Ditch Your To-Do List and Get More Done

“Organization and order is my friend.”

 It is one of the many mantras I repeatedly spoke to my children during their early elementary school years.  NOTE: If I make it a point to teach my children a thing, then it is something I consider to be either God-ordered, high value, of great importance or all of the above.

Consider how much time you lose in a week looking for misplaced items, backtracking across town completing errands and obligations, focusing on the fires in your day instead of the most impactful responsibilities in the week.  There has got to be a way to recapture that lost time. A to-do list is the answer!  Or is it?

Did you know that keeping a to-do list can actually decrease productivity and raise your anxiety by creating stress and feelings of overwhelm?  It’s true!  So why then in trying to help them maximize their time and efforts was one of the first things I taught my children to do was “make a list”?  Let’s just say, when we know better we do better.

Cue time blocking

As soon as I found this miracle tool, I quickly changed the way I managed my calendar and basked in the benefits of rewardingly productive days.  Anxiety, overwhelm, and guilt exit stage left.  

A List Is Just A List

How often are the tasks on your to-do list pushed aside for the small fires that pop-up from day-to-day?  How do you feel when you get to the end of the day and your to-do list has gotten longer with very few things actually checked off?  Can you say unmotivating?  The same way we love checking things off the list because it gives us a mental boost and sense of accomplishment (and thus meaning), getting to the end of the day to find that we have nothing to check off the list can cause immense feelings of inadequacy and guilt.  Who needs that?  

Don’t beat yourself up my friend. Chances are, that list was a set up for failure the moment you penned it!  

Science proves that penning a list of tasks you want to get done frees up mental space and can help you focus on the task at hand.  HOWEVER, that same science proves that simply writing it down on a list isn’t the end-all-be-all, and could actually cause more mental distress and internal conflict, thus lowering your ability to successfully complete the task at hand (insert baffled emoji here).  Naturally, this is unbeknownst to us because it’s all occurring unconsciously.  

When you brain dump the clutter of tasks you need to do today/this week/this month without considering their impact, time requirement, and/or expiration date (the date at which it is no longer important or beneficial to complete this task), you actually open yourself up to goal conflict, rigidity, decision fatigue, and pre-occupation (worry).  

Prioritize. Prioritize. Prioritize.

Goal conflict occurs when two tasks compete for your time in terms of their priority or degree of importance. For example, you’ve committed to doing whatever it takes to set yourself up for the next promotion cycle. You’ve also committed to preparing dinner for the family to eat together more often during the week. You add the corresponding tasks to your list of to-do’s and whalah. Both of these are great goals, but they are competing for the same limited time space. This conflict increases internal distress and can contribute to feelings of overwhelm or leave you feeling guilty. One way to eliminate these feelings is to address the conflict by first, acknowledging the conflict and second, intentionally prioritizing the related tasks for these goals. The conflict itself is not eliminated but managed. However, the negative feelings and the overall impact on your mental and physical well-being is eliminated. Taking steps to manage goal conflicts also addresses the dilemma of decision fatigue! Two dirty birds with one stone. Prioritizing your list decreases the number of trade-offs and decisions you are faced with as you navigate your to-do list.

Time Blocking Is A Plan

Have you ever sat down and listed out everything you need to do today, leaned back and smiled at how much you will get done today, and then actually placed everyone of those tasks in a time-slot on your calendar? The result will absolutely change your life! The first time you do this, it will prompt you to either laugh at yourself or cry…quite possibly both. When I first tried assigning time requirements to everything I had on my list to get done in a day, I was absolutely astonished. How could I have ever expected myself to get all of these things done today?

A typical list might look something like this:

I am serious. Are you laughing or do you sympathize?

It was nothing for me to have something like this list written into my calendar for one day! Now, it’s obvious that my children are no longer elementary or middle school-aged since there is no “check/help with homework” or any extra-curricular activity. Imagine what it looked like when, “drop Tre at baseball practice,” or “take J to cheer practice” was included! And don’t have a ministry meeting or volunteer obligation.

Sheer madness. But this is what we do to ourselves when we build these brilliant to-do lists and expect to achieve them with flawless execution. A list is just a list; and in my case, my list was a stress-inducing, guilt-affirming mess.

A prioritized list with target dates and time requirements is a plan! In all your preparation and planning, the two things that make you super productive are captured in the one simple practice of time blocking.  Time blocking your to-do list actually causes you to prioritize and date your to-do’s.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Consider your big overall goals (Day/Week/Month). Review your to-do list and prioritize those that will help you achieve your big goals.
  2. Identify your daily focus. It may be driven by a weekly, monthly, or yearly goal, but productivity comes back to breaking it down into manageable next steps.
  3. Prioritize the task you need to accomplish each day to achieve your daily focus. (Prioritize any tasks that can be combined or tasks that will eliminate other tasks).
  4. Estimate the amount of time required to complete the task and assign a time requirement to your tasks. Be realistic! This one step can derail your progress.
  5. Block (or group) similar tasks/task categories together on your calendar and maximize your focus and energy on like items.
  6. Build-in contingency and be flexible. NOTE: Contingency is NOT Me Time. Self-care needs to be scheduled in it’s own right.  Fires will arise, contingency gives your list some space for the unplanned. It also allows for you to give yourself grace for the days when adaptability takes priority over to-do’s.  
  7. Eliminate those tasks that can remain undone because they really don’t add value or contribute to your overall goals or well-being.  Delegate tasks that could be better completed by someone else.

I will never forget the moment I began time blocking my to-do’s for the week one Sunday afternoon, only to look at my calendar when I had finished and subsequently began to eliminate items from my to-do list in order to incorporate more “white space” into days (literally). I remember getting to the end of the week feeling like I had averted a train-wreck of a week.

Time blocking is a very liberating tool for those of us who find ourselves falling into bondage to our to-do list. First, it helps you set manageable goals, and manage your own expectations. Second, it helps you limit your commitments by priority. Third, it helps you keep first things first, and ultimately helps you become more productive. Tie it all together, and you have improved your sense of mental, emotional, physical well-being, you have accomplished the more important things in your life, and life feels more meaningful and impactful.

If you get nothing else from this post get this: a list is only ever a list!  In order to maximize your efforts, make the most of your energy, and minimize opportunities for stress and overwhelm your to-do list has to include prioritization, time requirements, and target dates.  In essence, your to-do list needs to be a plan…not a list! 

  1. How can you implement time blocking or improve your current to-do list to promote increased productivity and an increased sense of well-being (minimize stress)?
  2. What obstacles does your current schedule or personal responsibilities pose to your ability to practice time blocking?

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