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The choice between a to-do list and timeboxing may be the most important decision we make about work productivity – and perhaps our sanity.

Inertia favours the to-do list. It’s simple and easy. Just list what needs to be done, and scratch off items when completed. Putting things we need to do in our calendar – the essence of timeboxing – is an extra step and more complicated. It demands more effort – more thought.

But marketing manager Neha Kirpalani, a self-confessed productivity nerd who had avoided timeboxing, recently caved in after taking on a new job in which she found herself continually off-kilter. And she’s delighted by the result, suggesting you consider making the switch as well.

Timeboxing techniques can be very complicated. She started with a simple experiment. Every week, she would take a few new tasks from her to-do list, estimate how long each would take, and then block that time out on her calendar. At the end of each day she would reflect on progress made and tweak the schedule as needed. If an urgent meeting or task came up unexpectedly, she rescheduled priorities accordingly.

These days, everything is funnelled into the calendar, including time slots set for tackling her inbox. It looks overwhelming, every moment taken up, precisely scheduled. But she finds it liberating.

First, it removes the paradox of choice. An unexpected benefit of timeboxing was it reduced the number of decisions, freeing more brain space for focused work. “It’s removed the paralysis that’s induced by having to choose between a multitude of tasks on a seemingly never-ending to-do list. Now, I know exactly what I need to work on, and when, because I’ve planned ahead of time,” she writes in Harvard Business Review.

With that planning comes a more strategic approach, rather than just reacting to the urgency of the moment. An example is learning and development, now scheduled weekly, whereas before it would be relegated to the bottom of her to-do list, losing out to urgent, ongoing projects. She has also become more thoughtful about accepting new projects, as she has a more realistic view of her schedule.

If that’s an often-touted productivity approach to perhaps embrace, mental toughness coach LaRae Quy has four commonly cited productivity and well-being tips to be wary about:

  • Develop good morning habits: Life is complicated enough and emergencies continually creep up. “Don’t add another routine into those already packed few hours unless it will genuinely feed the lifestyle and values that are important to you,” she writes on Smart Brief.
  • Digital detox: Turning off your digital devices is likely to create more stress because they are a connection to so many important aspects of your life. She argues going cold turkey is naive; just set boundaries.
  • Deep breaths: She’s actually a big fan of deep breathing when entering a period of meditation or prayer because it can move you into relaxation mode. But a few deep breaths at your computer won’t give you a sense of well-being. It doesn’t address the emotions stirred within you that are creating the stress – anger, jealousy, greed, envy and the like. Instead of taking a deep breath you need to honestly acknowledge what you’re feeling.
  • Declutter your work space: Cleaning your desk won’t magically organize your mind. “Only you know whether your desk is a source of stress and anxiety. You organize it the way it feels right for you, not Marie Kondo,” she says.

So consider timeboxing and reconsider Ms. Quy’s four pet productivity peeves.

Quick hits

  • How about conducting a phone relationship audit? If that’s not too sensitive a relationship to confront, career coach Anne-Laure Le Cunff suggests checking how much time you spend on the phone each day, the first and last times of using it, the three to five most common activities, and how you feel about them.
  • It’s an obvious question for an interviewer to ask in a job interview but are you always prepared to answer effectively: What do you know about our company? Freelance writer Alyse Kalish warns against regurgitating what’s on the website “About” section. Instead, pick one or two qualities of the organization that resonate with you, explain why you admire them, and then tie it back to the strength of your application.
  • The usual advice for presentations is they should be rehearsed. Public speaking coach Nick Morgan says that’s even more important for Zoom sessions. You get no sense from the audience how you’re coming across in virtual sessions, either good or bad, and have to compensate by going through your content and phrasing thoroughly beforehand.
  • It’s the seller’s fault if the buyer doesn’t understand the value behind the product or service they’re paying for, insists Ottawa sales consultant Colleen Francis. It’s too late to start talking about value when they’re pushing you for new terms.
  • You can often learn more from peers who are two years ahead of you than mentors who are 20 years ahead of you, argues Atomic Habits author James Clear.

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