Having a great to-do list is only useful if you can make progress by checking off items on your list. Here are 11 rules on how to schedule tasks on your list.
The whole point of making a to-do list is to let you focus on task-doing rather than task-planning. The former gets you results and the latter gives you headaches. Why even bother with scheduling the tasks that are on your list?
If it were up to me, it would not be up to me
This is Part 4 in the Time Management lessons / Productivity Hacks series.
In Part 1, we came up with a Master list of all tasks that are (or should be) on your radar.
Part 2 discussed how to categorize these tasks into groups.
In Part 3, we fine-tuned the list by weeding out all unnecessary tasks and also created a ‘Waiting room’ for a few of those ‘someday’ tasks.
Continuing the series today, we’ll address the question on how to schedule tasks, so they actually get done.
Schedule to avoid decision fatigue
Ever seen a squirrel trying to cross a road? That’s what we are like when faced with a daunting to-do list first thing in the morning if we don’t have our tasks scheduled or prioritized.
‘Eenie Meeny Miney Moe’ is a nursery rhyme. Not a task-prioritizing strategy.
We maybe able to get through a couple or even a few of the tasks on the lists without a schedule. But soon we’re forced to choose and pick. And your mind goes something like this…
Should I feed the dog or go for a run? Should I call the plumber or schedule a dental check-up? Oh, wait, I need to look up that dinner recipe so I can pick up ingredients on the way home. What? Is that Sodamaker on sale? Wow! I really need it.
Before you know it, your day’s almost done and it’s time to eat leftovers and cold cereal for dinner again. You’ve made no progress on your list.
Scheduling ahead helps avoid decision-fatigue. It forces us to focus on what’s important.
How to schedule tasks effectively?
Here’s the thing – like with most things in life, it’s neither prudent nor wise to dictate a one-size-fits-all routine. So, how you choose to schedule your tasks will vary depending on your circumstances in life and what else you have going on at any point in time.
Having said that, the following 11 common-sense guidelines apply in all cases.
1. Eat that frog
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. To quote Twain,
If your job is to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.Mark Twain
There are always going to be one or two really hard things that show up on your list. Getting your exercise in, having an uncomfortable conversation with someone, gritting it out on a project deliverable, etc. Such tasks should be scheduled to be done as early as you possibly can in your day since there is nothing worse than having those hanging around like gray clouds over you all day.
2. Pick a couple of non-negotiable tasks
Make a couple of your category ‘I’ (Inspirational) and ‘S’ tasks (sub-projects) from Part 2 your non-negotiable tasks for the day. No matter what else you do or don’t do that day, you have to get these done. You may just be able to spend 15 minutes on weekdays if that’s what your schedule dictates, but it MUST happen every day.
If you’re serious about getting somewhere, you have to get aboard the train.
I prefer to schedule such tasks first thing in the morning – when I own my day – before others start laying claim to my time. I highly recommend this approach.
3. Sprinkle Rapid Wins into your daily list
Sprinkle at least a couple of those Rapid Win tasks we identified in Part 2 into your schedule every day of the week. In checking those off, you’ll get a ‘feel-good’ sensation that will flow through to the rest of your day.
4. Set time in your day to train others
Schedule 30 – 45 mins of ‘T’ (Transitional) tasks every day. You are trying to get rid of these tasks from your list. That will only happen when you train someone else to do them. So, get intentional and make an appointment with yourself and your trainee. Soon, you’ll be able to reclaim these 45 minutes to do something you like!
5. Automate and Batch-up Persistent tasks
Unfortunately, these Persistent tasks typically take a large part of your day. One of the important things in learning how to schedule is to realize that not every task will need to be scheduled every day. Find out ways to optimize or batch-up tasks. For instance,
- Paying bills, checking on finances etc. can be a once-a-week activity. Better still, automate as much as you can, so you can focus on review rather than doing.
- Maintenance tasks such as Laundry, meal prep, cleaning can be batched-up into 2-3 days a week so you don’t have to waste valuable mental energy on these.
Note that a number of these tasks carry an ‘overhead time’ each time you do the task. So, by batching it up into fewer times, you incur less of an overhead. For instance, consider the task of cleaning up your kitchen after your meal prep. The fewer times you make a mess, the less you have to clean up.
If you work a full-time job, make sure you time box that too. Even if you absolutely love your work, you will benefit from taking a break and letting your brain do something else for a part of the day. I cannot overstate the importance of taking a break.
6. Make time for you
Put yourself on the list. Set aside a block of time daily to do whatever you please or do nothing if that’s what you please. These are for your ‘E’ tasks. Again, moderation is key here. Sorry, Netflix binges!
7. Each day has 24 hours
Why do I state the most obvious fact in the universe as a rule? Because there are two groups of people in this world that are impacted differently by this fact.
Beavers: Those who overschedule and underachieve. Rather than calling them optimists, the correct term would be to call them under-estimators. I know, because I belong to this club. See my post, Just one more thing, for why I’m always late to everything.
Koalas: The procrastinators. The ones who place enormous faith in the word ‘Tomorrow’. They’d rather prefer to relax and under-schedule their day because they prefer to deal with their tasks later.
Neither group, in my opinion, is efficient in getting through the tasks on their lists. The Beavers fail because they put themselves under undue pressure while the Koalas don’t try to do enough.
So, like with most things, the answer to this conundrum is to use moderation when scheduling. Fit only those tasks into your list that you can reasonably achieve during the day.
8. Build slack
Related to the above, but worth noting on its own. As Mr. Murphy says, ‘If something can go wrong, it will’. Building some slack or buffer into your schedule will save you from the ripple effect of one or two tasks slipping beyond their allotted time.
List Anxiety is real. Let’s say you constantly schedule 15 things to do on your list daily and only accomplish 8. Reviewing a bunch of undone tasks at the end of each day can be very demoralizing even if the 8 tasks you accomplished were great achievements. Keep it real.
To aim for the sky and reach the treetop is a good philosophy in life but not when scheduling your daily to-do list.
9. Understand the cost of rework
In manufacturing there is a common philosophy that the cost of rework is 3x the cost of getting it right the first time. That’s because
a) You do it incorrectly the first time
b) You undo what you did incorrectly
c) You do it right again
Let’s say you’re assembling some furniture together. In your eagerness to get it done, you don’t read the manuals (or even Ikea’s version of a manual) and end up creating something like this.
To prevent rework, allow for time in your schedule to understand the task fully before you do it.
10. Understand Timing secrets
Depending on whether you are an owl or a lark (or in between), there are times of the day that work well for different types of tasks. Daniel Pink in his book, ‘When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing’ talks about when the ideal time is to perform different types of tasks (ranging from when exercising is good to when you should get married).
I can say this much through experience. We tend to have more positive energy in the morning and early evening compared to other times of the day. So, make sure you use up those times for tasks that require any cognitive, cerebral, creative, or analytical thinking. Mechanical tasks can be scheduled for other times.
Your to-do list should be scheduled around an 8-hour sleep schedule. Don’t attempt to schedule your sleep around your task list. Please see my post on Morning routine for the importance of sleep in our lives.
On a related note, the mid-afternoon slump is real. If your schedule permits, a nap would be ideal. Winston Churchill famously credited his hour-long afternoon siesta for allowing him to get 1 ½ days in every day.
In reading about the lives of recently famous historical figures from Darwin to Churchill, a common thread emerges – their desire to stick to daily routines. Regardless of whether they lived lives of leisure or were workaholics, famous men and women made time every day for what they considered was important.
Without a doubt, we can make a leap of faith to say their successes were a direct result of their sticking to their daily routines. So, make time today for what’s important to you. Schedule your day well.
Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.Miles Davis