Do you ever find yourself staring at your to-do list, only to wonder how you’re ever going to get it all done? You’re not alone. It’s common for most people – especially busy entrepreneurs – to feel like there’s more to-do list than there is day.
Thankfully, there’s a research-backed way to fix this issue and get your to-do list under control: timeboxing.
In 2012, Daniel Markovitz published a scathing analysis of traditional to-do lists in the Harvard Business Review. His central thesis? Humans set themselves up to fail with to-do lists.
There are two main reasons that using a traditional to-do list sets us up to fail. First is the fact that we horribly overestimate how much time we have available to work on a task, and underestimate how long a task is going to take us. And second is pure human nature: we tend to pick the easy, quick-to-finish tasks off our list, so that we can cross them off and feel accomplished. But over time, this strategy means we put off the longer, harder, more important tasks in favor of the quick and easy ones. Sending that email. Writing that social post. Etc.
So, how do you fix the pitfalls of the traditional to-do list? By employing a timeboxing strategy.
Timeboxing is a simple reorganization of your to-do list which makes your calendar the holder of all tasks, not a sheet of paper or a sticky note. It works like this: every time you have a task you need to accomplish, box out time for it on your calendar. Many people treat their calendars as placeholders for calls and meetings only, with large blocks of whitespace in-between to tackle all those to-do list items. With timeboxing, your calendar becomes meticulously scheduled, with each of your to-do list items nestled into a specific day and time.
This timeboxing strategy has a couple of clear advantages over a traditional to-do list. First things first, it forces you to evaluate the worthiness of a particular task. When you employ a traditional to-do list, there’s no harm in adding “just one more thing”, and so every conceivable task makes the cut, creating a list a mile long, and tasks that seem to get pushed from week to week in perpetuity. With timeboxing, since each task must immediately be given a dedicated block of time, it forces you to think strategically about what you choose to spend your time on. Does something really need to be done? Could I delegate this to someone else? Will this task push me and my organization closer to our goals and missions? Timeboxing forces you to face a finite amount of open space on your calendar, pushing you to make those tough calls about what tasks do and do not make the cut.
The second advantage of timeboxing is that it allows you to become much more productive. Parkinson’s Law states that we allow tasks to fill the amount of time they are given. Think about a recent project that sat on your to-do list for several days/weeks, and that you attacked in chunks “when you had some time”. If it took you a total of 4 hours to complete over time, do you think it could have been done in 2 if you had given yourself a dedicated, uninterrupted box of time to complete it? Chances are many of your projects could be completed in less time if you scheduled them and held yourself accountable to working on that task and only that task during that time. Timeboxing allows for this, increasing your overall output and productivity levels in the process.
Finally, timeboxing allows you to become much better with managing deadlines. Even for long term projects, which traditionally sit on to-do lists for many weeks or months as we favour “urgent” over “important”, we will inevitably cram in more and more of the task as we approach the deadline, causing much stress and throwing the equilibrium of our schedules out of whack. With timeboxing, you can schedule recurring blocks of time each week to tackle these long-term projects in even periods over time, ensuring that consistent progress is made, and that you don’t find yourself in a scramble at the last minute.
Now of course, there are always going to be emergencies and other items that pop up throughout the day, so one important part of timeboxing is to be sure to schedule daily time for the unknown, and for the often unimportant but nonetheless required tasks of returning emails and phone calls. But be sure to stick to these tasks only when your calendar tells you to…if you’re battling your inbox all day long, you’ll never be able to fully commit to timeboxing.
As technology makes the pace of our work faster and faster, it’s important that we find better systems to control our time and manage our projects. Timeboxing is one such system, and the perfect way to take control of the broken to-do list method, bringing peace and productivity back into your life.