Increasing productivity: Shifting from to-do lists to timeboxing

In a recent survey of 100 productivity hacks, timeboxing — migrating to-do lists into calendars — was ranked the most useful.

Time is a finite resource and the ability to manage one’s time really has become an invaluable skill. How we structure and organise our working day has a profound impact on our productivity, job satisfaction, and overall success in the workplace. Whether you find yourself drowning in a sea of tasks, struggling to meet deadlines, or simply seeking to enhance your efficiency, time management resources are often turned to control the chaos and provide a sense of order in our work lives.

Research shows that to-do lists are a common tool to cope with mounting workloads and competing priorities, with “more than three-quarters (76 percent) of U.S. respondents currently keeping at least one list; many managing up to three or more lists concurrently.” And whilst a 2021 study found that nearly two-thirds of professionals write to-do lists, 41% percent of all to-do list items never actually get done, highlighting their innate flaws.

The case against to-do lists has long been made. Kevin Kruse author of ‘15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management’ interviewed “more than 200 billionaires, Olympians, straight-A students, and entrepreneurs” asking for their best advice in preparation for his book. His summary? “None of them ever mentioned a to-do list.”

Author, Daniel Markovitz in his article ‘To-Do Lists Don’t Work’ for the Harvard Business Review, unpacks this further, listing “five fundamental problems with to-do lists that render them ineffective”. These being:

  • The paradox of choice: Too many choices increase our negative emotions and makes it more difficult to act and complete tasks. In fact, research shows that our brains can only handle about seven options before we’re overwhelmed.

“It’s easier for us to make decisions and act when there are fewer choices from which to choose. Looking at the 58 items on your to-do list will either paralyse you or send you into default mode: checking email for an hour instead of doing real work.”

  • Heterogeneous complexity: Tendency to complete shorter tasks ahead of those that require more effort/ time.
  • Heterogeneous priority: Tendency to complete higher priority tasks over those that are less pressing, until those less pressing tasks themselves become urgent.

“Would you rather take care of your car maintenance when it’s a “C” priority, or when it’s an “A” priority: when your car breaks down at 3 AM outside the Mojave Desert, 175 miles from home?”

  • Lack of context: The few words required to write down a task fail to properly capture the necessary information required to distinguish what tasks you should be working on and when (e.g., how long will each task take? How much time do you have available?)
  • Lack of commitment devices: To-do lists inherently don’t provide the push, or motivation often required to complete the most complex or difficult tasks (i.e., keeping us honest)

Hope should not be lost however, for those seeking an alternative to the ‘ineffective’ and maligned to-do list, ‘timeboxing’ may be the answer.

Timeboxing is a time management method that involves breaking your work or tasks into predefined, fixed time periods. These time boxes can vary in length, from just a few minutes to several hours, depending on the nature and complexity of the task at hand. During each time box, you focus exclusively on a single task or project. In essence, timeboxing involves “migrating to-do lists into calendars”, here’s a few steps to get started:

  1. Choose a system or app that will help you timeboxing (e.g., your calendar or other time management software)
  2. Define the tasks that you need to get done (consider the time needed and urgency)
  3. Block the time in your calendar (e.g., name of the task and duration, as you would with a meeting)
  4. Update daily and ensure all hours you intend to work for are assigned with relevant tasks
  5. Stick to your calendar and tasks (work only on the tasks assigned to each time slot and stay focused. Evaluate and update time allotments as needed for future tasks)

“Working hard and trying your best is sometimes not actually what’s required; the alternative — getting the right thing done at the right time — is a better outcome for all.”

Timeboxing essentially overcomes many of the intrinsic shortcomings of to-do lists, as Markovits surmises:

“Deciding which item to handle at what time overcomes the paradox of choice, compensates for the intrinsic heterogeneity of your work, provides the context of deadlines and other commitments, and provides a (soft) commitment device to help you do the right thing at the right time.”

Marco Zao-Sanders a longstanding advocate for the adoption of timeboxing also suggests additional benefits to timeboxing beyond its superiority to to-do lists:

  • Enables the relative positioning of work
  • Allows you to collaborate more effectively (i.e., by setting a visual schedule of work that you and your colleagues can see, allowing for a better understanding of workloads)
  • Provides a full record of completed work
  • Established control

“You decide what to do and when to do it, block out all distractions for that timeboxed period, and get it done. Repeat. Consistent control and demonstrable accomplishment is hugely satisfying, even addictive.”

  • Productivity is increased (Parkinson’s law states that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Meaning we tend to spend longer on tasks than perhaps we should, as we can often be guided by the time available, rather than how long the task should take)

Timeboxing can help evolve your approach to work and competing tasks (at least beyond to-do lists). By breaking your day into defined time blocks, you gain control over your schedule, enhance productivity and be more mindful about how you use your time.

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