Could everything you know about time management be wrong? As research for my book 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, I interviewed 7 billionaires, 13 Olympic athletes, 29 straight-A students, and 239 entrepreneurs. One of the findings shocked me: almost none of them used a to-do list.

How could this be? We’ve all been taught from the “Getting Things Done (GTD)” system and others that we put all our tasks onto a big list and then we prioritize that list. A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, C1 . . . Start working on A1, and when we’re done, move on to A2.

It turns out to-do lists have many flaws. Research indicates that 41 percent of what we put on to-do lists are never done at all! And of the items that are done, many are jotted down and then crossed off the very same day (Adams 2014). Ahh, that felt good. How long have you had that unpleasant doctor visit on your list? Or maybe it’s Christmas shopping, or cleaning out the garage. How many items have been sitting on your list for a month or longer?

To-do lists can also contribute to stress triggered by the Zeigarnik effect. This is the psychological term describing how, consciously or unconsciously, undone items flood our minds with uncontrolled thoughts. We just worked a ten-hour day but when we go home, rather than feeling productive and satisfied, our brain ruminates on all the things that are still on our list. Physically exhausted, we may toss and turn from insomnia, our brains still racing with the tasks we must tackle in the days ahead.

If you’re not supposed to use a to-do list, what are you supposed to use?

Your calendar.

See, we’ve been lied to. GTD and most other time-management systems teach that while a to-do list is the place to manage your tasks, the calendar is used only for phone calls, meetings, and events (i.e., things that have specific start times).

Great leaders actually schedule everything. Instead of placing tasks on a to-do list, they pick a date, time, and duration and schedule it on their calendar. This is the only guaranteed way to know that you are investing your minutes in alignment with your values and goals. Known as time-blocking, when applied to everything, it can dramatically improve your—and your team’s—results.

By way of example, my own calendar reflects many of my values:

  • I value coaching my team members, so I time-block one-on-one meetings with each direct report on Mondays as a way to kick off the week.
  • I value team alignment and breaking down silos, so I time-block a Weekly Action Review (WAR) meeting each week.
  • I value writing so I have two to three blocks of time scheduled each week to write uninterrupted.
  • I value health, so I time-block sixty minutes each day for exercise.
  • I value my children’s education, so I time-block evenings after dinner to help them with their homework.
  • I value recharging and new experiences, so I block off long weekends or entire weeks—sometimes a year in advance—for vacations, even if I don’t know yet where I’m going.

But what about free time? What about time to manage by walking around, or to just read, or to think strategically? Yes, you should schedule that, too. The CEO of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner, in an article titled “The Importance of Scheduling Nothing,” wrote:

If you were to see my calendar, you’d probably notice a host of time slots greyed out but with no indication of what’s going on. There is no problem with my Outlook or printer. The grey sections reflect “buffers,” or time periods I’ve purposely kept clear of meetings.

In aggregate, I schedule between 90 minutes and two hours of these buffers every day (broken down into 30-to 90-minute blocks). It’s a system I developed over the last several years in response to a schedule that was becoming so jammed with back-to-back meetings that I had little time left to process what was going on around me or just think (Weiner 2013).

If this is sounding crazy, remember that Hall of Fame sports coaches schedule their days by the minute, often planning an entire year in advance!

Credit to Author

Published with permission from Great Leaders Have No Rules by Kevin Kruse.

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  • Kevin Kruse

    New York Times bestselling author, CEO of LEADx

    KEVIN KRUSE is a New York Times bestselling author and serial entrepreneur who started or cofounded several multimillion-dollar businesses. Kruse's articles on leadership have appeared in Forbes, Inc., and a number of other publications and his podcast, The LEADx Leadership Show has been downloaded over one million times. He is the founder and CEO of LEADx, with the mission to spark 100 million new leaders. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.