Why to-do lists kill your productivity, and what to do instead (Timeboxing)


Bestselling author Nir Eyal (pictured above) compares managing your day with to-do lists to running your life on Windows 95. Why? Because to-do lists “allow us to get distracted by the easy or urgent tasks at the expense of the important work”. Fortunately, there’s a better way to win your day.

What to do

Migrate your to-do list into your calendar – and turn everything you do in a workday into an appointment with yourself.

Why it works

Most people run their workday off their to-do lists and email inboxes. They capture everything that comes to mind on an ever-growing list of things they need to get done. Also, there’s the email inbox, which is – let’s face it – a to-do list put together for us by other people. As a result, they spend their days reactively instead of proactively, with easy or urgent tasks crowding out the important work. This results in multitasking, a loss of focus, and continuous work without breaks. At the literal end of the day, they end up stressed out, overworked and ultimately unproductive.

Yet, there is a better approach: Managing time instead of managing tasks. This approach is called timeboxing. It has been popular among the most successful thought leaders and entrepreneurs for decades. In 1967, management Guru Peter Ducker wrote: “Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time”. Timeboxing is how the most successful (and busy) entrepreneurs of our time – including Bill Gates and Elon Musk – win their days. And according to Harvard Business Review, in a survey of 1000 productivity “hacks”, timeboxing was ranked the most useful.

Shifting from managing tasks to managing time is incredibly powerful for two reasons, according to bestselling author Cal Newport. First, the enhanced deliberateness and focus that comes with it roughly doubles the amount of useful work you accomplish. “You can either get twice as much done in a typical day” Newport writes, “or, intriguingly, accomplish a typical amount of work in only half a day”. Second, it provides an anxiety-reducing sense of control over your schedule. As I’ve learned during my shift from task management to time management, this effect is immense. But don’t take my word for it and try it yourself. Here’s how.

How to do it

Set aside 3-4 minutes before you start working in the morning. Then, start by writing down your three most important goals for the day. This forces you to figure out what matters most. And since you can effortlessly hold three things in your mind at a time, you’ll be able to keep these goals top of mind throughout the day. Next, timebox your calendar to pursue these goals – by deciding in advance not only what you’re going to do, but also when you’re going to do it.

When structuring your timeboxing, think about work in three broad categories: collaboration, focus, and defocus. Start by timeboxing your collaborative work. Most notably, this includes meetings and email. Here’s the good news: If there are appointments with other people on your calendar, you’re already timeboxing your meetings. Congratulations! Now, if you want to go pro on timeboxing, don’t stop there. Add checking and answering emails to your schedule at predetermined times to your calendar – and turn off your email client outside of these times.

Then, timebox one 45-90-minute session of intense focus on your most important daily goals. According to a groundbreaking study by McKinsey, this amount of “deep work” doubles your productivity. Schedule this session at a time of day when your mental energy (aka alertness) is relatively high (here’s how). Spoiler alert: For 75% of us, that’s in the morning. Lastly, timebox a total of 90 minutes of defocus per day. While this might sound like a lot, it’s two 15-minute and 1-hour lunch breaks. According to a study by DeskTime, this is what the 10% most productive people do, too. If you want to learn why and how, read this 2-minute article.

Want to learn more about timeboxing with a digital calendar? Check out Eyal’s excellent work on the topic. And if you like to use a physical calendar, Newport’s Time-Block Planner is a great resource.

Regardless of how you manage your time, remember this: Productivity isn’t about squeezing in more things, but about doing the right things.

Once all your to-dos are on your calendar, you simply need to focus on showing up to these appointments – just as you’d show up for an appointment with someone else.