Wisdom//

For a Productive Year, Focus on Time-Based Activities, Instead of Task-Based Lists

The key to productivity is way simpler than you think.

Steven Errico/Getty Images
Steven Errico/Getty Images

Most people are cautious about how much money they have to spend, to invest, and to give away… But, they don’t look at their time the same way when planning to get stuff done at work.

Time is free but priceless.

Do you know how much you can get done in 30 minutes or an hour?

Good time management depends on knowing the value of time and using your energy prudently to achieve more in less time.

To-do list is a time-honoured system.

It’s beautiful in its simplicity: make a list of what needs to be done and in an order of importance, do them, and then, one-by-one, cross them out.

Millions of people rely on them to get work done. They help us to prioritize our actions. And they give us a structure to get things done.

When executed well, to-do lists yield pretty impressive results.

But there’s a good chance your list is making you less productive.

Task-based lists don’t account for time

Task-based lists don’t show how long a task will take to complete.

It’s easy to tackle the simple tasks and leave important but the time-consuming projects undone.

Tackling your lists of things to do without deadlines is an ineffective way to work.

You also likely to choose the short and easy tasks almost without fail. Tasks that take less than five minutes to do, leaving big, important projects untouched.

Most items on to-do lists are never done because you keep adding to them without any accountability system to help you complete them.

According to the Zeigarnik effect, people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

This effect, in essence, means that uncompleted tasks on your to-do list will stay on your mind until you finish them.

All those undone items can lead to stress and insomnia.

This can only lead to an overwhelming feeling that makes it difficult to fully immerse yourself in any task.

Define what your ideal day would actually look like

Jason Womack, author of Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More, recommends a different approach to getting organized and getting things done.

He suggests you write an “Ideal Day” scenario for yourself to make the most of each day. Knowing what “ideal” means to you gives you a goal to work toward, he says.

How do you want to spend your day? What tasks HAVE to be done today?

What time of day can you do your best work?

With that scenario in mind, you can then divide the day into sections and match to-do list activities to different times.

Those moments of clarity can make a huge difference in how you use your to-do list and get both urgent and important work done without wasting time.

Schedule everything on your calendar

Put everything on your calendar and then work and live by that calendar. It also enables you to better determine which projects to take on and whether you should be saying yes to more tasks in any given week.

Adding dates, and or due time to your list — especially to your most important tasks can help you accomplish them at specific times of the day.

Add an extra column to your list and include your estimation of how long you think the task will take, and be realistic!

To make to-do lists work best for you, put your calendar to good use. Many people schedule the day or week, rather than arranging it into to-dos without deadlines, accomplishes a couple of things.

Schedules also employ a sense of urgency that you don’t get with a priority-based structure.

Add estimations to each task

You don’t merely need to know what has to be done, but how long it will take as well in order to plan effectively.

It’s better to say, “I only have 40 minutes to do this task today”, rather than arranging your tasks in order of importance without a specific timeline.

Tasks need a little more detail to make to-do lists work effectively for you.

Adding those details (time and how long tasks will take to complete) — and then looking at them before starting a day’s work — might take more time, but it will help set expectations and get work done right.

Try scheduling out every single minute of the day from 8am to 5pm tomorrow, if you can. Plan breaks on purpose.

Schedule emails, social media or notifications. You will see a drastic improvement in focus, self-awareness and how you use your time throughout the day.

If you consistently start your day working on tasks without knowing how long each task could take, you will end up spending too much time on a single task.

One of the many rules of efficiency is you don’t want to spend more time on a single task than it’s worth.

Efficiency is not a question of putting tons of time into your tasks. It’s about putting in the right time.

If you don’t know how you spend your own time every day, chances are, you wasting most of it work you shouldn’t be doing.

Know thy time and thee shall master it.

So how can you regain control of your time?

Focus on time-based to-do lists

Grab a journal or open your favourite to-do app, and revise your list with better timing instructions.

Assign a priority level for each item.

Which tasks will take less than 20 minutes?

Which ones will require more than an hour to do?

What ones can you do first in the morning when you have the most energy?

The answers to these questions will help you determine where to spend the majority of your time each day to make the highest impact.

When revising your list, instead of “Complete design project”, write “Complete design project in two hours”.

Even if you don’t finish the project, you have made progress without spending all day trying to do it.

Unless you aim to finish a task/project on any given day, plan to spend a specific time on it, and move to other equally important priorities for the day.

By setting a time and completing that commitment, you will consistently get more crucial tasks done, and make progress.

To-do lists often fail because we make them too complex without considering the time it takes to actually complete them.

Some tasks will take a long time, others won’t take any time at all.

It pays to distribute time prudently for each task.

Tracking how much time you spend on a single task can be a real eye-opener.

Track your time to identify patterns and understand your work habits.

Dr H. James Harrington says, “Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.”

The next time repeat a task, you can have a better sense of the amount of time needed to actually get it done.

Time-based tasks can also help you notice problem areas, where you tend to be less productive, or the time of day when you tend to spend too much time on tasks.

Break activities on your to-do lists into manageable time-bound tasks

A project is a top-level desired result.

And the result is made up of multiple action steps.

The more you break it down, the more doable they will seem.

Take a few minutes to think through that big project.

What are its component parts? What will be the real effort and time required? Write it down.

Then start working on the component parts.

When the overwhelming work becomes something small you can focus on, your focused-brain can hone in on exactly what you need to do, single-task and crush long-term goals.

If your projects are not a 30-minute or one hour job, this can be difficult to achieve, but it’s not impossible.

Some projects can take hours or even days.

The best approach is to break it up into multiple time-bound tasks and then do that one task to its completion.

Breaking a big, complex task into smaller, achievable parts is a better way to become more effective.

Most of our days are broken into hour segments so it’s better to focus on 40 to 60 minutes sprints with little room for distractions.

Engage in one task at a time.

Give it your complete, undivided attention so you can be as effective and productive as possible.

Mark Murphy of Forbes explains, “When people can block out interruptions at work, there’s a 67% chance they’ll leave feeling like ‘today was a really successful day.’ That’s a huge change in accomplishment just based on whether we get interrupted frequently or we can block out interruptions.”

Working consistently for 60 minutes on one thing makes sense, but it can very difficult if you have to deal with notifications and respond to requests from colleagues at work.

The Pomodoro technique suggests 25-minute blocks of time, with short 5 minute breaks, followed by longer breaks later on.

Experiment with different times and stick to what works better for you.

For me, scheduling the most time demanding tasks at the beginning of the day helps me feel more motivated and accomplished as I get through them, and it helps me distribute energy to the right tasks.

Let’s say that you are more productive in the morning.

Designate the tasks that take you more time for that time of day. Not only you will be more organized but you will also be able to achieve more.

Find a system that works for you.

Try different time management and planning techniques for your workday and stick to what works for you.

Everyone’s attention span and work style are different.

The key with any technique or system is consistency. It has to become more of a habit than your previous bad habits of managing time.

Key takeaway

Getting more done and staying focused should be a top priority, and using time-bound to-do lists can change everything and make you efficient.

It’s easy to be distracted by everything around you.

If each task is time-restricted, you will be more aware of the time spent checking notifications, emails, and chatting away when you should be focused on getting real work done.

Originally published on Medium.

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