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Beyond to-do lists

Rob Drilea
Rob Drilea
3 min read
Beyond to-do lists

My track record of productivity for most days I work for myself is pretty shameful.

I've worked as a freelancer most of my career. For a period, I was a permalancer, or a full-time freelancer - that increasingly common creature of our shifting labor markets who is committed to an employer full-time, but without all the benefits and safety net of a staff employee.

I had the illusion of being in charge of my time, as I was allowed to work remote some of the time. In practice, knowing that I was paid for eight hours a day was enough of a psychological restraint that I didn't take the time to intentionally do other work.

When I shifted away from that I found myself with more unscheduled time than ever. I consciously decided that I would do more work in my own service, working on projects with no immediate (or distant) promise of compensation.

Annie Dillard once said "How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives" - and those words have haunted me ever since I read them years ago in Maria Popova's Brain Pickings blog.

Taking control of my days is a process I'm still mastering. And this week I experienced a paradigm shift when I listed to Nir Eyal on The Knowledge Project essentially destroy my key productivity technology: the to-do list.

What I’m saying specifically is, don’t run your life with a to-do list. Don’t wake up in the morning and look at your to-do list as the first place you look, you should be looking at your calendar. (Nir Eyal)

You mean to tell me that this primitive tool for deciding what I should be doing everyday doesn't work?

Now, I've heard of time-blocking before, and I've done a little bit of it with varying degrees of (okay, not very much) success. The trouble is, even if I decide that between the hours of 10AM and 12AM I will do nothing but write, things get in the way - I get called to fix something for a client, a pipe bursts in the kitchen.

Okay, that's all BS. I have no excuse. I should block all of my time, all of the time.

In fact, that's what Nir seems to be encouraging. In his words - "the time you plan to waste is not wasted time." So, as long as I plan to be on Twitter for 45 minutes, that's okay.

I plan to make an earnest effort to shift away from to-do lists (which will give me some pleasure in and of itself) and toward intensive calendar blocking, because I am convinced that setting implementation intentions will make me accomplish more.

I really encourage you to listen to the podcast because Nir and Shane Parrish have some excellent suggestions for techniques to deal with distraction.

I leave you with one quote that was meaningful to me in terms of rethinking how distraction works.

Most people will say the opposite of distraction is focus. I don’t want to be distracted, I want to be focused, but that’s not actually the opposite of distraction. The opposite of distraction, if you look at the origin of the word, is traction.
Both words come from the same Latin root, trahere, which means to pull.

Everything we do either pulls us toward the direction we want to be moving in, or away from it.

But we need to define that direction for ourselves first.

Rob Drilea

On creativity & work