Personal Growth

Toss Your To-Do List and Use Timeboxing Instead

Have you ever suspected that instead of helping you get stuff done, your lengthening to-do list was just causing you more and more grief? You're not the only one. Luckily, there's another way to manage your responsibilities, and it doesn't involve a list at all.

Related Video: 6 Productivity Tips to Help You Get More Done

Why To-Do Lists Won't Do

If your to-do list works for you, that's great. But to-do lists are far from perfect. For one, if your list runs longer than a haiku, just choosing which item to tackle at any given time feels draining. It's just human psychology: The more choices we have, the less satisfied we feel. Some people end up wasting valuable time waffling between options or even avoiding their lists altogether because they're overwhelming.

Another problem with to-do lists is that every task on the list takes up the same amount of space. You can't tell from a list of tasks which ones will take hours of sustained focus and which ones can be knocked out in three minutes. This makes to-do lists less user-friendly than they could be, and it also makes them easier to game. If you want the rush of checking something off your to-do list, of course you'll cut your toenails instead of creating an entire slide deck.

It's no wonder that some list-keepers feel like they aren't optimizing their time. It's easy, with a list, to cultivate the illusion of productivity — and cross a lot of items off every day! — without getting anything meaningful done.

Reinventing Your Calendar

Never fear! The to-do list isn't the only way to get things done. In Harvard Business Review, two different writers have waxed poetic in praise of "timeboxing," which basically involves moving your to-do list to ... drumroll, please ... your calendar.

It sounds weird at first. Calendars are usually for social obligations: meetings, dentist appointments, holiday parties. If you're "timeboxing," though, your calendar becomes a place to keep track of your time commitments, social or solitary. You still schedule meetings, but you also schedule items on your to-do list as if they were meetings. Need to create a meeting agenda? Block out an hour during the workday. Think of it as a meeting with yourself before the real meeting.

This actually solves a lot of the problems with to-do lists. For one, it strips away the paradox of choice — once you've timeboxed your week, you never need to choose between a list of tasks again. Every time slot has an objective; every objective has a time slot.

Because you estimate in advance how long every chore and project will take, timeboxing also imposes time constraints on otherwise diffuse objectives. You could fidget with a slide deck's formatting for 30 hours, especially if your week is otherwise pretty free. We often let our work expand to take however much time we have, leaving us feeling constantly busy. Timeboxing combats this, though, forcing us to reflect on how much time our tasks deserve.

At the same time, it forces you to recognize how busy you actually are. With timeboxing, your calendar becomes a visual representation of your time commitments. This can help you recognize when you have bandwidth for a new project, and when you simply don't.

Not that timeboxing is foolproof. You still have to estimate how long your tasks will take, and you can game this process, too. (Overestimate everything, and you'll seem solidly booked!) At the end of the day, timeboxing can boost your productivity, but it'll only work if you truly want to be productive.

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: Sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

For genius tips from more than 20 experts on how to streamline your day, check out the 99U book "Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice January 11, 2019

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.