Today I’ll provide some pointers for how to apply mindfulness
to getting things done on your to-do list.
- Put Your To-Dos or Tasks on Your Calendar
All of us have to-do lists that come in many different forms (on an app, Outlook, or your computer). You might keep a list of your tasks on a device or pad of paper. If you’re like me, you probably have different lists in different places and spend much of your time just managing your to-dos.
One thing I know is that nothing’s wrong with having to-do lists. They can be really helpful to keep track of what needs to be done. However, what’s been found by studying how people use them is that when the items are not put on a calendar, when they’re not prioritized, when they’re not given a due date, people often end up not getting them done when they need to be done. People experience a fair deal of anxiety and stress around managing their to-do list and actually spend way more time than necessary doing so. Sometimes it can seem like one of our major to-dos is managing our to-dos — and that’s just kind of crazy.
The tip here is to actually put your to-dos on your calendar and not just on a free-floating list. The idea may seem bizarre to you, and it may feel like the tip I previously provided to schedule time to check your email. As with that one, I’m not going to suggest that you have to be overly strict about this and always put all your to-dos on a calendar. I’m not going to suggest that you should always expect to stick to the calendar either.
If you do this, though, you may spend less time and experience less stress managing your to-dos, and you may actually get more of your to-dos done in the correct order.
Here’s one way I do it. At the beginning of the week, I normally perform a big review of my to-do lists. I’ll do the same at the end of each day for any to-dos that I didn’t complete that day. Each time I perform a review, I organize my to-dos on the calendar. If I can’t get to it at the end of the day, I do my best to start the next day by reviewing where I stand with my to-dos. Which one scheduled for the day before didn’t get done? What’s really important now in terms of my priorities and reorganizing the to-dos on my calendar?
That’s my method: a big review weekly and a smaller one daily.
Like I said, you can find your own system for getting your to-dos onto your calendar. Here are some of the benefits I found from doing this. The first thing is that if I don’t have my to-dos on a calendar, I end up periodically looking down at my to-do list and spending time as well as mental energy processing it. Think about doing that for one minute each 30 times a day. That’s 30 minutes spent not actually doing something on your list but just going over the same information to decide what to do next. That’s a big waste of time and also a drain of energy because looking at that list is unnecessarily stressful.
By putting tasks on the calendar instead, I’m limiting the time and energy I spend making decisions about what do next. When I look at the calendar or it reminds me of an appointment, I can then immediately jump into action at those times. The decision about what to do has already been made by me the day before. And I thank myself. If it’s Tuesday, I say, “Monday Robert, thank you for taking on the burden of this decision for me because now I can just do these three things that I put on the calendar from 10:00 to 10:15.” I’m able to get started on my tasks much more quickly when I can simply jump into action. I’m much less likely to procrastinate or spin my wheels because the decision has already been made.
For me, that feels very different. It’s another way of dividing my energy. I’m making decisions on my tasks once a day, and I’m just engaging in action the rest of the time.
2. Set Aside Some Time
Another tip I found is that by setting aside some time to decide what I’m going to focus on doing during the day, I can really step back, think about what my overall priorities are for the day, and then give some real thought to which of these tasks fit into my plan for the day. It lets you engage in some higher-level, integrated, holistic type of planning for the day so you’re more likely to pick tasks that fit into the day based on where you’re going to be or what your other activities are. The tasks are also more likely to be accomplished based on what else you’re doing or how much time you have.
It just helps you choose what to do more systematically because you’re taking a step back in a calmer period of time to decide what you’re going to do instead of leaving it for a busier stretch. If instead I decide what to do while moving quickly from one task to another during a busy day, I’m more likely to pick something that’s easy, fun, doesn’t feel too challenging, or is just at the top of the list. Those are not the best considerations to take into account when deciding what to do.
By choosing ahead of time, you can basically be more mindful about what to do and pick what is most important and relevant at a certain time.
Stephen Covey famously talked about this distinction between the important and the urgent and how all of us often instinctively decide to do things that feel urgent in the moment instead of necessary things that are important. As a result, those important things that aren’t urgent often repeatedly fall by the wayside. And then we find that we attend to those important things in a crisis once they become urgent because we haven’t addressed them for a month.
Stepping back and carrying out some planning when you’re not in the mix of daily chaos can help you make decisions: “Oh, there’s this thing that’s important. It may not be urgent, but I know it needs to get done.” Now you’ve immediately set a deadline for it. It needs to get done. “I’m going to put it on my calendar tomorrow.”
3. Allocate Time That’s Needed for Each Task
Another advantage of looking at the scope of your day is the ability to properly allocate the time that’s needed for each task.
When you happen to have free time, you might look at your list and think, “Oh, here’s something that I can do.” You might pick something that needs an hour to do, but you only have 15 minutes. You then spend 15 minutes on a task that requires an hour. You get it partially done, but then you feel frustrated because you didn’t do it at a high quality and will need to pick it up later. That’s not satisfying or efficient, and it creates anxiety.
If you pick an item that really needs an hour when you only have 15 minutes to spare, you may end up spending an hour on it and getting it done, which is great. But now you’ve spent 45 minutes that you didn’t have in your schedule when you should have been doing something else. Therefore, you end up overloading yourself for the day. You may end up working later or having to cancel something else. Planning ahead can be extremely valuable: “You know, I think this task is going to take me 45 minutes. Let me put an hour in my schedule for it.” Or you can say, “You know what, I don’t have an hour in my schedule for this thing. Let me see if I can put it in my schedule for the next day.”
These are examples of ways in which putting your to-dos on your calendar and devoting that separate time to scheduling them can have you engage in that process more mindfully, productively, efficiently, and effectively.
4. The To-Dos That Need to Be Done at a Certain Time
This next bit might seem obvious, but there are certain types of to-dos that either need to be done at a certain time or benefit from it. Sometimes, I need to call someone and know that person is only available during office hours. That task is just sitting on my to-do list and I haven’t scheduled it. The random time when I look at my list and realize I need to call this person may not line up with the appropriate time to perform that task. So I end up saying, “I can’t do it now,” and then the task slips by until a later time. At that point, it’s just left up to chance, which is not a good way of doing things. If it’s 7 p.m. now and this person is gone for the day, I may end up calling them, leaving a message, and we’ll then play phone tag for a while.
If I had spent time the day before considering their availability, I could have put down an appropriate time for that to-do on my calendar and would be more likely to reach that person. It’d be more satisfying and efficient.
You might have many different reasons why certain to-dos need to be done at a certain time. It may boil down to a limited schedule or certain things taking up your physical and mental energy. When you have a physical task, maybe it needs daylight. Maybe some to-dos benefit from being lumped together in a group. If you’ve got a bunch of phone calls to make or emails to send to different people, you can really crank those out if you do them all in a batch of 15 or 30 minutes instead of doing one at at time.
This is just a sampling of the many benefits of scheduling your to-dos. Again, I’m not expecting or suggesting that you should be able to stick to it religiously, but I would suggest that you try it and see if there’s even a 10-20 percent improvement in how you get your to-dos done and how that feels. Ask yourself if that’s worth it, even if it’s not foolproof.
Finally, what should you do about those tasks that don’t get done on a certain day? It’s quite easy. At the end of the day or the next morning, I look at my to-dos from the day before and see which ones haven’t been addressed. I either put them back on my to-do list right away or reschedule them for whenever it’s appropriate. That can be done very quickly on a calendar.
Next week, I’ll share some more tips on this topic.