Who says planning your day down to the last second is the only way to live a productive and fulfilled life?
To-do lists are supposed to be amazing productivity boosters.
Somehow, they’ve never worked for me. When I reach the final task on my list, something new pops up that extends for the rest of the day or even spills onto the next week, making me feel like I’m stuck in a never-ending loop.
It’s infuriating. Overwhelming.
But we’ve been told the only way to beat this overwhelm is to write what else needs to be done. In short, make another to-do list. So many studies have been conducted that prove people perform better when they’ve written down what they need to do.
But what about the people who struggle to schedule their day?
What about the ones who feel guilty looking at all the unchecked boxes on their to-do lists and feel even less inclined to work towards meeting the rest of their goals?
If you’re like me, the good news is that scheduling your day down to the last minute is not the only way to live a productive life. You don’t necessarily need to stick to a daily routine to build an amazing repertoire of skills and achievements.
As Stephen Covey explains in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the real key is to schedule your priorities, and not prioritize your schedule by checking off items on a to-do list. This post is about how you can do that and turn your inability to stick to a schedule into your superpower.
People often wrongly assume that productivity means getting more things done each day. In truth, productivity is getting important things done consistently.
Embrace the Uncertainty
What if you’re someone who thrives on change and doesn’t enjoy being tied down? Does this mean you’ll have a less fulfilling life than the rest?
Not at all! Those who embrace their freedom and lack of schedule are often the most productive people around. They know how to take care of themselves when they don’t meet their expectations at the end of the day.
Not having a to-do list frees you from the stress of needing to tick off every item on it. It allows room for uncertainty in your day. There can be surprises in spontaneity. There’s freedom in flexibility.
Did you know that a recent survey has found that only 17 percent of people can accurately estimate how much time an activity will require? The rest fall prey to the planning fallacy, or “positive bias,” which means they vastly underestimate the time it will take to complete a future task, despite the knowledge that previous tasks have generally taken longer than planned.
Thus, making a to-do list for the rest of the 83% people would be a surefire way to build unrealistic expectations and have them shattered at the end of the day.
Not having a to-do list can reduce those feelings of guilt that might be tugging at your heart for not completing your tasks on time.
Kevin Kruse, author of Great Leaders Have No Rules interviewed over 200 billionaires, Olympians, straight-A students, and entrepreneurs, and found that most of them don’t use to-do lists for the following reasons:
- To-do lists don't account for time: When you have a long list of tasks, you tend to tackle those that can be completed quickly in a few minutes, leaving the longer items undone.
- To-do lists don’t distinguish between urgent and important.
- To-do lists contribute to stress: In what’s known in psychology as the Zeigarnik effect, unfinished tasks contribute to intrusive, uncontrolled thoughts.
So, if to-do lists don’t work for you, what can you do instead?
Strategize, Don’t List
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower
To-do lists can be potential procrastination tools. They lull you into the satisfaction of having completed several tasks, thus making you blind to what actually needs to be done. As Ralph Ryback, M.D., explains in Psychology Today, “The satisfaction of ticking off small task is linked with a flood of dopamine. Each time your brain gets a whiff of this rewarding neurotransmitter, it will want you to repeat the associated behavior.”
A way to avoid falling into this trap is to strategize your day, and not list the tasks that you think are the most important. This can be done by following two steps:
Find the most important task for the day
“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” — Pablo Picasso
As author Gary Keller writes in his book, The One Thing, “Long hours spent checking off a to-do list and ending the day with a full trash can and a clean desk are not virtuous and have nothing to do with success. Instead of a to-do list, you need a success list — a list that is purposefully created around extraordinary results.”
According to James Clear, people often wrongly assume that productivity means getting more things done each day. In truth, productivity is getting important things done consistently. And no matter what you’re working on, there are only a few things that are truly important.
Find the most important task of the day and finish it first. This is the only tip you’ll ever need to boost your productivity.
Make the most of your personal peak hours
Every person has a different time of the day when they can be at their productive best. Identifying that time window and harnessing it to make sure the most important task of the day coincides with that can be an incredibly effective way of getting the most out of your day.
Research has established that when we work on important projects during our peak productive hours, we experience less burnout. According to entrepreneur Aytekin Tank, here’s how you can go about harnessing the power of your peak productive hours:
- Make a spreadsheet or start a journal to record your energy levels throughout the day.
- Note how your focus, creativity, and interest change at different times, then look for patterns across a full week.
- Once you’ve defined your own peak times, don’t schedule any meetings or other repetitive tasks during these.
- Instead, use these precious hours to face your essential tasks head-on.
To-do lists might work for several people, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to end all your procrastination problems. If you’re someone who can’t stick to a schedule, you can still make the most of your day by following these steps:
- Identify your most important task for the day instead of getting lost in a list of never-ending items to be checked off.
- Identify your peak productivity hours averaged over a week and coincide your important projects with these times.
Remember that not having a to-do list allows you some breathing space and helps you be spontaneous and flexible as you go about your daily routine.
There’s a spark, a certain brand of magic in not knowing what you’ll be doing at every hour right from the moment you wake up. You can allow yourself this small dose of happiness without compromising on your productivity.
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