A Psychologist’s Approach to Time Management

Part II: To-Do Lists

Let’s talk about a real hero of getting things done: To-do lists. This small but immensely powerful tool is the make or break of organization and getting things done. To-do lists are used widely and to different degrees of effectiveness. Used correctly they can be a tangible and satisfying tool to help you get closer to your goals. So what should you keep in mind when using them?

Common Mistakes of using To-Do Lists

Tasks vs. Goals

One thing that many people get wrong when they start using to-do lists and their everyday life is that they confuse tasks with General goals that they might want to achieve in their life. What I mean by that is that often tasks on to-do lists are not directly actionable. Ideally, every single task on the list is a representation of the “next actionable step” you can directly take in order to get closer to achieving a task or completing a bigger project.

For example, having the vague item “get car checked” on your to-do list can be problematic. It can be difficult to look at this item on the list and understand what you need to do first. Can you do something right now in order for you to get closer to completing this task? A better idea would be to find the next actionable step. In this example this could be “Find number of car garage to make an appointment”. This will make it clear what you can do right now to finally get the car checked.

Multitasking and Decision Fatique

Did you know that in most cases multitasking is not actually possible? Research has shown that so called multitasking is often nothing more than switching rapidly between different tasks. This means, instead of doing two or more tasks at the same time, your attention jumps between tasks. It then, progresses on them a little, before jumping to another task. The problem with this is that task switching drains our energy and on our ability to make decisions. Every time your focus switches from one task to another you need a short moment to understand what you are looking at and what you need to do. Over time this is draining your energy and motivation. It often means that in the end of the day it is harder to make decisions because of decision fatigue

An easy way for you to decrease the chance of experiencing decision fatigue is by making those tasks on your to-do list very actionable. Another way to prevent decision fatigue is to take time on the previous day to write the list. If that is not possible, write your list in the morning.

This allows you to make decisions on what you are going to do when you are not not already tired. You will notice that it will become easier to make rational decisions on what you can possibly achieve each day. 

The length of a To-Do List

An easy way to determine how much is too much for a to-do list is by applying the “1-3-5 rule”. This rule is a handy guide to determine how much a person can usually achieve during a full day.  The numbers 1, 3 and 5 each stand for the amount of tasks per category that person can usually complete in a day. 1 stands for the amount of harder or longer tasks that person can complete. A longer or bigger task is usually defined as a task that takes between 3 to 4 hours to complete. What exactly these talks are is up to you. Use your previous experience to  determine what a big task is for you. We are all different in the speed and ways we prefer to work. Often a person’s ability varies between days and types of tasks. 

The number 3 stands for the amount of medium-sized tasks a daily to-do list should usually include. Medium-sized tasks are usually defined as tasks that can be accomplished in 1 to 2 hours. Again, what kind of tasks can be defined as a medium-sized task for you might vary to another person. 

Finally the  the number 5 stands for the number of small tasks a person can complete in a day. A small task is usually defined as a task that can be completed in 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Self-Compassion and Productivity

This means that generally about 9 tasks (1+3+5 = 9) can be completed by a person on a daily basis. Of course the amount of work you can complete on one day compared to another can vary widely. It is very important to take into account how you are feeling on that specific day. Also consider what those tasks are, and whether you might have some ad hoc tasks to complete unexpectedly. Try not to make yourself crazy over completing all tasks on your list on a daily basis. If you have a tendency towards perfectionism, you might feel pressure to check off every item. However, consider that you will most likely lose motivation or even develop a burnout if you don’t allow yourself breaks. It is alright if you don’t accomplish everything on your list. Long-term, a self-compassionate approach to productivity will allow you to get more things done.


My Daily To-Do Lists

I want to now talk about the way that I used to do list in my daily life:

At the beginning of this year I started using a technique that you might have heard of before. It is called bullet journaling. Please don’t roll your eyes right now. I am not talking about the visually pleasing but intense technique that you might be envisioning right now. Instead I’m  talking about a very simplified version without  any calligraphy or drawings. The way I use my bullet journal is very basic.

I only use a cheap journal that I bought in a shop that also sold simple office supplies. It consists of a couple of hundreds of pages. I could explain how I set mine up, but this video by the inventor of the “Bullet Journal Method” explains it much better than I ever could.

How do I do it in Practice?

At the end of each day I sit down and I turn to the next free page in my bullet journal. I copy tasks that I did not complete that day, if they still need to be completed. Then I look at my calendar and check what appointments and tasks I have to do the next day. After I have completed my to-do list, I block out time on my calendar for each item on my list, if they are not on my calendar yet. If I notice that I won’t have time to complete all tasks the next day, I will make adjustments to the list. It is important to me to not overwork myself. It is not my goal to complete all tasks on my to-do list everyday. Instead I aim to complete as many as I can, without feeling extremely fatigued or unmotivated. 

Daily- and Ad Hoc Tasks

I have some tasks that I want to complete everyday and I also have them noted on my to-do list. Tasks that I include on my daily to-do list are for example walking my dogs and language training. During meetings I often add tasks to my list. By keeping track of suddenly arising tasks and ideas I end up completing a lot more. I take note of sudden ideas that I might have not been aware of earlier that day. This way I won’t forget them.

Self-Compassion and Productivity

Some days I feel a lot more productive than another day’s. It took me a while to be okay with that. So if you are still struggling with varying levels of productivity on different days I can completely understand your struggles. I used to push myself to complete all my to-do list items each day. After a day of pushing myself too much, I notice that I am too exhausted to accomplish anything for a while. This is a signal to me that I have to take it slower.

I can honestly say that I am much happier now that I use self-compassion as part of my productivity routine. When I started becoming more sustainable with my energy I noticed that I was able to maintain high levels of productivity more easily. I still have days on which I don’t feel capable of completing a lot. On these days I focus on self-care and try not to listen to the voice of my inner critic. I know that allowing myself to rest will ultimately allow me to stay healthy and continue to be productive.

The Inner Critic

I want you to consider whether that voice that might have made itself heard in your head could be that inner critic. Is the voice telling you that you are not as productive as others? Is it giving you the feeling that you are only “good” if you complete all your tasks? This might mean that the voice of your inner critic is still very strong. Don’t worry if it is. Over time you can learn to overwrite that voice and instead treat yourself with self-compassion. 

In my experience, you don’t need to worry that eventually you will not be productive at all if you are “too kind” to yourself. Most people who worry that they are not productive enough on a daily basis, are some of the most productive people I meet. I also don’t want you to worry whether you might not be where you are at the moment if it wasn’t for your inner critic. Of course in small increments this voice can help you to keep pushing forward, but if you don’t allow yourself to take breaks or go easy on yourself, eventually you will not be able to be productive at all. Your worth as a person is not determined by how productive you are.

If you need help with challenging your inner critic or with finding a better time management strategy for continuous productivity, do not hesitate to reach out. Let me know what you think of this to-do lists and what your go-to hacks are to stay productive.

Reading recommendations:

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. David Allen is an Organisation-Guru. He explains all the small and bigger changes to become organized. 

The Bullet Journal Method: Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future by Ryder Carroll
The inventor of this simple technique explains the ins and outs of how you can use a simple journal to stay on track of your long- and short-term goals.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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