The biggest shock when I started my first professional job was learning you never get it all done.
At university, your to-do list is finite. There are classes and course work. Essays to hand in. Exams to study for. Each of those deadlines pass and you’re done. Sometime in the middle of juggling research and revision, it gets overwhelming but it’s temporary. This too shall pass.
Then you hit working life and it never ends. There’s no end of semester light at the end of the tunnel anymore.
Now your reality is attending meetings and coming away with more work than an hour again. It’s having ideas on improving processes or updating documentation that sit on your to-do list for months. There are goals and development plans to squeeze in. And that’s on top of your primary responsibilities.
No one warns you of this when you graduate. No one points out that you’ll never get it all done every again. No one mentions the guilt cloud from mid-semester is going to be a permanent fixture (although it doesn’t have to be – keep reading).
And because it’s not talked about, you’re not equipped to deal with it. You’re not expecting your to-do list to become a constant presence to manage every day. And you’re certainly not given the tools and tactics to deal with it all.
Well no more, today that changes.
Make Peace with Your To-Do List
You are not going to get it all done.
Today. Tomorrow. Ever. Having nothing else to do is a thing of the past.
The best you can hope for is to feel organised and on top of it. Done is no longer an option.
Dramatic maybe but the sooner we face the reality of the situation, the sooner we can deal with it.
If you continue to operate under the delusion of done, you will continue to be frustrated, disappointed and battle feelings like you’re failing. I don’t want that for you. And I’m sure you don’t want that for yourself either!
Resetting your expectations let’s you move forward. In letting go of done, it changes how you approach your to-do list. You are free to focus on what you can control, which is using your time effectively. Everything else I suggest will only make sense from this perspective.
I’m also willing to bet that you already feel lighter. The weight of expectation is lifting. You’re realising that everything that you’ve been feeling is totally normal and that you are not the first and won’t be the last person to labour under the illusion of getting it all done.
Acknowledging we can’t do it all doesn’t mean we do nothing and give up completely. The best course of action is to decide how best to organise your time. We all know it’s a limited resource so we need to treat it as such.
Figure Out Your Time
There are so many different ways to organise your time and your to-do list. Chunking. Batching. Scheduling. Figuring out how to attack your to-do list is as much about understanding the time available as it is about prioritising how to spend that time.
This is why so many people swear by scheduling. In a nutshell, scheduling is adding important tasks to your calendar. In other words, deciding ahead of time when you are going to get it done. It forces you to estimate how long something will take you and find an appropriate timeslot to do it. The outcome is a really good sense of how much of your to-do list you have time for. And how much you don’t have time for.
My biggest tip with scheduling is to build in some slack. When I scheduled my days, I would only map out my day until 3pm. This allowed for tasks taking longer than estimated or the unexpected popping up. Without giving yourself some leeway, these two situations are guaranteed to be stress inducing. The reality is humans are terrible at estimating how long something takes and the unexpected happens all the time. So might as well account for it.
I have a confession to make, I don’t schedule. I completely get the benefits but when I tried it, it felt oppressive. I’d plan my day or week and immediately want to do everything except what was on my plan (I’m a Rebel after all).
So I use scheduling as one of many tools in my productivity arsenal. On particularly busy days, usually with meetings to work around, I’ll make a day plan. Then I can bounce from one thing to the next and always know what I need to be doing. I also schedule in big chunks of time for important work. I don’t specify the tasks I’m going to use that time for, I’m simply putting three hours aside for a project. This is particularly useful working in a team as it stops my colleagues from putting meetings in my calendar when I want to do deep work.
Instead of scheduling, I rely on daily and weekly routines to structure my time. Most mornings you can find me sipping coffee and writing for half an hour. When I arrive at the office, mornings are for important work. Afternoons are for emails and admin (go here for more on how to plan your day). I try to group meetings into two days of the week. I’m not fussy on which two, the main point is to keep the running around together. Fridays are for wrapping up anything outstanding from the week.
There are rhythms here that give space to the different things I need to get done. I find a routine isn’t as rigid as scheduling which feels freer. It gives me scope to adjust depending on priorities between work, the blog and my personal life but also provides enough structure to make sure all bases are covered.
In reality, you will probably end up with a hybrid of scheduling and routine once you work out what feels right for you and your lifestyle. Routine is great for repeating tasks, like writing, that you want to do regularly. Scheduling can be better for one-off things. Play around until you figure out what is productive without killing your spark.
To-Do Lists are Never Ending
There! I said it. Maybe that’s intimidating to acknowledge. Maybe that makes you feel like any tiny pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel you had just got extinguished.
But with facing the reality of the situation, comes the power to change it. You know understand that you need to develop a way of managing your time so you can manage the to-do list. No the other way around.
Combining the scheduling of important tasks and routines for, well, routine tasks, you can build a productive rhythm that puts you in control.
That’s what they should tell you about to-do lists.