Time Management: A Schedule vs To-do

So I have basically two types of to-do lists that I use interchangeably, and have found that each is more useful for different tasks and goals.

The first is your basic to-do list. I like to use the Eisenhower matrix as a guide for my to-do’s. If you haven’t heard of that it basically looks like this:

  • Urgent, important
  • Urgent, not important
  • Not urgent, important
  • Not urgent, not important

I put in a lot of effort to eliminate the unimportant from my life, so the 1st and second categories are the two that are most useful to me.

So my to-do list basically consists of those things I want to do ASAP, and those things that are less urgent.

However, the problem with to-do’s is they need to be quantifiable and easily actionable.

So something like ‘learn statistics’ is neither quantifiable nor actionable, but is (for me at least), very urgent and important.

So many time management guru’s will explain that you need to break it down into actionable steps… but that’s not so simple either.

What if you’re only actionable step is ‘read a big fat textbook’ or ‘learn guitar’?

These tasks don’t have ‘actionable steps’ and they can’t be just lumped into a to-do list. Even if you create ‘actionable steps’, usually this is just a process of breaking it down into smaller, equally ambiguous chunks, so instead of ‘read a book’ it becomes ‘read a chapter/X pages/etc.’.

Even if there are smaller steps you can break these tasks down into, this is still a time-consuming task in itself and will be a barrier to putting these goals into action.

In general they are time-dependant, and not action-dependant, so you need a different strategy for tackling them.

See the problem with to-do lists, is they are really great for important actionable tasks, and they are especially great for managing those easy-to-check tasks that tend to fill up our heads like ‘buy roof racks’ or ‘book a dentist appointment’.

Worse still is that things like ‘do a workout everyday’, or ‘read a big fat textbook’ are the kinds of things that get ignored and pushed back as your to-do list piles up.

That stuff that you’re always wishing you could put time aside for, but never seem to have any time to offer them.

These things won’t get done unless you have specific blocks of time set aside for them… they need a schedule. Not just any kind of schedule, but a schedule template. A basic weekly structure that you can rely on to open up blocks of time each week to do stuff.

So the other thing I use is a schedule, which is specifically useful for those ambiguous tasks.

If you want to stay on top of your never-ending list of to-do’s, and still make time for those big long-term pipe dreams you have, you need to learn to harmonize your to-do list and your schedule and learn what belongs where.

What you end up with is something that looks a little bit like this:


Urgent, Important

Your house will burn down if you don’t do these

Urgent, Not Important

Leaving these till the last-minute will cost you some money and/or annoy other people. This is where your to-do list shines.

Not Urgent, Important

Large, Long term pipe dreams and/or things you know will become urgent, but not for a while. A lot of these are ideal candidates for a dedicated block in your weekly schedule.

Not Urgent, Not Important

Avoid these things like the plague.


Now you have some options here.

  • A3 poster
  • Large note pad
  • Microsoft Word document
  • Mac Calendar

The idea is to have something you can use as a template with specific blocks of time set aside each week that you can dedicate to important ambiguous tasks. Be as thorough as you can.

I have the time I wake up, to the time I sleep laid out column-wise for each day of the week Mon-Sun. The key here is proactivity, whether it’s the beginning of the week, or the end of the previous week the idea is to pull out your template and think deeply (and realistically) about those big long-term ambiguous goals you have set for yourself, and set aside specific blocks of time to work on them.

Once you’re in a block, then you can focus your attention on identifying specific actionable goals for each task, but the important part of the planning process is identifying time slots that you know are reasonably manageable and are least likely to be interrupted by something you can’t push aside.

Ideally you want to have these blocks of time set aside consistently and indefinitely, like going to bed at night, you have a block of time each week where you just do that thing.

Bonus strategy – progress meter

So you might be thinking look that’s all great, but even if I have time set aside it still doesn’t guarantee that I actually get these things done… emails, social media, distractions… I block time aside, but then find that when the time comes I just struggle to stay focussed. By sheer coincidence that block of time is never at a moment when I feel ‘ready’ to do that thing.

Tell me all about it. Look I feel your pain. No time management system is going to be perfect.

What you need is incentive.

So I got this idea from Cal’s book deep work, which is to have something on your wall with a way of tracking your progress on tasks which are particularly important to you.

The reason I’m tacking it on at the end is because I haven’t tried it out yet, but only recently I’ve started putting systems in place to test it out, and frankly, I’ve really got my hopes up about this.

So I have just put together a simple list of tasks that I want to accomplish each day/week/fortnight, and a series of boxes that you check off each time you’re successful. I’ve also dated them, which means if in one day/week/fortnight I don’t succeed, I don’t check that box.

Intuitively this seems very promising, because as Cal explain’s in his book it creates a positive reinforcement loop. Every time you tick a box, it creates incentive to tick the next box (which increases incrementally each time), and continue with an unbroken chain for as long as possible.

The little cross in each box counts a little reward in your head (because completing a task is very rewarding in itself) which is both measurable and actionable. What I’m predicting is this acts like a little psychological trick to my brain that takes the focus of my energy from ‘doing the task’ to ‘crossing off a box’ and then ‘not breaking a chain’.

Many productivity guru’s will tell you that setting up rewards for achieving particular goals will make you more likely to achieve them, but there’s one glaring problem with this approach. If you’re anything like me, you’ll just do the reward thing anyway. “If I finish all my work I can go get a coffee, or see a movie, or whatever”… but you know you’re just going to do that anyway right?

Worse still, I think, is that the offer of some arbitrary reward doesn’t create an association between the activity, and the reward in your brain. The progress meter by contrast offers you a directly causal relationship between the activity and the reward.

I guess if you were really narcissistic you could put a cross in the box anyway but… yeah… that would just be super weird.

The point is you have nothing to gain from the cross in the box, other than the psychological effect of knowing you completed the task… no completed task, no reward. The simplicity and beauty of it is astounding.

One of the best things about this idea is that it gives you something tangible and actionable, for those less actionable tasks. So you can have something like ‘spend four hours per fortnight solving the Fermi paradox’, and have a very tangible, actionable outcome, which is ‘tick the box when you’re done’. You can even use the box to keep track of your hours spent.

So as I said this hasn’t been road-tested yet (by me), but I will keep you posted on how it goes over the next year or so.

Other than that, I would love to hear from anyone else who wants to do this too and let me know how it goes.

Thanks so much for reading, as usual if you want to know more about why I started this blog, then check out my about page, and have a look at some of the other articles on my site.

Some of my personal favourites:

A very user-friendly introduction to heritability

Everything is vague

How and why to vim, even if you’re not a dedicated programmer

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