Why To Do Lists work for task management – until they don’t

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Mar 18

Having a method of managing your to do list is a vitally important job skill for the Cubicle Warrior. The problem is that word there — manage. I don’t know about you, but I don’t do it very well.

The Harvard Business Review just recommending blowing up your to do list altogether. The author offers up some pretty good critiques of lists:

  • The paradox of choice (too many options is overwhelming…yes, they are)
  • Heterogeneous complexity (tasks from 3-minutes to 3-hours in duration on same list means you pick the 3-minute one)
  • Heterogeneous priority (“A” priority always takes precedence over “C” priorities and you won’t get to C — until it becomes an A)
  • Lack of context (3-4 words don’t convey time to complete, complexity, etc. I disagree with this one — then the task isn’t written right)
  • Lack of commitment devices (too easy to not do something hard…true…unless there is some force behind it to complete)

While you and I can agree on all of that, it begs the question as to what to use instead? You have to have a method of organizing your commitments to your stakeholders whether they be for work or your personal life. So what’s the answer?

According to the author, it is to block out time and live in your calendar. Since you can’t book every minute of every day, he rightfully suggests that you need at least an hour to properly address your email (depends on your job; it could be more or less). And he suggests that you leave another two hours for the inevitable emergency du joir that represents your daily fire drill of something unexpected.

You’ll note that for an 8-hour day, that leaves you five to handle meetings plus accomplishing what you want to do for the day.

Blocking time on calendars can work

Blocking time on calendars have options — some people will block out time to perform specific tasks. I have an Internet friend who promotes “hyper-scheduling” but blocks out time based on areas of work, not on specific tasks. He has a publishing business and law practice and he will block out, say, two hours to work on the law practice part of it, pulling the tasks from Omnifocus (a great task management system) related to the law practice to work on during the two hour block.

The theory, according to Harvard Business Review, is that you’ll be more committed to getting things done if you use your calendar because you normally do the things on the calendar (like go to meetings because they are on your calendar) then trying to decide what to do from the to do list.

I’ve tried to-do lists, blocking out calendars — and none of them work

Boy, I’d sure love if one of them did work.

But they don’t. At least not for me. And, to be fair, it is driving me pretty crazy.

Here’s my situation — I’m now working on four significant projects and all of them are pretty much in the start up phase. That means you are drinking from the fire hose to figure out what needs doing for all these projects, knowing who does what on them, and what the end goals are for each.

Thus, EVERYTHING is important…until it is not. Is what you are reading in an email really an issue that needs work solving? Or is it something that will naturally work out and isn’t important? Don’t know until you know. So do you capture that as a task that needs investigating? Block some calendar time to figure out the answer? Who knows?

When you are getting 100+ emails a day, they are ALL important to understand, decipher, and figure out what to do with them. Except you don’t have enough context to know what to do with them to effectively place them into your hierarchy of things to get done.

Distractions are at an all-time high

And then, there are the distractions. All. The. Time. If you look at some really interesting productivity books (Deep Work immediately comes to mind), you will see a lot that specifically point out that humans need a good block of uninterrupted time to really do good thinking around what you are working on. Take this blog post: even though I type really fast, I’m about 40-minutes into it. Uninterrupted.

But if you’re at work, how often to you get interrupted? Slack, Skype IM, drive-by’s, looking for something in email you need and then looking at the other 25 that just came in.

The kicker is, it takes a decent amount of time (like ten minutes) to fully get back into the groove of where you were. If I were to get interrupted every ten minutes, I’d be half a page back on this post — and who knows if the subject would have even turned out the same?

Consequently, we’re pulled out of our task management system by the distractions. I’d say we especially do short duration tasks not only because you can get them done but because half the time, you only have 15-minutes to do something instead of the hour you thought you had.

That cool looking calendar with all of the blocked out time and color coding (even with two hours for the mini-crisis and an hour for email) inevitably has the mini-crisis for the day show up exactly 20% into the block of time you had to work on that really important piece you wanted to get done during that block — and that blows up the rest of the day.

I don’t know about you, but I can readily provide lots of reasons I don’t get done what I want to get done.

No answers for this one

How people attempt to stay organized usually ends up being the thing the person finds that works best for them. Blocking out calendars, putting stuff on paper, using a new app, or combinations of all of those. But the underlying issue is not having enough time to plan because there is too much to do and the priorities keeps changing. Throw in distractions every 10-15 minutes each day and we’re all reacting and not producing. I don’t think we’re going to see that changing much and I fully expect to continue to be frustrated because I can’t get what I want to get done.