Kill Your To-Do List

We’re all well acquainted with the concept of the to-do list. Whether or not we get along with them is another matter entirely.

Sometimes to-do lists just don’t cut it, and at the end of the day, the checked boxes are buried amongst all the empty ones. Well, gee, if that isn’t a morale boost, I just don’t know what is.

In this post, I’ll discuss a to-do list alternative–The Single Day Schedule. I’ll explain how freelancers can use this better system to become more productive.


The Single Day Schedule

Scrap that to-do list. We’re starting over. This is what I call the Single Day Schedule.

I know, I know. “Schedule” is a scary word that involves lots of scary planning to work around your scary life. But that’s not what I’m talking about. This is a schedule you only have to stick to for one day. In fact, it’s not that big a departure from the traditional to-do list at all. The biggest difference? Connecting your tasks to time makes them much easier to tackle.

One of the biggest problems we encounter in using to-do lists is that we simply overestimate how much we can do in one day. This leads to inevitable disappointment when we don’t get it all done. Now, grab a piece of paper, or open a new document.

Start out how you normally would, by writing down a task. Now, assign a time at which you will start it. Do the same for the next item. This one’s start time will be whenever you expect the task before it to be finished. Writing out your tasks as a schedule forces you to consider how long each will take, and therefore, how many you can feasibly fit in your workday. Take mine for example:

09:30 Research image gallery template options for website

09:50 Continue work on wedding invitation design for client

10:50 RSS reader break

11:00 Finish wedding invitation design

12:05 Send concepts to client

12:15 Lunch

12:45 Send invoices

You get the idea. Continue this for your entire workday. It’s best to get this part done before you begin work in the morning, or even before going to bed the night prior. Don’t let yourself revise the schedule while you’re working. This will only tempt you to add in breaks, and lengthen your task time allotments. (You little cheater. Or is that just me?)

How to Get the Most from the Single Day Schedule

Using the Single Day Schedule to organize your day gives you a realistic idea of how much you can accomplish, eliminates the ever-popular “Whatever Shall I Do Next?” method of procrastination, and you always know where you stand–whether you’re on top of things, or running behind. Here are a few suggestions to help you get the most of it:

  • Keep your check boxes–There’s no denying the satisfaction in checking something off your to-do list. In fact, that’s the reason I’ve clung to those inefficient lists for so long, and I’m willing the bet I’m not the only one. Here’s the secret–No one said you couldn’t have time slots and check boxes. I know, I know. It’s very exciting. So, keep those little boxes around, and check ‘em off as you complete them. It sure feels good, doesn’t it? Always give yourself a little more time than you think you need. It’s like setting your clock five minutes early. You’ll get a great mood boost when you finish a task ahead of time, and you’ll be banking minutes just in case some unexpected frustrations arise. It’s up to you how you spend any extra time between tasks, whether it’s rewarding yourself with a break until the next is scheduled to start, or jumping right back into work. Personally, as I get going and start racking up some extra time, I find myself trying to race the clock to see just how far ahead of schedule I can get, sometimes even foregoing scheduled breaks in favour of it.
  • Schedule your breaks–A schedule keeps you from breaking for too long, because you’ve set boundaries before you’ve even gotten to work. Remember to be fair to yourself when assigning them. A day without breaks is going to become miserable quickly, but over-indulging in them is death to productivity. You need to be honest with yourself about how much you need to keep going. The best part of scheduling your breaks is that you can plan for other things that run on a schedule. If your favourite Youtube channel always posts something new around 3:00, pencil in your ten-minute afternoon break for then. You’ll have something to look forward to, and won’t end up taking an unscheduled break only twenty minutes after your last, when your fingers just happen to type “http://www.youtube.com” into the address bar. (No, that URL isn’t a link. What did you think, that I was going to help you procrastinate?)

Your Turn

What do you think? How do you keep yourself organized (or not) throughout the day?

Share your answer in the comments.

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Comments

  1. says

    This is a great idea which could help a lot of people. It seems to me, though, that people who get things done do it regardless of what system they’re using. There are people who get things done with to-do lists just fine because they’re the kind of people who get things done.

    We all still need to find what methods work best for us, don’t get me wrong. But chronic procrastination will not succeed under any system, and that’s really what most freelancers are guilty of, I suspect. :)

    Thanks for sharing such a great idea!

  2. says

    Having a to do list will help anyone to get most from it and sometimes it becomes hard to follow the to do list as uncertain calls from clients + email exchange regarding review. Wish i could come up with all of the things and get more productive

  3. says

    I used to just dump all my todos in outlook but it became a cluster mess and I just started to ignore it.

    About 2 days ago, I changed to some software that will allow me to see everything better at a glance. I can see whats waiting, on hold, priority, etc…all in pretty colors. :)

    I honestly think that its the change up that helps me focus better. Its all the same tasks, but looks different and not as scary to me right now.

  4. Elizabeth Rago says

    I am the queen of to-do lists and find it very frustrating (as a semi-control freak) to have unfinished projects at the end of the day. I love your idea and will be trying it out! I find shutting off my phone and disabling my email notification to be very helpful, even if it is only for an hour.

  5. Dinesh Keerthy says

    Thanks for the article. The single day schedule is a good idea. I have tried it before and it sure works.

    Some learnings: Usually when you plan your entire day out with the details of timings and breaks, it’s always good to keep time for the unexpected stuff that jumps out just when you plan your entire schedule and hit the start button. This is the stuff that comes out of the new day – ‘today’, and usually has things that need to be addressed immediately. That’s when the schedule turns a dark color and all the unchecked stuff keeps piling because of a priority redistribution.

    Depending on each one’s such ‘x’ factor in work / life, a certain % alloted to that would match up to what really happens, or you always end up disappointed. I allot up to a 30% and it can still be a big challenge. Observing your patterns over a few days will help identify what number works best.

    For the chronic procrastinators – treat yourself to stuff that’s done on time or before (It’s a great feeling!). Make sure you don’t cheat though. Also, make sure the list is someplace it can’t hide – like on the desktop (use apps). And make sure the background is pretty. That way you’ll feel really bad putting off all those tasks :)

  6. says

    I also had a problem using the to-do list in the beginning, because I often wrote down as many ideas I could think of and I even wrote down what I should consider to do! It really became a mess, but the main problem was that I wrote them down without considering how long they would take. So, a calendar is obviously a handy tool, but also a document for writing down what has been done. I find both of them equally important.

    And I agree with Michael, some people are simply more productive than others, regardless of their preferred tools.

  7. says

    I do this a lot and it works very well, especially when I have projects that require larger blocks of work…and those are the times when I don’t need the distractions. So writing down that I’m going to spend [these hours] on [task A of project] means I’ll get it done, and I can visually see when I’ll have time to go back to the emails, follow-ups, etc.

    scheduling also forces you to really think about how long it will take to do various things.

  8. says

    This is excellent! Checked boxes and a schedule…I love it! This really is a good idea, so often we get overwhelmed with our little un0cked boxes that we can’t even decide where to begin. The schedule idea will help with that.

    You better believe that I’m moving to a box/schedule “to do list”!

    Thanks for sharing,
    Jen

  9. says

    I have tried out number of ways to break the regular schedule. everytime i fail wit it. But for sure the above points gave me some more tips to rejoice me to new approach.
    It always depends on you how you maintain your to do list.
    My knid advice is dont have it as work have it as a habit.

  10. says

    I similarly like @Bjarte had a problem with writing down to many things on the to-do list, but i think it’s normal. When starting out with todo list it’s hard to predict how long will an activity take if you never tracked your time before, so i think it’s just takes practice, don’t give up to early thinking it won’t work.

    Secondly, i prefer todo list over the schedule. I think todos work better for programmers since we are used to bug traclkers which work similarly :)

  11. says

    I’ve been using scheduling since I started making to-do lists. Some days are perfect, some are under scheduled and some are over scheduled. I don’t think you can make a perfect day, but you should stay as much as possible regular from day to day. Having huge ups and downs is no good.

    I good pointer to some that haven’t tried this before would be adding next to coffe / lunch breaks some recovery breaks. Sooner or later you will be interrupted by someone or something and seeing you’re missing your schedule is no good. Having these recovery points works really great!

  12. Unit B says

    OH! I thought it said Do Your To-Kill List. (Hey, I’m from Jersey.) This makes sense, too. Actually, I’m trying to train myself to follow the 50-10 plan, which means 50 minutes intense pace, no interruptions (no emails, internet, etc.) followed by a 10 minute break. Just another way of focusing on the task at hand without distraction. Thanks for the idea. –JB

  13. says

    Michael,

    I think there’s a lot of truth to that. It doesn’t matter how great a strategy is if you can’t make yourself sit down and make use of it. That’s by far the hardest part.

    Vivek and Dinesh,

    Unexpected tasks do make it harder to follow your schedule. I find, though, that as you work against the clock, you tend to bank extra time which makes these new tasks easier to squeeze in when you have a moment. Of course, if something does throw you off schedule, all the more motivation to beat the clock, and get back on track!

    Brow, Bjarte and Greg,

    Messy to-do lists are brutal, aren’t they? You can both attest to the important of keeping a clean list, and I definitely agree. Organization makes everything less daunting.

    Elizabeth and Stephan,

    Having those social media and phone/email checks scheduled has really paid off for me, too. Knowing that you’ll have ten minutes dedicated to it in half an hour makes it that much easier to resist for right now. Scheduling it in turns it into a task, rather than guilt-inducing procrastination.

    Jen, Freelance Writer and Tim,

    Good luck implementing the idea! I hope it works for you. Let me know if you come up with any helpful variations! And Tim, I absolutely agree. The more often you try this exercise, the more accurately you’ll be able to estimate how much time you need for any given task. You become very aware of your work pace!

    Bogdan,

    An important point! Those breaks function as a sort of safety net, and prevent you from being discouraged by falling behind. Thanks for the tip!

  14. says

    Lindsay,

    I hope they work for you! Best of luck. :)

    Unit B,

    That’s another great productivity trick. It makes me wonder how much you could get done if you wrote out those intervals in schedule form throughout your whole workday! A bit of a new variation, focusing on time invested rather than individual tasks.

  15. Rachel says

    Although I like this idea, I know that it doesn’t work for me. I have tried using Google Calendar to schedule my day, and somehow I can never stick to my schedule. As soon as I deviate from the schedule (which inevitably happens for various reasons) I can’t get myself back to it.

    Instead, I stick with a combination of a prioritized to-do list and a time management tool. I like using the Pomodoro technique to make sure I focus on the items on my to-do list but still give myself breaks. I suppose the Pomodoro technique is a sort of scheduling (breaking up the day into 25-minute chunks of work), but it works better for me than explicitly scheduling specific tasks.

  16. says

    I’ve run across a technique that somewhat incorporates this into an idea similar to Unit B, but a smaller unit. It also works with only a “today list” versus a full list, even though the today list is built from the full to-do list. You only concentrate on today’s list versus the full list. Each day, you build your new list.

    Here’s the website. Totally free and nothing to buy unless you don’t have a timer :)

    http://www.pomodorotechnique.com

    I found that when I do follow it, I do get a lot done! You have to stick with it and basically, you are doing a schedule with it and you could right down the start and end time. This technique builds in 5 and 15 minute breaks so that you get up and move around or you take care of those distractions. It’s idea of recording distractions as unplanned time and how many distractions you have had would also allow you to put those on your list and “plan it” if you needed to do that.

    Check it out!

  17. says

    Rachel and coachprokendall,

    I’ve had a great experience with the Pomodoro technique as well! As you point out, Rachel, not everything works for everyone, or for every situation. Personally, I find that Pomodoro is great when I’m trying to work on one lengthy task, whereas a scheduled to-do list works best for a series of smaller ones.

  18. says

    I think a lot of people get trapped in social media talk, messengers, and e-mail. When you search for information or talk to people….those can be some of the biggest time wasters. I think it’s important to have a priority list as well, focusing on what NEEDS to be done before you tap into the smaller things. For instance, I think I’d be more effective if I do my work before checking e-mails.

    Otherwise you must be extraordinarily disciplined to not fall into that knowledge/talk trap in the first place.

  19. says

    I agree with a comment already listed above, folks that regularly get things done, are going to find a system that works for them. I personally use a combination of to-do lists (to track the master list) and scheduling (to plug in when I’m actually going to get something done). I’m a huge proponent of folks trying new things and seeing what works for them!

    Thanks for the post!

  20. says

    Daquan,

    Absolutely. A big part of the reason I like working is a schedule is because it entails sitting down and prioritizing as I work out my day. I can schedule the important tasks first, to make sure that they get done. I think that scheduling a few email breaks throughout the day lets you get your mind off of it for the rest of the time, and encourages you to respond promptly to messages from clients during that allotted time.

    Michelle,

    Do you find that you stick with this strategy consistently, or does it vary from day to day? I know that for myself, it varies. I love the schedule strategy when I have a series of different tasks I want to work through, but it’s hardly an every-day thing. I wonder if using a strategy more consistently brings about more benefits, or whether it’s best to adapt on a daily basis.

  21. says

    I couldn’t agree more. I am doing a presentation on exactly this at Ignite Charlotte on February 8th.

    However, as I will argue in the presentation, making such a schedule can really limit your sense of freedom to do what you want with your time. It’s like following a recipe to your life. So, I think it’s ok to go off the schedule and revise it whenever you feel like it.

  22. says

    Impulse Magazine,

    I’ve found myself to be the same way far too often, which is what set me off on the hunt for alternative techniques in the first place. Really, I think it’s all about trying different things until you find that really helps you get things done.

    Flaviu,

    That’s awesome! Will your talk be available for viewing online afterward? I’d love to see it.

  23. says

    Ali,

    It will be streamed live as well as recorded for future viewing. You can get more details about the live viewing here: http://www.ignitecharlotte.org/speakers/ic2-talks-speakers/

    I’d be honored if you watch it.

    Also, the example schedule you give seems a bit optimistic. Checking RSS feeds for me takes a minimum of 30 minutes. Can you really do it in 10? Checking the twitter feed alone takes over 10 minutes. And can you start lunch and end it in 30 minutes?

  24. says

    Sounds a good idea, i have tried many different tools but I still go back to handwritten to-do list on blank paper, it works the best for me:) I think it really depends on individual.

  25. says

    To do lists!! I have had a tough time trying to follow them, but now I have mastered the art of doing the work I assign to myself. It feels really great to check off a work as completed from my list.

  26. says

    Flaviu,

    Thanks for the link! I’ve bookmarked it, and I’ll be sure to check it out!

    As for the schedule, it definitely depends on the person. My sample schedule was actually based on one I’d worked with just a few days before. I prefer to do my RSS and social media checks in batches, rather than all at once. I find it more effective to use them as 10 minute breaks/rewards. The lunch one varies a lot, too, depending on how you do it. If you’re going out, or maybe even meeting someone, you’ll definitely need to schedule more time. For me on that particular day, it entailed tossing something in the microwave, so 30 minutes was plenty of time. Part of what I love about the single day schedule is that you can tailor it to what is happening that particular day, so if you’re going out or cooking from scratch, you can schedule all the time you need.

    Cherry,

    I’m not sure why it is, but I always end up going back to paper, too. I’ve used Remember the Milk which I thought was great, and the Dunnit iPhone app (also great. Very highly recommended.) But for whatever reason, I always revert back to paper. I feel it might stem from my obsessive desire to highlight things! Hahaha. I use it as a priority indicator on days I’m not doing a full-out schedule. You should see my lists. They’re completely neon.

    Oraculum,

    Pomodoro really is great! For me, it really helpful for tasks I simply don’t want to do, with its concept of, “Just work for this many minutes, then you can break.”

  27. says

    Lately I have become a GTD freak and I’ve tried dozens of task management tools but still I can’t keep up with the schedule of my to-do list. The best tool I’ve used so far is ActiveInbox since I’m a virtual assistant and most of my to-dos are by email. Then I have to use another system to send me reminders. Any recommondations?

  28. says

    I don’t use any task management tools, personally, but one of my regular clients is a VA company, and they use Intervals. It seems to work well for them, because it allows you to not only post tasks with deadlines and whatever you need, but it also has a comments function for all of the staff, or even clients if you created an account for them. It definitely serves to eliminate some emails in that respect.

    Can anyone else recommend anything?

  29. says

    @Cherry Rahtu The handwritten to-do list is classic, that’s why it lasts.

    My to-do lists are scheduled weekly as I’m into a daily routine with all the regular things I need to do daily. All the other stuff I schedule it two or three times a week, the rest are daily… Usually, I crafted my list every Sunday night, just like answering a homework and getting ready for work the whole week.

  30. says

    Alli,

    Hahaha true! Good luck. :)

    Angelee,

    You’ve clearly managed to establish a really solid routine. That’s awesome! I think a lot of us wish we’d managed to do that already! Congrats.

  31. says

    I love this, its actually something I switched to doing a while ago after I noticed that I never quite got everything on my to-do list done. This helped me see how much time all of my tasks would take up and as a result, let me see how much I could actually do in one day. Does anyone know of any good apps (preferably web or android) that use this system? I’m looking for something that is more than just a calendar..

  32. says

    Ali, the beauty of your system is two-fold. First, it is system independent. Second, it is a clutter-deterrent, since there is nothing to store long-term.

    Although Michael Martine made a valid point, you’re not preaching to a choir of Highly Effective People. Instead, you’re reaching out to those sinners, yea verily, those downtrodden Disorganized, powerless Procrastinators and serial List Makers.

    We can all use a little help. Thanks! :)

    Cheers,

    Mitch

  33. says

    I haven’t done something like that before as I need visual reinforcement for me to follow my To-Do-list for the day— and this means having a huge whiteboard with all those tasks. I erase the task after it’s done and my goal is to keep it a blank slate at the end of the day. All those online schedulers don’t work for me and my Windows Calendar is quite useless. Now, to motivate me more – I’d give myself a reward if I achieve a blank slate in a certain hour, like 19:00… something like that :-)

  34. says

    Chris,

    I’m so glad you’ve found it effective! I can’t personally recommend any applications, as I just use paper.

    Can anyone else?

    Mitchell,

    Thanks so much! I’m glad you like the idea. I definitely agree with what you’ve said reaching out to the “sinners”! I just hope everyone can convince themselves to give an organized method a chance!

    Issa,

    I like the whiteboard tactic! A blank board is a very tangible goal at the end of the day. Might be something I have to try out! I think it’s one of those things that can be combined with any number of methods, as well. No matter how you handle or schedule your tasks, you can always erase them when you’re done!

  35. says

    I totally agree. The more i budget my time around a take, the better I get at it. It’s actually quite scary how god you become at it, but it just comes from practice.

  36. says

    Basecamp is a web app from 37signals that can do nice ToDo lists (w/ deadlines and so on). Gives you even some pleasure knocking off items by changing their visual styling :)

  37. says

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  38. says

    I could improve my time tracking workflow using Timeneye (http://www.timeneye.com). I am a Basecamp user (suggested!) and with Timeneye I can track time directly from there, commenting on to-dos with the time I spent on them – everything gets automatically synced and tracked to Timeneye.
    I think it’s a nice effort on trying to avoid you lose time tracking your own time

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