To-Do Lists Are Overrated

Posted: July 28, 2020 in Uncategorized
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Being self-employed, or working from home, is extremely difficult. Without a plan, it’s incredibly easy to spend the day wandering the Internet or wasting time on whatever vice you’re into.

It’s not so much the work itself that’s hard, but the fact that there’s no big boss setting the agenda. You’re your own boss, and being left to our own devices is an easy path to self-destruction.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in over five years of being self-employed, you are your own worst enemy. Without a clear, concrete plan that takes out all the loopholes of wriggling out of responsibility, you will fall flat on your face and get nothing done, and feel very bad about it. It’s like you’re tripping yourself over and over and saying “Haha!” to yourself like Nelson Muntz, without realizing you’re just bullying yourself. Which of course, just sends you back to your distractions to get rid of the bad feelings.

It’s a vicious cycle, but thankfully, it’s completely avoidable.

That’s my main problem with to-do lists. They promise productivity, but deliver next to nothing. Sure, it’s better than no plan at all, but back when I used to do lists, I left half my tasks undone, and scratched my head as to why.

Then, I discovered schedules. More specifically, how to schedule correctly.

It was a complete game changer. Now, I am here to show you the way into the light.

Back in my days of darkness, I would wake up, look at my computer, blink, and it would be 3:00 already with nothing substantial having been done. I had told myself an insidious lie that there was plenty of time to crank out a couple of thousand words before bed. Those words were always true – until it got to be 9:00 and I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. On my worst days, I wouldn’t write anything at all.

I knew I was missing something, but just didn’t know what. I tried lists. They would work for a time – but I would end up committing the same sin as before. I’d leave half the tasks unfinished, get discouraged, and decide it wasn’t working.

What I lacked was motivation. Or so I thought.

A typical to do list for me might have looked something like this:

  1. Write 2,000 words
  2. Clean
  3. Work out
  4. Send/answer emails

That to me would have been a productive day indeed.

Last year, I wrote a blog post that specifically talked about how amazing to-do lists were. All I can say now is that I’ve learned a thing or two. I’ve found a much better way.

Lists are just part of the answer. They have some inherent flaws that no one really considers:

  1. Lists don’t tell you how long it will take to complete the task. This sends your brain thinking, “What if this goes on forever?
  2. Tasks are often just thrown on a list with no regard to priority, and it can be easy to add too many things.
  3. Most importantly, and this is key: lists won’t tell you a thing about when tasks will actually happen.

That third point especially is the biggest strike against to-do lists. Lack of specificity in how and when something is going to happen ultimately leads to it not happening. When tasks aren’t tied to a specific time, in relation to other tasks, our brains just lazily think, “I can do that later.”

That was the missing ingredient. That was why I left so many tasks undone.

The missing element of to-do lists is knowing when, and for how long, tasks will happen.

The cure, I realized, was scheduling . Specifically, learning how to schedule correctly.

The bombshell for me came when I read something that stuck with me, paraphrased thus: Most people use schedules incorrectly. We schedule interruptions instead of scheduling work. It should be the opposite.

When I read that, something just clicked. I had the missing puzzle piece.

I transitioned to Google calendars and scheduled every minute of my work day. I know when I’m waking up. I know when I’m stopping work for the day. I know when I start writing, and when I stop. I know what time lunch is. And all those short tasks that take 15-30 minutes or even less to complete? They’re all grouped together so I can knock them out one after another, without fearing they will interrupt my writing time.

Instead of a vague list, I now have a concrete battle plan, and know exactly, when, and for how long each of my tasks will be.

Instead of robbing me of freedom and creativity, scheduling has given me more freedom than ever. Freedom from guilt from not having done enough, or not using my precious time efficiently. Freedom of scrambling at the beginning of the day wondering what exactly I’m going to do, and no longer being overwhelmed. I feel light as a feather, knowing I’ve spent my time as effectively as I possibly could. Even factoring in short breaks, I’ve been far more productive using this system than when I used a list.

We have way too many things to do in the day, and specific schedules are the missing ingredient to wrangle all those tasks and make them feel manageable, and even easy. Using google calendars, my phone reminds me when a new task is about to start.

Best of all, tasks can be rearranged or edited as needed, and you never lose your sense of time. Sometimes, life happens, but the calendar can be edited to accommodate that. It allows you to adapt and have a new plan of action.

Another advantage of schedules over to-do lists: it makes “batching” easier. If you haven’t heard of batching, it means separating out harder tasks that require a lot of mental energy from smaller tasks that can be done without much thinking.

For me, this means my hard stuff, like editing, I do in the morning first thing. It gets 100% of my attention. All those things I know I have to do later aren’t hanging over my head, because I know they’ll get done at the appointed time.

I know nothing I’m writing here is groundbreaking. I’m sure tons of people already do this, but for me, it’s like a superpower because I’m discovering it for the first time.

By the way – I’m done with the first draft of the second book, and I’ve come up with titles for up to twelve books in this series. I don’t know if it’ll actually be that long, but it would be amazing if it were! I’m now doing a hardcore edit of the first one, mainly to update it and make it consistent with the second, as well as provide more details. After that, it’s on to book 3.

I’ve been thinking about writing a blog post about this for a while, but just now set aside the time get down my thoughts. Maybe some other procrastinator out there will read this and get some use from it. I hope so. Being self-employed is harder than most people give it credit for, but the productivity pitfalls can be avoided with a specific, concrete schedule.

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