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What To Do When Common Time Management Tricks Don’t Work

When to-do lists and timers fail to help you get things done, try one of these alternative methods.

What To Do When Common Time Management Tricks Don’t Work
[Photo: Flickr user Luca Mascaro]

You’re overwhelmed with obligations and responsibilities, and you know that you need to devise a better time management system to stop your head from exploding. There’s just one problem, you feel like you’ve tried every hack there is, and none of them have proven to be effective.

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Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to a life of uncontrollable chaos. You might just need to look beyond what works for most people, or tweak their methods in a way that works best for you and your life. Here are some alternatives you can try.

Instead Of: Writing A To-Do List

Yes, writing down your to-do list has psychological (and productivity) benefits and seems like an easy way to manage your time. But it’s not for everyone. If you can’t stop yourself from writing 20 items, then feel bad when you only accomplish three, or you find the structure of a to-do list stifling and uninspiring, you might want to stop the practice altogether. In a previous Fast Company article, communication expert Judith Humphrey explained her rationale for ditching her to-do list: “Some activities benefit from not being reduced to tasks.. If I jotted down “go for a walk,” that activity would instantly lose its appeal. When the idea of going for a stroll remains in my head, I can look forward to it expectantly–because it’s a choice, not a duty.”

Try: Write A Stop-Doing List

What you can do, however, is remind yourself of items that don’t bring you joy, and contribute very little to your long-term goals. This way, you’re unlikely to spend a lot of time doing time-sucking, non-rewarding work, freeing you up to do the work that does make you happy in the long run. As Mike Vardy, author of The Front Nine: How to Start the Year You Want Anytime You Want previously told Fast Company, “Having a list of things you’re not going to do is easier to achieve…If I know what I don’t do, it’s easier to live intentionally.”


Related: These Are The Weirdest Productivity Hacks That Really Work 


Instead Of: The Pomodoro Technique

If you’re reading this article, chances are you probably know the importance of deep work and setting aside some uninterrupted time for it every week. The problem is, the most commonly used method for scheduling deep work, the Pomodoro Technique, can feel overtly militaristic and restrictive. You can’t always work in 20-25 minute chunks and then take a five-minute break. Sometimes you’re so in the zone that five minutes feels like disruption. Other times you can only really focus for 10 minutes before you need to decompress for an hour.

Try: Scheduling Procrastination Breaks

After realizing that I would not cure my procrastination habits with the Pomodoro technique, I experimented with scheduling procrastination breaks between tasks. During this allotted break, I gave myself permission to do as much time-wasting activities (social media scrolling included) until I got bored and wanted to move on to my next task. That week, I was the most efficient I’d been.

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Instead Of: Time Blocking

The practice of time blocking–where you organize your days into a series of time slots–has been thought of to be an alternative to your to-do list. It’s similar to the Pomodoro technique, but instead of sprinting for 25 minutes and resting for five, you schedule tasks into your calendar for however long they take. It’s a great approach in principle, but if you, like most people, always underestimate how long it takes to do something, when you get to the end of the day, you’ll just end up feeling bad if you didn’t follow your schedule.


Related: Five Time-Management Tips To Make You And Your Assistant More Productive 


Try: Dividing Your Week/Day Into Themes

As the CEO of both Twitter and Square, Jack Dorsey divides his day into allocating a theme for each day (i.e., Monday for management, Tuesday for product). You can implement the same kind of rationale in your workday, but if your job isn’t ideal for focusing on one thing per day, you can dedicate your morning to one focus area, your early afternoon to another, and late afternoon to another. This way, instead of being overly restrictive about finishing a task in that time period, you have the flexibility to do any work that moves you forward in that particular focus area.

Instead Of: Doing The Hard Thing First

I don’t know about you, but whenever I “eat my frog“–i.e., do my hardest task first thing in the morning–I usually fail to do anything else that day. For me, the hard things tend to take more thinking time, which means I’m much more likely to be a perfectionist about it (and spend longer than I need) than if I started my day knocking off some routine tasks.

Try: Doing The Thing That Makes You Feel Most Accomplished

Personally, I feel like I’m much more productive when I’m confident–and an easy way to gain confidence is to cross off a bunch of little tasks that are easy to do and take little time (including deleting an email). In Mark Zuckerberg: Ten Lessons In Leadership by Michael Essany, the Facebook CEO was quoted as saying, “..If you do the things that are easier first, then you can actually make a lot of progress.”


Related: This Is Why Your Brain Sucks At Time Management

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Instead Of: Trying To Streamline And Automate Everything

Many productivity gurus will tell you that the key to efficiency is streamlining and automating. To an extent, they’re right, but not everything can be automated–not yet, anyway. Case in point, writing an article. Sure, I can systematize the process, but it doesn’t always save me more time.

Try: Focusing On One Task At A Time

Go on, roll your eyes. We know that focusing on one thing at a time is old advice. But how many times have you wasted time worrying about something that’s completely unrelated to what you’re working on? Thought so. And as a 2010 Harvard Study reported, we’re a lot happier when we’re fully focused on what we’re doing. The psychologists behind the research, Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, concluded, “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind…. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

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About the author

Anisa is the Editorial Assistant for Fast Company's Leadership section. She covers everything from personal development, entrepreneurship and the future of work.

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