The Worst Way to Manage Your To-Do List

Are you managing your life with a calendar? Here is why you need to stop.

If you manage your to-do list the way most people — and companies — do, it’s probably heavily reliant on the calendar. Maybe you set milestone dates leading up to the launch of a big project, or share a calendar with family members or colleagues to share tasks and progress updates. It’s a process that will help you keep track of what’s due and when, but it’s not one that will actually help you get things done. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say the calendar is the most inefficient way to manage your time. Here’s why: What’s due this week or this month may not be the highest priority item on your list.

Organizing your to-do list by priority first ensures that you’re always on top of what’s truly important to your business or your life. And that doesn’t mean you throw dates away entirely — they’re still important. But starting with a priority ranking first will ensure that you’re spending the bulk of your time knocking the most valuable to-dos off your list. More importantly, if you’re focusing more on the projects that deliver the most value to your life or your business, rather than being ruled by the calendar, you’re likely to be more productive and get more out of your time.

Not buying it? Following are a few more reasons I think people need to drop their obsession with the calendar:

(Illustration by James Guthman)
  • Reminder Overload. What I often see happen to people who run their days by the calendar is that reminders begin to stack up, but there’s no hierarchy to them, which gives the sense of everything being urgent. Pretty soon you’re being overwhelmed by reminders, and once you’ve got more than three or four, you’re likely to just ignore them all. You become numb to the reminder and it becomes pretty useless.
  • You’re Planning for a Perfect Week That Doesn’t Exist. If you schedule everything, you’re planning for a perfect week and that doesn’t exist. There’s always more immediate problems that come up, so in today’s world you have to be flexible, you have to be a little bit dynamic. When you say these things will happen on these days, you’re not leaving room for reality. The stuff that’s not due until the end of the week you’re likely not to get to in time, and the stuff that’s due at the start of the week will often get pushed back because you think you have time. All of a sudden everything is urgent.
(Illustration by James Guthman)
  • It Ensures Procrastination. If you schedule a high-priority task for Thursday, and you find yourself with spare time on Monday, it’s unlikely that you’ll use that time to do Thursday’s task. Instead, you’ll do something else with that time and wait until Thursday to take care of the high priority task. A general manager I know has a sales report due the same day every month and for years he was in the habit of always waiting until the morning it was due to start it. Then inevitably he’d run out of time and turn the report in a day or two late. He’s not a lazy guy, he’s just busy, and because he leaves it to the schedule rather than organizing by priority he just never has enough time to get it done. Once he switched to organizing by priority he would work on the report in spare moments throughout the month, and finally hit the deadline.
  • You May Not Be Getting the Right Things Done. Instead of a calendar of due dates, you need a reliable list that says here’s the order in which these things need to get done. When you have a list of 3, 5, even 10 things, it’s rare that you can sit down of an afternoon and get one thing done. Yet this is how we tend to think of tasks: I’ll set aside two hours on Thursday to get that report done. In reality, you’ll usually start on one task, then hit some sort of a stumbling block — maybe you need to do more research, or you need input from someone else and need to wait to get it from them. If you’ve got a list going, you just move on to the next thing while you’re waiting, and so on down the line. By the time you’re in the middle of task three, maybe you’ll have heard back from the person you were waiting on to complete task one and you can cross that off your list. It’s not so much multi-tasking, as doing as much as you can on each thing before moving on, so all of a sudden by the end of the week, you’ve finished some key tasks and are well on your way to completing others.
(Illustration by James Guthman)
  • You’re Separating Your Life Into Two Lists. Generally when you manage everything by a calendar, you’re managing your work and family calendars separately — maybe you’re using different colors or different accounts — but whatever it is, they’re two separate things. The reality is you’re living one life and you need to be able manage both those aspects of your life in one place. The tendency when they’re in separate calendars or lists is to always prioritize work. When you have all of your life’s priorities in one list, it’s easier to keep your personal commitments and strike a better work-life balance.
  • It’s Easy To Fool Yourself Into Thinking You’re Getting More Done Than You Are. With the calendar, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that because you had a lot of meetings and talked to a lot of people you got a lot done, but when you look at your task list, you might realize you only got 5 things done. The task list keeps you a little more honest, forcing you to be more efficient with your time, and more accountable for how you’re spending it. It ensures that you’re actually being productive and not just hitting every meeting in your calendar.

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Matt Girvan is the co-founder and president of My Gung Ho, LLC, which creates apps that help individuals thrive in their day-to-day lives, using the same strategies that help large companies succeed. Download the to-do list/task management app Completo from My Gung Ho, for iPhone and iPad, to avoid managing your life with a calendar: https://appsto.re/us/_FiT2.i

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