Welcome to the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center’s #GoalSetGo2019 content — where each post this month we explore proven tactics, strategies, and tips to help you revamp and set your personal and professional goals for the new year.
If you feel that you’ve never quite conquered the perfect system for staying on task, you’re not alone. According to researchers in a recent study, just 40% of to-do lists remain unfinished. Which isn’t hard to believe, for anyone who regularly keeps a list. If you know the feeling of countless tasks weighing down on you —just as time flies — you’re part of a big club, 60% of the population to be exact. List keepers are also able to remember and describe in glaring detail everything left unfinished from the day before, but have difficulty remembering the items they’ve accomplished. Called the Zeigarkin effect, it’s the cognitive tendency to beat up one’s self until the completion of those last few tasks.
With that said, the fact that it’s proven that an unfinished task can have a detrimental effect on mood, happiness, and even productivity, it might be time to rethink one’s task system.
To Do Lists Don’t Account For Time
“I asked over 200 highly successful entrepreneurs what their number one secret was to productivity, and nobody mentioned a to-do list,” says Kevin Kruse, New York Times best selling author and LEADx founder. “Productive people live from their calendar, not a task list. Kruse is a huge proponent of time blocking — the practice of blocking one’s time according to the different areas you need to focus on in a given day.
The plus side of time blocking done right is that it helps you maintain a scope of all the things that demand your attention. Instead of letting a hang up on a single but difficult task eat up hours of your day, creating a traffic jam of to-dos, instead, you begin each day having already decided what’s worthwhile, and what isn’t.
How To Time Block?
“Instead of only putting calls and meetings on your calendar, you literally block out chunks of time for things that you have to get done,” adds Kruse. “At the very least, each day, reflect on your ‘one thing’—your most important task for the day—and block out one hour as early in the day as possible to work on it.”
Block Your Priorities
So let’s get started. Grab a pen and some paper, and draw this out.
Imagine your time every day is a pie, and each focus is like a pie slice. Instead of letting competing urgencies devour your attention throughout a day:
— Decide beforehand what are the most important things to tackle, and draw out a large enough slice for that.
— Account for tasks that are necessary but maybe not necessarily your goals or priorities.
— Account for personal tasks that are also necessary but perhaps not as urgent.
— Keep going until you’ve accounted for the minor but still important areas in your life.
— Add less important or non urgent slices until you’re happy with the division.
What does that look like? Let’s say you’re dividing your time up into 30 – 45 minute blocks, and the biggest thing on your list is finishing a deck you’re presenting in a few weeks. Block out two to three units of time to doing that as early in the day as possible. You’ll feel such a relief when you’ve gotten a good amount of work done on the largest looming item by 10 am — the rest of the day will feel more focused and infinitely easier. When you can schedule time blocks that correspond to each slice of your priorities, then you’re ready to work with time blocking.
— Every Sunday spend a half hour to tending to the outlook of the week ahead.
— Use color coded blocks in Google or Outlook calendars.
— Use sound notifications from your calendar to ping you when a time block is almost up. You can also set timers and alarms to that effect.
— Or download an app to help keep you in line, like Pomodone.
Custom Block Each Day Of The Week
For most, each week day has a different current, maybe you handle more meetings on Mondays and Wednesdays, or like to conduct interviews on Thursday afternoons, or have a big deadline every Friday. Remember to account for these time structures when you create time blocks for each weekday.
Account For Personal Time & Decompression
Don’t forget to block for decompression and “personal time” — coffee breaks, lunch in the park, hours at the gym, dinners with friends, checking personal email and social accounts, googling weird facts or booking vacation travel. It’s important that you account for ALL of your activities, so that your mind doesn’t feel like it needs to let personal decompression bleed into a particularly crucial time block.
Kruze adds his cautionary tale against living without the personal aspects balanced; “In my twenties I thought I could just hustle my way to success. I worked seven days a week, sixteen hours a day. I gave up exercise, friends, hobbies…all I did was work. And my first two companies failed miserably. There’s nothing wrong with hard work, but I learned that success comes from things like landing a key customer, finding and hiring key talent, forging a strategic partnership, out-thinking the competition. And you can’t be effective at things like this when you haven’t slept in a year.”
Distractions and Other Gophers
Things pop up. Don’t be flustered if you get an urgent call that needs your attention — go ahead and do it, but make sure it really is urgent. Not readily distinguishing “surprising” from “urgent’ is one way to let outside factors and people hijack your valuable time.
But if it is urgent, mentally push back whatever time block you’re currently in so as to account for the delay. Then just carry on.
Set Boundaries (But Flexible Ones)
Don’t be flummoxed by the steady dinging of your email inbox, either…and here’s why. It’s easy to feel a slavish need to respond to every email, but all of us have tried doing that and that’s just no way to live or accomplish day to day tasks or larger initiatives.
“‘Did you see my email?’” a coworker might say 15 minutes after sending it. If you’ve been busy in a more important time block, it’s perfectly fine to let them know you’re busy working on something, especially if their ask is out of the blue, not that urgent, or is really a favor. The upside is that you will shift the perception of yourself as someone who is focused and who values their time. Mallory Gainsborough, a practicing psychologist, notes that, “when we really start to value, respect, and invest our own time accordingly, so do the people around us.”
Trading In the Master To-Do List for the Micro To-Do Lists
The “master to-do list,” which is the list that never actually goes away — is just that — it has a never ending flux of new tasks tacked to the bottom of it,” adds Margaret Lange, a productivity strategist. “This can add to the sense of spinning wheels, doing a lot but never feeling like you’ve accomplished much, when in hindsight, the opposite might be true.” The point of time blocking isn’t to get rid of lists, it’s about organizing time according to priorities, to make to-do lists more manageable — so keep lists to make tackling to-dos within a specific time block and make the most of that time block. Suddenly, lists are more manageable when there are 3 items to a time block as opposed to tackling a master list of 30 tasks.
Now that you’re time blocking, it’s important to make the most of each time block and to nip any procrastination in the bud once you start a new block. For the priorities that are stuck in limbo for days or even weeks, sit down and figure out what’s the first step to simply beginning the accomplishment of that priority. Once you start that, it’s infinitely easier to finish. “Don’t get hung up on the quality or perfecting it as you’re doing it. This can get in the way of you even starting at all,” says Gainsbourgh. “It helps to jot down the first micro-action that starts a to-do list item.”