Is the “to-do” list really dead?
In short – yes – but not for the reasons you might think.
Recent marketing from many different sources talk extensively about the death of the “todo” list. The most recent favors a method called time blocking, as popularized by Nyr Eyal in his book Indistractable.
Imagine if every week you gave yourself time to think about your most creative projects. Time during the day without meetings, emails, or alerts where you could simply knock out the top few things that you’ve been meaning to do – and already knowing what they are without additional thinking about it. A feeling of surety that when you close down your computer to spend time with your friends and family, that your day is free and clear to do just that.
Having a system with rails that allows you to let go and stay in the moment.
Presence. That’s the promise of personal productivity systems. But do they deliver?
Enter Time Blocking
Time blocking is a technique where you “block” off time on your calendar, dedicated to accomplishing a specific task – or group of tasks. Time blocking is marketed as an alternative to keeping an open-ended “to-do” list of things you want to get done.
The problem is that time blocking is only a part of the story – and if done incorrectly, it can be disastrous to your productivity and peace of mind.
This is because, when deciding what action to take in the moment, “time available” is only one of a series of factors to consider. In addition to time, you need to look at the urgency/priority of the things you want to accomplish, your energy level, the tools available (context), as well as your inspiration. All information that you don’t know in advance when making your calendar decisions. Information you do have, intuitively, when in the moment.
Additionally, most people have many commitments that they want to accomplish at any point in time. There’s simply no way these items are reasonably going to fit on your calendar. Incompletions such as this are a prime source of that constant nagging feeling of “I know I was supposed to do something, but I’m not sure what I forgot.” Even if you could add every commitment to your calendar (or daily “to-do” list), you’d be constantly moving items from one day to the next as your world changes.
Not exactly a recipe for sending yourself positive “I can do it!” messages.
The Sacred Calendar
Instead, it’s essential to look at your calendar as sacred territory. Consider this quote from David Allen, author of Getting Things Done:
“You need to trust your calendar as sacred territory, reflecting the hard edges of your day’s commitments, which should be noticeable at a glance when you’re on the run…those that you absolutely have to get done on that day. [..] Three things go on your calendar: time-specific actions, day-specific actions, and day-specific information.”
I’ve heard to-do lists called “amorphous lists of undoability.” Adding a bunch of incomplete, unclear items to your calendar in “time blocks” moves your distraction problems from one place (your “to-do” list) to another – your calendar. And that’s hardly a win.
In the best case, you end up wading through a bunch of irrelevant information every day. In the worst, you end up feeling so overwhelmed that the whole thing gets thrown out the window.
Time blocking as one piece of a system
I do like time blocking as a concept and entirely agree that it’s critical to block off distraction-free “doing” time in your day. This time is time that you set aside, interruptions off, to work on your projects. The time may be themed or not. For example, a few hours per week blocked off writing can be a great use of the time blocking technique.
I do not, however, have everything I want to accomplish on my calendar. Instead, I block off distraction-free time as “doing” time. This is time that I am free to go through my actions list and work on the things that, given my time, energy, environment, and intuition, are the items that feel appropriate to handle in the moment. Some of this time is devoted to deep work – writing, reading, thinking. Other time is devoted to shallow work, such as checking email and responding to alerts.
Time blocking is just one part of a fully functioning productivity system.
The Focus Ladder
Based on the Focus Ladder, the specific productivity system that I use and teach, which combines some of the best techniques from multiple sources – including Simpleology, Indistractable, First Things First, and Getting Things Done.
We use the Focus Ladder to finish our thinking. This technique ensures that we have clear targets for the things we want to accomplish – not only task-oriented items such as “build our new home,” but also behavioral-focused items, such as “meditate twice per day.”
The actions are the bookmarks/reminders for the next step needed to move forward toward the targets. I block out some time every week to update those actions and targets and ensure that I’m moving forward on each during my “Indistractable” time.
Yes, these actions are on a list that I then review regularly.
The calendar, then, is sacred territory: time-specific actions, day-specific actions and information, as well as time blocks. Each time block may or not be themed.
Any advantageous system must acknowledge the need to both write down your goals and to create the distraction-free space we need for accomplishment, creativity, and connection. Using a combination of targets, action lists, AND time blocking is the real win.
Traditional “to-do” lists, though?. Those “amorphous blobs of undoability” are just the beginning of the process. Decide on the meaning of each task – your target, the next physical action needed to move toward your target, then ensure you have distraction-free time blocked on your calendar for doing.
Afterward, feel free to throw away the list.
Nick Temple is a lifestyle mentor and business coach at The Aligned Lifestyle where he helps people design and step into the business and lifestyle that agrees with the person they want to become. Join us at The Aligned Lifestyle