks). It’s a system I developed over the last several years in response to a schedule that was becoming so jammed with back-to-back meetings that I had little time left to process what was going on around me or just think.
At first, these buffers felt like indulgences. I could have been using the time to catch up on meetings I had pushed out or said “no” to. But over time I realized not only were these breaks important, they were absolutely necessary in order for me to do my job.”
If It’s Important, Schedule It
You need time to think and spend time with your family, just like you need time for meetings and projects. But it’s easy to assume that certain things will just get done—when in reality, they often don’t.
Kevin Kruse is the author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management .