Create a Schedule and Master Your To-do List

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You probably already have some type of schedule but it’s not quite working the way you need it to.  You’re still rushing around, feeling overwhelmed, saying there isn’t enough time in the day to get everything done.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Learn how to create a schedule that will actually work for you.

Keep reading for the time management techniques you need to narrow down your to-do list, create your schedule and check off your to-do list items like a master.

To-do list

The first step to create a schedule is to do a brain dump of every single thing you need to do. Right now you don’t need to worry about which day you need to do each task. You just want to write down every task you can think of.  

Don’t worry if you don’t remember everything you need to do.  To-do lists aren’t meant to be made once and never touched again.  To-do lists are ongoing documents that are constantly changed and added to.  

I like to divide my tasks into categories, like kids, house, appointments to make, things to buy, errands, business categories, etc.  The categories make it easier for me to keep track of tasks and add new ones in as I think of them.

Master Your To-do List. To do list: So Many Things!

Break It Down

Large tasks can be overwhelming, which can be a major source of procrastination.  Break larger tasks down into smaller steps that you will need to take to accomplish the larger one.  

Time Estimate

Estimate how much time it will take to complete each task.  Most people underestimate how long it takes to get certain tasks done and overestimate it on other tasks.  

For example, I may think it will only take 5 minutes to make an appointment but then I end up on hold for 20 minutes or find out I have to call a different doctor’s office first.  On the opposite end, I almost always overestimate the time it takes to clean.

It’s a huge source of frustration when things take longer than you think they should. And it’s also why people tend to give up on scheduling their day.  They think, “Why should I bother since I can never stick to my schedule?”

You’ll be more likely to stick with your schedule if you can more accurately predict how long it will take to complete your tasks.  The only way to get better at estimating your time is by actually timing your tasks.

Be Flexible

The solution is to add time to each estimate.  This will end a lot of the frustration for taking to long to complete a task.  And if you complete it in less time, then you’ll end up being able to get more done by moving onto the next task on your schedule or having more free time to do something you enjoy.

You also need to time how long it actually takes to complete each task. By timing it, you’ll have a better estimation moving forward, which means you’ll get better at creating your schedule each week.  

Creating a Schedule - To do list: So Many Things

Prioritize Tasks

There are a lot of different charts and techniques to help you identify the priority of each task.  But a lot of it is going to be defined by you and will depend on how honest you are about the importance and urgency of each task.  

It’s easy to mistake a need with a want and something important with something that is urgent.  

Your success is going to depend on how honest you are with the priorities of your tasks and how ruthless you are at whittling down your to-do list.  

By planning and prioritizing your tasks, you’ll become proactive instead of reactive and it will be so much easier to create a schedule.  

Important vs. Urgent

Important tasks are ones that help us achieve our goals.

Urgent tasks require immediate attention.

Urgent tasks tend to dominate our schedules because they have specific deadlines and consequences if not completed.

So how exactly do you determine what’s important and what’s urgent?

Priority Matrix

By using a priority matrix, known as the Eisenhower Box (based on a productivity strategy of former US president, Dwight Eisenhower, a time management and productivity whiz), you can easily sort your tasks.  

Creating a Schedule using the Eisenhower box.

Urgent and Important – This is a no-brainer that these tasks are first on your priority list.  

Not Urgent and Not Important – These tasks should be eliminated.  They are typically time wasters that aren’t helping you reach your goals (and are likely preventing you from reaching your goals if they are taking up time on your schedule).  This is where tough love comes in. You may be comfortable doing these tasks or they may have become a bad habit. But you need to rip the band-aid off and eliminate these tasks.  

Related: The Biggest Time Wasters and How to Overcome Them

Not Urgent but Important- These are tasks that can be done later.  This is tricky though because later can easily turn into never. I’ll go into how to make time for these tasks a little further down.

Urgent but Not Important – These tasks should be delegated.  Delegation doesn’t come easily for everyone. Maybe you like to maintain control or don’t trust others to do as good of a job or feel like you should be able to do it all. No matter what your hesitation is with delegating, learning how to delegate is important to take control of your schedule.   

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.

-Dwight Eisenhower

Delegating Tasks

Look at each item on your to-do list and determine if it’s really something that you and only you can do.  Is there anyone else that can do the task, like your kids, your spouse or a co-worker, even if it’s not done exactly the way you do it?

Done Is Better Than Perfect

Does it really matter if the clothes are folded exactly how you do it or if the dishes are loaded the way you like it?  It can be really hard for a perfectionist to let go. But if you do, then you are able to focus on tasks that only you can do or the ones that are going to drive the most important results.  If you nitpick every task then you won’t be able to get nearly as much done.

Teach a New Skill

Teaching others how to do a task may not seem easy but it can save you so much time in the long run.  It can also give the other person a boost in confidence to learn a new responsibility. And teaching life skills to your children is so important for their independence.  Deep down you may like that they depend on you but at some point, they are going to leave your home and will need to know how to do these things for themselves. So spend a little time upfront to teach someone else how to do a task.  

Related: Teach Your Family to Keep Your Home Organized

Finding Time for What’s Important

If your schedule is bursting at the seams, then how do you find time for important tasks that aren’t urgent?

Eliminating the not urgent, not important task and delegating the urgent but not important tasks should have freed up time on your schedule.  But if you still can’t find time for important tasks, then you need to flip those tasks from not urgent to urgent by setting deadlines, holding yourself accountable and establishing consequences or rewards.  

Set deadlines for tasks that are important to you but don’t have a hard date for completion.  For example, decluttering your house is important to you but it’s not urgent since it doesn’t have an assigned date to it, like paying a bill would.  So make it urgent by setting a realistic goal date to finish decluttering (remember it’s better to overestimate the amount of time it will take). Since decluttering your house is a large task, break it into smaller steps, with a deadline for each step to keep you on track.  

Then, hold yourself accountable, ideally with some type of incentive or consequence that motivates you.  Make a post on Facebook stating your intention and ask your friends to hold you accountable. Or send invites to a party at your house on your targeted deadline (nothing motivates me to get stuff done around the house like throwing a party).

Create a Schedule

Creating a Schedule - hourly calendar with time blocks

So now that you’ve learned how to create a to-do list and prioritize tasks, now you’re ready to start creating a schedule.  

Peak Performance

We all have times of the day when we are the most alert and mentally ready to focus on tasks.  When you create your schedule, put your most mentally challenging tasks during your peak productive time.

Most of us also have a natural slump in our day.  It’s when we are feeling tired or just not capable of deep, focused work.  Schedule active tasks when you’re feeling tired. Getting up and moving can actually help you get over the slump and give you an energy boost for the rest of the day.  An object in motion stays in motion.   

Plan for the Unexpected

Even the best-made plans won’t be executed flawlessly.  A task will take longer to complete, an unexpected meeting will pop up, or you’ll have to pick a sick kid up from school.  Life happens.

Plans are meant to be a guide, not set in stone.   You need to be flexible to manage what life throws at you.  

When you create a schedule the best way to be prepared for the unexpected is by not over-scheduling your day and allowing some buffer time within your schedule.  

Bye-bye Multitasking

Constantly hopping between different tasks is not productive.  It takes time to get into the rhythm of a task.

Instead, batch tasks by grouping similar tasks together and working on them in the same time block.  For example, make all your phone calls during one block of time instead of spreading them throughout the day.

Time Blocking

Time blocking is the method of scheduling your tasks into blocks of time, similar to how you put appointments and meetings on your calendar. Instead of going to the doctor or meeting with your boss, you’re setting aside a specific time to work on a specific task or group of tasks.  

Time blocking helps you keep track of how long each task takes and helps prevent procrastination by holding you accountable to take action during a specific day and time period.  

Time blocking may seem overwhelming because your day looks like it’s jammed packed.  But with time blocking you are not only blocking off work, you’re also blocking off breaks and free time, which are perfect to give you buffer for those unexpected things that will undoubtedly come up.

There is also flexibility with time blocking that isn’t readily apparent. Just because you set up your tasks in a certain order for the day, that doesn’t mean that you can’t switch the blocks around.  If you scheduled a difficult task first thing in the morning but you wake up feeling groggy, then just move that block later in the day and move easier tasks to the morning.  

Keep track of how long each task takes you to complete.  This will help you get better at estimating your time, which makes scheduling quicker and easier in the future.

Break Time

Plan breaks into your day to incentivize yourself with mini rewards and to prevent burn out.  

Dreading a task?  Work on it distraction-free for 25 minutes and then reward yourself with 5 minutes of guilt-free social media time.  

Using the 25/5 minute blocks is actually a time management tactic called the Pomodoro technique.  After you complete four blocks you get to take a 20-minute break.  

I prefer to use a separate timer, rather than using the timer on my phone.  Picking up my phone to set the timer can end up luring me into distraction by checking social media or email “real quick”.  Instead, use a mechanical timer or a digital timer.

By planning breaks, you’re more likely to stay focused for the duration of the block and you have a scheduled break time to look forward to.

Stick With It

Most people have the best intentions when they create a new schedule but then it quickly falls apart.  Starting anything new can be hard. The techniques used in this article are designed to help you succeed and stick with a schedule.

Eliminate tasks aren’t important and urgent, delegate tasks (even if you’re hesitant to do so), give important tasks deadlines and hold yourself accountable.

Plan your most challenging tasks during the time you feel the most productive and active tasks when you’re feeling tired.

Don’t expect to follow your schedule to the T.  Allow for flexibility to deal with unexpected things that come up.

Overscheduling is your biggest foe.  It will make you feel like a failure and more likely to give up.  Be realistic about how much you can actually accomplish in a day or week.  Timing your tasks will help you become better at making your schedule and hitting deadlines.

Eliminate time-wasting activities.

Most importantly, schedule breaks and rewards into your day.  All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy.  But seriously, you need breaks to avoid burnout.

How to create a schedule and stick to it - Time block calendar

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