Hundreds of Ways to Get S#!+ Done—and We Still Don’t

Something about the future defeats our imaginative capacity. “Present self screws over future self,” says Tim Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University who studies procrastination. He says that we regard our future self as a stranger, someone onto whose lap we can dump tons of work. On some weird level, we don’t get that it’ll be us doing it.

One of Pychyl’s students recently tried a clever experimental trick to get people to procrastinate less. The student took undergraduates through a guided meditation exercise in which they envisioned themselves at the end of the term—meeting that future self. “Lo and behold,” Pychyl says, those people “developed more empathy for their future self, and that was related to a decrease in procrastination.” They realized that time wasn’t infinite. Future them was no longer a stranger but someone to be protected. To get us off our butts, it seems, we need to grapple with the finite nature of our time on Earth.

This is the black-metal nature of task management: Every single time you write down a task for yourself, you are deciding how to spend a few crucial moments of the most nonrenewable resource you possess: your life. Every to-do list is, ultimately, about death. (“Dost thou love life?” wrote Ben Franklin. “Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.”)

I began to suspect that this is the truly deep, arterial source of some of the emotions around to-do lists. The people who make to-do apps agreed with me. “What is this class of software supposed to do?” asks Patel, the creator of Workflowy, rhetorically. “It’s supposed to answer the question ‘What should I do right now in order to accomplish all of my life goals?’ The most scarce resource many of us have is time.”

Ryder Carroll, the creator of the Bullet Journal paper-based method for organizing your work, puts it in even more starkly existential terms. “Each task is an experience waiting to be born,” he tells me. “When you look at your task list that way, it’s like, this will become your future.” (Or if you want the European literary-philosophical take, here’s Umberto Eco: “We like lists because we don’t want to die.”)

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No wonder we get so paralyzed! The stakes with PowerPoint really aren’t that high.

Given that life is composed of time, a whole sector of the task-management philosophical magisteria argues that mere lists will always be inherently terrible. Just as Pychyl showed, we overload ourselves with more than we can accomplish and create Lists of Shame because we are terrible at grasping how little time we actually have. The only solution, this line of thinking goes, is to use an organizational system that is itself composed of time: a calendar.

Instead of putting tasks on a list, you do “time blocking,” putting every task in your calendar as a chunk of work. That way you can immediately see when you’re biting off more than you can chew. Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University and guru of what he calls “deep work,” is probably the staunchest advocate of time blocking. “I think it is pretty undeniable that time blocking, done well, is going to blow the list method out of the water,” Newport tells me. He says it makes you twice as productive as those suckers who rely on lists. Time blocking forces us to wrestle directly with the angel of death. It’s natural that we then screw around less.

Several researchers who study tasks told me they generally agreed that time blocking avoids the problems of to-do apps and lists. One to-do app, Reclaim, actually has an AI that estimates how long each task will take and finds a slot in your calendar. (The secret point is to show you there isn’t much room in there.) “We’ll not only tell you when tasks are overdue, we’ll tell you that tasks are going to be overdue,” says Patrick Lightbody, Reclaim’s cofounder.

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