Practical Time Management: The Won’t Do List vs. Must Do List

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80 years times 50 weeks a year is 4,000 weeks. If we’re lucky, that means we’ll have about 4,000 Mondays, 4,000 Saturdays, and that’s it. I’ve started reading Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, which suggests that all those productivity hacks look at this number the wrong way. “If only you did X, you could fit in Y more stuff into your day and then you’ll be happy!” But the more likely result is that even if you do X, and fit in Y more stuff, you’ll remain just as stressed and unsatisfied.

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandkids would work just 15 hours a week due to increases in productivity. Well, the productivity per worker did increase, but we still work close to the same number of hours per week. We can have food delivered to our door with an few taps, but how many of us feel an abundance of free time? Even worse, we are “busy” but not because we are working on the things we want to be working on. We have an ever-growing “some day” list, so that we won’t have to face the truth that it is actually the “never” list.

So what’s the solution? This FT article Endless to-do list? Here’s how not to waste your life is an excerpt from the book. Here’s a good quote:

A truly practical approach to making the best use of time demands that we stop trying to deny the undeniable, acknowledging not merely that we might not get around to everything but that we definitely never will. That we’re guaranteed to have to abandon certain ambitions, disappoint certain people and drop certain balls in order to make time for doing a few things that count.

In the words of the creativity coach Jessica Abel, borrowing an insight from the world of personal finance, that means “paying yourself first” when it comes to time. What she means is doing at least a little of what you care about now, as opposed to banking on finding time for it in the future, once the decks are clear and life’s duties are out of the way. Life’s duties will never be out of the way. And so if you really mean it when you say you’d like to write a novel or spend more of your time with your ageing parents or fighting climate change, at some point you’re just going to have to start doing it.

We need to remind ourselves to drop the relatively unimportant things in order to elevate the truly important ones.

Turning this into something little more concrete, here is my proposal:

  • Won’t Do List. Identify 2-3 lesser things that “would be nice” to do, but will simply end up a distraction from the really important things. Give them up. Leave them off your To Do list forever.
  • Must Do List. Identify one thing that you really want to do but have been putting off for too long. Do it for an hour early in the day, even if it pushes other things out of the way. You must work on it, even a little. It’ll probably be hard, which is why you put it off earlier. You may even discover that you really don’t want to do it after all, but at least now you know and can move on. (This is similar to the Charlie Munger “work for yourself an hour each day” advice.)

On a daily basis, I try to cut out the following things to add some time to my day. I haven’t solved my huge pile of e-mail, but I have given up on “Inbox Zero”, check it less often, and am more at peace that I will miss some things the first time around. This isn’t right for everyone, but I also limit myself to an average of 15 minutes a day on Twitter, 5 minutes on Instagram, and zero minutes on Facebook and TikTok. Social media just reminds me of junk food that tastes great in the moment but has little nutrition and I’m hungry again in 20 minutes. I believe Twitter has the most useful information, but filtering can be time-consuming. (I need Instagram to know where my favorite food trucks are at.) I finally decided cut cable TV and gave up following most live sports in 2020. I will miss watching it, but it does free up a lot of time.

Bottom line. You can’t have it all. Don’t fit more in. Cut things out, and lift a few key things up. The finance/time analogy is that you can afford nearly any one thing, but you can’t afford everything. Trying to do everything will keep you “busy” until you run out of weeks:

(image credit: Financial Times)

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  1. You’re bring back memories of Time Management classes in the 80s and earlier 90s. A few weeks after the classes most everybody was back to their normal habits and the Time Management Consultants had cashed their checks. The best time management is the calendar app on my phone.

  2. Well done on all the things you have been able to say no to.
    I like the no recurring tv shows (with maybe an exception for Succession when the season drops).
    Live sports on tv is a double whammy of lost time because it’s recurring and because the games air on the weekend when I’d much rather spend quality time with my family. Every summer I am so happy that the Premier League season is over, and that I have all this free time to do more fulfilling things. Yet comes fall when the season restarts, and I am at it again by December. That’s a tough one.
    No social-media has been a no-brainer for a while now for me.

  3. No social media and no live TV will give you hours back. This reminds me of how you spend your day is how you spend your life. In the end your life is just an accumulation of your days.

    If you worked out or played sports, you were an athlete. If you spent time with friends, you were a good friend. You choose everyday what kind of person you are. So choose to be the person you want to be remembered as.

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