Squeezed into action

Suppose you had a number of tasks on your to-do list but can’t seem to get started on any of them. You know these tasks are important. That’s why you wrote them down in the first place. These are tasks you can’t delegate. The responsibility for getting them done rests with you. What’s one thing you can add to your to-do list to boost your chances of getting those tasks done? A time constraint.

Just like how a SMART goal statement is not complete unless it is timebound, a task can become easier to accomplish if you add a time constraint to it. Are you planning to create that presentation today or tomorrow, first thing in the morning or after lunch? How many minutes or hours have you set aside for it? Beyond providing a compulsion to complete tasks, time constraints also have additional benefits such as:

Making you focus

If you create a task for 11am today, you increase your chances of being able to focus on that task between 11am and 12pm. You’d have chosen that time slot because you had no conflicting tasks scheduled for that period. Focusing on one task at a time allows you to get more done than if you chose to multitask.

One task then another

Blocking out time to complete tasks

You are more likely to block out a chunk of time for deep work if the tasks on your to-do list come with a due by time. You can do more in a single hour of deep work than you could doing shallow work for three hours.

Improving your duration estimation skills

People are notoriously bad at estimating how long it will take them to complete a task. We tend to underestimate the amount of time it will take to finish an activity to a satisfactory level of acceptance, especially if it’s one we have never done before. We don’t really ever lose this tendency to allocate less time than we need for a task but you can get better at it. The more tasks you complete, the more accurate your best guess about how long they will take become.

Does this mean every task on your to-do list should have an expected completion time down to the hour? It depends. In some lines of work, seconds and minutes are crucial. For most people, there is probably some amount of leeway. Personally, I use a simple system to add time constraints to task. My to-do list has sections labelled Morning, Afternoon and Evening.

To-do list
How I add time constraints to tasks
  • Morning means the task should be completed before zuhr.
  • Afternoon means the task should be completed after lunch but before closing time.
  • Evening tasks are personal tasks I intend to do when I get home from work.

This system might not work for everyone. Others might prefer to plan hour-by-hour. That’s fine. Create a system that meets your needs.

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