The Inescapable Demands of ToDo Lists

I have noticed a wide and growing number of apps on the new iPhone, Android and laptop  that attempt to improve a user’s personal productivity.  They all seem to focus on the same thing:  how to make better lists.

It’s a bit disheartening, because our research here at 2Time Labs shows that lists work fine for a small number of time demands, but after a certain point an upgrade is needed to using a single schedule instead.  While many people repeat the mythology that “it can’t be done” based on a someone’s opinion, there are many professionals who pull off this trick, and many others who are curious to see if it would make a difference for them.

Some of the data comes from new high quality research conducted by Dr. Dezhi Wu.  A great deal of the proof, however, remains to be established and while I’m hoping that another Dezhi comes along soon, here’s a comparison at the steps that take place in both fundamentals:  Scheduling and Listing.

Imagine a conversation between you and your boss in which a new time demand has popped up. Your boss wants to know whether or not you are able to complete a new assignment – “The Smith Report” – due in two week’s time.

With a single schedule: You pause for a moment to check your schedule to see whether or not you have the space to allocate the 10 hours that are required.

With multiple lists: You pause for a moment to scan your personal memory, because a list of all the to-do’s that you need to do doesn’t tell you if you have the time to complete the report by the due date.

This happens over and over again when you use multiple lists – you must use your memory to try to remember what you planned, and for when. This is not a problem when the number of demands on your time is small, but if you have a great number of commitments, the chore of remembering a mental schedule quickly becomes burdensome.

Imagine, that if have multiple lists, that you can easily make the mistake of telling your boss “Yes,” only to discover that you have other deliverables that you placed on your mental schedule, but simply forgot for the moment. That might be an indication that it’s time for an upgrade.

The problem is that ToDo Lists force you to use memory – this is an inescapable demand of this particular technique.

The Time Management System You Need

One of the ideas that we promote here at 2Time Labs is that each person needs a time management system that effectively allows them to handle the number of time demands that show up in their life on a daily basis. The corollary to this statement is the idea that each person doesn’t necessarily need a system that can handle more time demands than they’ll ever get.

The underlying notion is that one size doesn’t fit all, and we have decided to distinguish the different “sizes” in terms of their capacity to deal with time demand volume. While the technology doesn’t exist to measure these differences, we have described them in relative terms, with the belt system of skills.

At the top end there are Green Belts who have the most advanced skills and can handle the most time demands, and at the low end there are White Belts who have the most basic skills and can handle the least time demands.

Now, there is some evidence showing up in new articles that there is a different way to think about these differences. It backs up our direct observations gained from programs and coaching sessions.

The idea in a nutshell is that the most time-pressed individuals have so many time demands that consume so much of the day/week, that they only have a few extra hours to play with each week.

In other words, when they add up all the things that they are committed to doing, or must do “or else,” the number of hours left over each week add up to les than 20. Or 10. Or even 0.

Think President Obama. Or a CEO or business-owner. These are the hyper-committed professionals who have what we call “A Green Belt Life” (even if they only have White Belt Skills.)

Unfortunately, living with skills that can’t handle the number of time demands that come into one’s life is often stressful. The result of a severe mismatch between volume and skills is that stuff falls through the cracks, appointments are missed or started late, clutter accumulates, sleep is lost, etc. By definition, there is a cost that must be paid.

Here is an article from Lifehacker in which the author describes a Green Belt life at a time when he was a Project Manager. He describes just the kind of life that we have in mind. How to Focus and Stay Productive When You’re Expected to Always be Available.

Here’s an excerpt:

When I was a project manager, I had meetings every single day. Even worse, I was responsible for scheduling most of them. I learned pretty quickly that the only time I could truly tell people I was “unavailable” were the times that were blocked off on my calendar (and even then, they’d ignore it, but that’s another problem entirely.) So I started scheduling my work—or times when I was head-down and wanted everyone to know I was busy. Then I started specifically scheduling my breaks so people would know when I wasn’t around and when I’d be back.

Here’s he’s using the advanced Scheduling skills that we associate with an Orange Belt – his schedule has become the main focal point of all activity. Also, here’s a video from Microsoft Outlook that gives a pretty graphic picture of a soccer Mom that also has a Green Belt life. The juggling that she must do with her schedule is quite typical of someone who only has a few spare hours here and there in her life, and is always moving stuff around in response to what shows up. (BTW, we don’t advocate the habit of interrupting your Yoga session to check email!)

Interesting Piece of Data

I took the following notes from a source that I seem to have lost:

Professionals over-estimate what they can get done in a day, but under-estimate what they can get done in a week.

Has anyone ever heard this quote before? Does it ring true from your experience? Any evidence to back it up?

As my skills at scheduling improve over time, I find that I’m able to make better time estimates. Doing it in my calendar on Outlook/Gmail/BB is vastly superior to trying to do it  in my head, which reflects some of the research findings in the post I wrote last week.


Some Newly Discovered Academic Research

I did a little digging over the weekend and found some great research in time management that we’ll be highlighting here at 2Time Labs. What’s interesting is that, along with Dezhi Wu’s work, the articles prove that all the interesting work in this discipline is being done by women: Macan, Francis-Smythe, Gibson and Claessens.

Here are the articles:
Time Management: Test of a Process Model by Therese Macan

Will you remember to read this article later when you have time? The relationship between prospective memory and time management by Therese Macan, Janet Gibson, Jennifer Cunningham

On the Relationship Between Time Management and Time Estimation, by J.A. Francis-Smythe and Ivan Robinson.

I’m still reading and assimilating them, but if you’d like to jump the gun and share what you think, please go ahead and do so by shooting me an email.

P.S. The good news is that their finding support 2Time Labs’ Time Management 2.0 principles.