When I became obsessed with time management and productivity in the early 1990s nobody organised their to-dos by project or context. We organised our to-dos by time. The most powerful question we asked was ”when does this need doing by?”
Now it’s very easy to say things were easier back then, and in some respects that is true. We did not have persistent pinging from mobile phones as most people did not have mobile phones, we did not have computers and laptops on our desks (unless you were a very important employee) and everyone carried around a simple diary and a pen.
But at the same time, because computers were not as pervasive as they are today, that meant a lot of the work done today by computers in seconds had to be done manually and took a lot longer. We could not fire off an instant message to a colleague to ask them a question, we either had to get up and walk down the hall and ask them directly or call them and hope they were near a phone. In the end, we often figured out how to do something ourselves because that was the fastest way of doing it.
For the more time management obsessed of us, we marvelled over leather-bound A4 or A5 desk diaries much like we marvel over the latest, shiniest productivity apps today. I remember getting a gorgeous A5 leather bound Filofax for my 18th birthday. Oh, how I loved that Filofax. I carefully filled out the addresses in the back, I wrote down my income and expenditure and I carefully curated my calendar every day.
I also remember the day I bought my Franklin Planner. This was in the days before Franklin Quest was bought by Stephen Covey’s organisation. That was a very special day.
But of all the memories I have, I cannot remember any time management or productivity method advocating organising to-dos by project. That would have been considered ridiculous because you cannot “do” a project you can only do tasks that took you towards completion of the desired outcome. (We were quite smart in the 1990s)
Of course, complex building and product development projects were organised by projects, but these were organised at an organisational level. There were — and still are — a lot of different parts done by multiple different people that need to be brought together. But at an individual level, we were not so arrogant to believe we needed specialist project management systems, usually reserved for the construction industry, to organise our lives. We just needed to know when something was due and how much time was needed to complete it by that due date.
We organised our time by what needed to be done that day and organising by time got a lot of work done because we were not trying to figure out where to ’store’ a task. We just did the task.
To give you an example. In the early 1990s, I was selling cars. Every morning, when I arrived at work I looked at my prospects list, selected ten potential customers to follow up and wrote their names and numbers onto my note pad. Then, throughout the day I called those potential customers in between talking with new prospects that walked into the showroom or called by phone. In my diary I already had my appointments scheduled for the day, these were returning prospects coming to place their order and new cars I was delivering.
My diary showed me a week view (I was using an A4 week to view desk diary at that time) and at a glance, I could see my appointments and so could very easily see what needed to be prepared so new cars were ready for delivery, and at the bottom of each day there was a space to write my to-dos. I did not treat each new delivery as a project. It was just something that needed to be prepared and I knew what needed to be done to deliver the car to the customer on the given day because there was a job-sheet for each car — a kind of checklist. All I had was a to-do in my diary that said: “check Mr/s Brown’s car is ready for delivery”. As the salesperson, I knew what needed checking. Was the car clean? Had the accessories been fitted? All these things were on the job-sheet that went with every new car. We operated by checklists, not projects. I did not need to duplicate that job-sheet.
When it came to organising my summer holiday it was simple. We discussed with our friends where we wanted to go, made a decision and scheduled a time to visit the travel agent. All I needed to do was go to the travel agent and book the holiday. Job done. We did not create a project in our diaries, created a list of things to do and checked off those items. I mean who would do that? We wanted to go to Ibiza in June. We went to the travel agent and booked the holiday. Job done!
Today, it’s even simpler! All you need do is decide where you want to go, go online, find a hotel and flight and book them. Why do you need to create a list of tasks to do? As long as you know where you want to go you can do both those tasks in less than ten minutes without the need to first create a project, then add a list of tasks you think you will need to do and then schedule a time to do those tasks. WOW! Talk about adding unnecessary work to your life.
If I want to review how my holiday ‘project’ is going, all I have to do is check my email folder where I am storing the flight and hotel confirmation emails. I do not need to duplicate that as well in my to-do list.
And that’s where project-based to-do lists don’t work. They add more work than is necessary, slow down getting the work done, duplicates your work and dilutes your focus. It’s particularly bad if you adhere to the belief anything involving more than one step is a project. With that approach, you end up with a huge list of projects that require regular reviewing and trying to decide where a task goes becomes time-consuming. You end up wasting so much time reviewing and processing, the part where you do the work becomes secondary to your project task list management.
Many people who have followed my journey away from project-based to-do lists have commented on a “need” to review their projects. And I must admit that this thinking was very hard for me to change also. But I realised that I had begun organising by project because around ten years ago that was how everybody thought you should organise your tasks. OmniFocus 1 and Things (version 1), my two early digital to-do list managers, forced me to organise things that way and so I complied. Everyone was talking and writing about Getting Things Done, David Allen’s ‘bible’ for time management and productivity, and how everything had to be broken down into projects and a full review of all those projects had to be done every week.
To me, all this additional processing and reviewing just added a lot of time to the admin side and did very little to give me more doing time. But, like so many other people I completely bought into the idea that everything had to be organised by project and those projects needed to be reviewed regularly. And given the definition of a project is anything involving two or more tasks, that can lead to hours and hours spent just reviewing and processing with no time spent doing the work! No wonder we feel stressed out and overwhelmed. We are constantly being told to review and look at our work to do and those lists are getting longer and longer and the time spent doing the work is getting shorter and shorter.
It has taken me months to get over this false belief about the need for project folders. In the early 90s, everything was organised by when it was due. I had no time management problems then and I suspect I had a lot more projects too.
Today, to see how my work is progressing all I need do is look at the project’s file folder. That tells me — in real-time — exactly where a project is. Trying to manage that in a to-do list manager often leads to confusion because if you are not checking everything off when you are doing it (requiring more time away from doing your work) you end up with a false picture of how a project is progressing. The documents I am writing, the presentation files I am creating; those files give me the real picture. All I need my to-do list manager to do is tell me what to work on today.
And that has led me full circle back to organising what I want to do each day by time. Now, all my to-dos are organised by when they need doing. Do they need doing this week? If so, when will I do them? If not, they can be parked in a next week, later this month or next month folder and forgotten about until next week. It’s simple, it works and I no longer feel overwhelmed by a long list of needless project folders that serve no purpose.
If you want to learn more about how I organise my work, then I have recently done a couple of videos explaining it all. You can view my Todoist set up here and how to set up my time-based system in Apple’s Reminders app here.
I must point out that this works for me, it may not work for you. But if you research how highly successful, and incredibly productive people manage their days you will find very few of them organise their to-dos by projects. People like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, Tim Ferriss, Tony Robbins and Gary Vaynerchuk do not manage their work by having lists of projects. They focus on what they have identified as being important today and put all their energy and effort into accomplishing a successful outcome. Maybe it’s time for you to question your assumptions on how you manage your work also.
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