Forget the TODO list! There is a better way of becoming more productive

How good are you at task management? Not so good eh! Have you tried the latest iPhone app? Some people claim it to be two times better than the app you used last month.  How about keeping your task on a paper? I heard that Tim Ferriss swears by that method. Still nothing? Listen, it may be the process … have you heard of GTD? It's based on this book by David Allen. Still no improvement?

That was my life since I started my quest to increase my productivity. I used pen and paper. Many, many apps. Nothing worked.

Revisiting task management

My main problem with task management is that it focuses on, you know, managing the tasks. And this is important but what is way more important is doing the tasks. Management of tasks should be the easiest part and you don't need complicated tools to get this done. A sheet of paper or any text editor will do it. Any mobile app is equally good.

Another problem with task management is that putting things on a list (which the main activity in task management) can give you a false sense of accomplishment on the short term: "I have a plan now. Awesome! Coffee brake!".

But it is all short term. Because the same activity of adding a task to a list, that gave you a feeling of acomplishment at that time, now puts a pressure on you. That is because writing the task down made you feel you have committed to doing that tasks. As the list becomes longer, it makes you feel overburden by all these commitments.

Noticed how refreshing switching to the new iPhone app is? The reason is the new app gives you a clean state. A breakup from the previous app, where hundreds or thousands of tasks are waiting for you. Give it a few months and you will be just as dissatisfied with the new app as you were with the old one.

Stumbling on a method

The calendar changed everything for me. I have been using it more and more. Initially the main use-case for me was to schedule meetings. But as the company I was part of grew it became the mechanism through which people in the company scheduled meetings with me. Sending meeting invites is so easy that some time ago I realized that my calendar has become a long collections of meetings and calls that others thought I should attend. That was all nice but I had things to do other that sitting in calls and joining meetings. So I started to block time in my calendar for other tasks.

In my quest to make sure I have time for work-work, I stumbled across something that functioned beautifully. It forced me to think about the things I want to achieve beyond meetings and to block enough time in my calendar to get those done. I also had to make a decision and block that time before the meetings rolled in.

I solved my original problem pretty fast. The number of meetings was at a sane level but I also noticed I got a lot more things done. To make sure I started tracking it by creating a done list instead than a todo list. And leaving meetings aside, I was getting more productive.

The get shit done method

I am pretty sure other people are doing this already but for me this newly found method was a revelation. Here is how I am making sure I "get shit done". As already mentioned, the calendar (or the daily planner) is the foundation. Once I decide to do something I block time in my calendar to do it. This method forces you to a few other things:

It keeps you grounded in reality

With todo lists it is so easy to over-estimate what you can achieve in a short period of time. After all writing some tasks down or selecting some from a list takes a few seconds. But in most cases there is not enough time to get those done. The calendar is the reality check.

You want to finish that document?  How long will that take? Say it will take 2 hours. Look over your weekly plan and select when you will actually get to do it. The new design? That will be a 10 hour effort. It is hard to do it in one go so try to see if you can find the time to break it in 2 or 3 blocks.

Focus on things that matter

You will soon realize that time is a limited supply. You only have time for a few things on a weekly basis. Doing this forced me to focus on the projects that really matter. To be selective with everything. To question the importance of every task. This led to saying no to certain activities, meetings etc.

Make a plan beforehand

I still keep a list of projects and tasks, but I don't look at it as commitments. It is just a way to remember certain things that I deemed important at some point in time. But every week (usually on a Friday) I do a master review and decide what to do next week. I go through  the list I mentioned, alongside meeting notes & my long-term goals. And I plan the things which will move the needle the most. If some of the notes on the list are not important anymore I just delete them.

Separate decision from acting

There were numerous studies that showed how decision making is one of the major stress factors in today's work environment. Separating decisions on what to work on and the doing of that work is an important stress reliever and a productivity booster. That is what will happen once you apply this method. You will have the weekly plan laid out. You just need to show up and get shit done.

In Conclusion

That's about it. Please tell me if/how this work for you. One last advice: don't over plan. Leave gaps in your calendar for urgent things or for idleness. And make sure to block time for yourself and your family.