I have to say upfront that I take no credit for this idea. One of the best blog posts I read all year in 2014 was Eric Barker’s How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m. I’ll spoil it for you: You need to schedule your whole to-do list.
The gist is, if you have a to-do list, that’s great, but ultimately flawed. The problem, as anyone with a to-do list knows, is that it only addresses the what with no regard for how long. By not putting a set time against each of your tasks, you risk not finishing them, or not leaving enough time to finish the most-important ones first.
As it turns out, this strategy jibes pretty well with the Eisenhower Matrix, which I wrote about last year. Here it is, as a reminder:
Now, imagine that four-square grid shaped into four individual cubes, each with varying heights, which we’ll say represent time:
This is a better way to think about your day. The height of your bars will vary—these are just here for example’s sake—but this is the general picture. Most people will want to dedicate the bulk of their time to important-but-not-urgent matters, and set aside a chunk of time each day for urgent stuff. Some days that’ll all go out the window.
But that’s just a visualization. How this works practically is in two simple steps:
- Check your to-do list.
- Schedule time for each item.
I keep everything in Outlook. Every morning, I check email and load up my Tasks list. Then, I go through the list and schedule time for each thing I need to do. By the time I’m ready to start my day, my Outlook calendar looks something like this:
A few notes on this:
- I do my best to strategically place “urgent items” times—first thing in the morning, right after meetings (we’ve all had those emails come in the middle of meetings), and at the end of the day, before I head home. If there’s nothing urgent, I go back to my not urgent/important list.
- The most important thing for me is to stick to the stop times. If I end up with extra time, great, but the way I stay on task is to drop what I’m doing when the clock says stop.
- Obviously, that last point is the goal but isn’t always realistic. There are going to be days when the urgent/important runs rampant and blows out your whole calendar. This is just a guide.
The upshot to all this is that you end up with a more realistic expectation of what you can get done each day. Even on days when urgent/important matters blow up your plan, you’ll have a sense of how much extra time you need to put in, or what you need to shift around later in the week.
I highly recommend that you try this out, and most importantly, make it your own. Tweak it to fit your needs; add an extra dimension if you want; and use apps and tools in your own inbox to auto-tag items and make things easier.
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