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Your To Do List and Your Calendar

| October 27, 2015

by Jim Bruce

I’ve attempted to maintain and effectively use a To Do list for much of my professional life.  At the moment, I have an application (Things) on my laptop, my iPhone, and my iPad that keeps the list synchronized.  This is really helpful, and would be even more helpful if I was good at keeping the list itself up to date.  At the moment, it’s a combination of To Dos for near-term future tasks and an embarrassing list of accumulated items that are important but I’ve not yet scheduled myself to do them.

And, oh yes, there’s my hand-written list of tasks for “today” – when I wrote this essay, five had been completed, one deleted, and four yet to be worked on, some of which didn’t get touched that day.  Yes, hand-written.  It seemed easier to write them by hand than enter then on one of the devices.  Go figure!  Bennett Bertenthal, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, says that since writing engages different brain functions, it provides another pathway for an entry to get into your memory, thus making it more memorable.  So jotting items down on paper is fine but do remember to transfer them to your official To Do list!  Also, there are an untold number of tasks floating around in my mind yet to be captured.

And, while you’re laughing, I suspect that your list looks more or less like mine.  Yet we each know that having an inclusive, actionable plan for the day – that’s what our calendar should be – significantly increases the probability of being able to call the day a success at its end.  And, this requires regularly moving items from our To Do lists to our calendars.

After trying to effectively have a consistent, repeatable set of practices for managing my time, I’m firmly convinced that I have to treat my calendar and my To Do list as inseparable parts of a larger task, scheduling my time and energy.  As obvious as it is, it has taken me a long time to realize this.  I need to move as many items as possible from my To Do list – even those trivial ones, such as getting gas for my car and the small, and important ones like taking a 15 minute walk to clear my head – to my calendar.  My goal is to get everything I plan to do on any particular day on my calendar for that day.  Then, I can consult my calendar to see what I’ve planned to do, rather than trying to remember any tasks that I did not write down.

Since your goal is to have a productive day, it’s best to start the day with a full calendar by scheduling some of your work from the To Do list into any uncommitted time you have.  If you do have uncommitted time, you or others are too likely to fill it with lower priority tasks.  After all, that’s the path of least resistance.

David Allen, who has written extensively on this subject (see references below), recommends that you start the process of creating a To Do list by “dumping” all of your commitments and initiatives – everything you have written on scraps of paper or in marginal notes on stuff you’ve been reading, or stored in the nooks-and-crannies of your mind – into a single list.  This will take concentration and time (allow several hours), and it will be a long list, often for leaders, one with 80-100 entries.  The entries need to be actionable; each entry needs to clearly state the next action step.  (And, the last work on an action step needs to be answering the question, what do I do next on this task.  And, this next task needs to go on your calendar or your To Do list.)

In other words, no “grocery store” on your To Do list, but rather an entry that lists going to the grocery store with a note to create a shopping list.  And, no “Meeting” but rather, the actual named meeting as a task with appropriate action items as sub-tasks – e.g., if it’s your meeting “create the invitation list,” “develop the agenda,” “identify reference material for the meeting,” …  And, don’t forget to make a note about the conversations you want to have at the meeting such as introducing yourself to “Mark” who you need to build a relationship with, updating “Sam” on his project’s status, and discussing the need to delay the start of “Jin’s” project, etc.  Items get moved from the To Do list to the calendar when scheduling information becomes available and/or doing them is a priority.

This sounds really “anal-retentive,” and it is.  However, since your brain’s active memory can only keep four or five items active at any one time and you have many times that number of tasks on your list, you need to capture new tasks, as they become known.  Otherwise, you’ll have to do a lot of thinking to recreate them.  And, as you work to develop the details for a specific to do, you may find it helpful to play out the task in your mind as a scenario.  Think through the task one step at a time, take notes, and the result will be a draft list of your sub-tasks.

So, how might all this work?  First, you add to your To Do list items as they surface with as much detail as is needed and you have.  If it takes more time to create the list’s entry than to do the task, then Just Do It NOW.  Move items to the calendar as they are scheduled by you or others,  (Some things will obviously go directly to the calendar.)  Always include the details you listed on the To Do list, some of which will turn into additional calendar entries, as you make the calendar entry. 

For example, if it’s a meeting, make sure that any pre-meeting activities like scheduling the meeting, preparation, setting and sharing the agenda, developing your presentation if you have one, etc., make it to the calendar as scheduled activities.  Some of the sub-tasks may be scheduled on the calendar earlier than others, e.g., scheduling and preparation.  Assuming there will always be time between calendared events to do this preparation work is a sure path for late night and weekend work.  Preparation is real work and you should schedule specific time on your calendar and protect that time. 

Success comes from developing practices that put every to do on the To Do list when you first identify it and then transferring items as they are scheduled to your calendar.   Of course, this means that you have to regularly review your To Do list to add new tasks and additional information to existing tasks, and to keep moving them to your calendar to actually work on the task.  This review needs to be an item in your preparation for each day.  (Some find that creating their To Do list in the form of a two-by-two Important-Urgent matrix is helpful in this work.)

One further comment about your calendar:  Do make sure that you have regular uncommitted blocks of time on your calendar so that there is time that can be allocated for you to do your work as well as for unexpected work and for any meetings and tasks you become unaware of after you calendar is full.  In the Leaders Program we call this “Preemptive Calendaring*.”  (My suggestion is that you start with two hours per week now and expand that time over the next few months to eight to ten hours per week.)  Key to making this work is to put these blocks of time on your calendar every week out as far into the future as your calendar will permit (and continue to do so).  As impossible as this sounds, just begin at a point in the future when your calendar is less busy and block time out for yourself along the lines I’ve suggested, and to tenaciously protect that time.

Being the effective leader you need to be requires you to have a solid plan for your work.  That plan typically starts with a Calendar for each day and a To Do list that lists all your future asks.  You will also need to have practices that help you keep both your To Do list up to date and tasks scheduled on your calendar. 

Do give these ideas some thought.  They just may be useful as you work to be at your most effective best in the use of your time and energy. 

Do make it a great week.  .  .     jim



How to Hack Your To Do List, Epipheo Television Life Hacks. 
David Allen, The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, TEDx Claremont Colleges, October 12, 1012. 
David Allen, Getting Things Done, Google Talk, January 2, 2008. 

* The idea of Preemptive Calendaring was Perry Brunelli’s and shared with participants by him in 2005 when he was a participant in the second Leaders Program cycle.  Peter was Director of Network Services at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  He passed away recently.