In theory, just having a physical to-do list should offer some incentive to tackle it. For one thing, the act of finally drawing a line through a finished task brings its own satisfaction; for another, crossing something off means you don’t have to keep rewriting it on future lists (and, as Science of Us has noted before, laziness can be a powerful motivator when it comes to cultivating good habits).
The problem with to-do lists, though, is that they can also be their own source of anxiety. Knowing you have a zillion things to do is stressful enough; seeing it all written down — then realizing, with a mounting sense of dread, that the list is going to get even longer — is just a reminder that you will never, ever have enough time to accomplish everything you need to.
But as writer Gwen Moran recently explained in Fast Company, there’s another way to do things: a strategy called “time-blocking” that offers all of the organizational help of the to-do list — and then some — without the associated angst. It essentially boils down to reversing the process: Instead of giving every task a designated number of hours, give every hour a designated task.
Time-blocking is essentially organizing your day in a series of time slots. Instead of writing a list of tasks that take as long as they take, with a time-blocked approach, each of these time periods is devoted to a task or tasks. It immediately lets you see where you’re being unrealistic about your time and keep yourself focused on what you’re supposed to be doing.
That last part is key. Unlike the regular to-do list, the time-blocking system is built to evolve as you gain a better understanding of your own work habits. “It provides you more accurate feedback on how much free time you actually have most days and how long certain recurring tasks actually take,” Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, told Moran. Matching certain tasks to certain hours also forces you to think about what makes the most sense to do in each segment of the day. If you get fuzzy-headed when you’re hungry, for example, plan some of the least mentally taxing things for right before lunch; if you have a project that requires uninterrupted concentration, put it down for a time when you won’t have to take breaks for any meetings. Just remember: Everything always takes longer than you think.