I have been using todo lists for most of my professional life. I tried digital solutions, such as Things, but ultimately always ended up using the pen + paper approach.
Writing tasks down by hand and eventually checking them off is deeply satisfying. Unfortunately, I don't consider todo lists the best tool for task management. There are at least two dimensions where they fall short: priorities and durations.
Usually, todo lists don't keep track of priorities - all tasks are created equal. But chances are some tasks are more important than others. Even if you start out ordering your list by priority, as soon as you add new tasks to it you'd have to reorder the whole list. Something that's not practical for analog solutions since you can only add to the end of the list.
Without priorities it's also too easy to finish off whatever task can be done the fastest to get that instant gratification by checking items off. And while it feels like we are making progress, it's questionable we are making progress towards the IMPORTANT things.
Then there is duration, the time it takes to complete a task. On a typical day my tasks might include quick wins such as Reply to Jens via WhatsApp, as well as larger efforts such as Create tech roadmap.
We might not always know the duration of a task upfront. But that's not even required, what we should have instead is an idea of how much time we are willing to dedicate to the task.
Without accounting for duration, it is easy to keep adding tasks to the todo list while failing to realize that the time it takes to finish them all well exceeds the hours avaiable during the day. That's a surefire way to build an ever-growing list!
So if todo lists are subpar productivity tools, what else can we use? Simple: use your calendar.
Now this may seem obvious, but using my calendar to manage tasks has been one of the single best tweaks to my productivity in the last year.
Here is how it works: every day, when I finish my work I plan out the next day. I check all the open issues on my backlog (which happens to be.. a list) and pick the ones I'm working on during the next day.
I then create events for each task in my calendar. This has a couple of benefits. First of all, the time is blocked so I know there will be no distractions. But it also forces me to think about the duration of the task and when I will work on it.
The important thing about this approach is to DO IT THE DAY BEFORE and on each given day simply trust your plan and execute it. I have struggled to do this initially, when I wanted to schedule tasks DURING THE DAY, asking myself What should I be working on next? which utlimately is just a proxy question for What do I WANT to be working on next? and then we're back to square one, because I rarely want to work on the potentially dull tasks that move the needle in the long run.
To wrap it up:
- Don't rely on todo lists
- Schedule everything in your calendar, and
- Do it the day before
I sometimes struggle to follow this approach myself. Something about todo lists just makes them way too easy to use. But I'm glad I can check off writing this article now!