How do millionaires, CEOs, and professional athletes get things done?

They don’t use a task list. Instead, they eschew the task list and just block off time on their calendar.

These high-performers have embraced one of the fundamental truths of productivity: time is your most valuable resource. GTD places a lot of emphasis on different types of resources—where you are, what equipment you have available, and even who’s around—but time is the most valuable resource to manage.

Planning your work with only a calendar isn’t hard, but it does take thinking about some things a little differently. You’re not going to get rid of your task list entirely. You still have projects, goals, and chores to keep track of. But instead of a today list, you just schedule everything on the calendar.

  1. Plan daily. Identify the things you need to accomplish today. Block off the time you need for each task, whether it’s a four-hour block for deep work or twenty minutes to get a running start on your day. Be brutally honest about how much time tasks will take. With a task list, you can keep writing down task after ambitious task. A calendar will show you when your schedule is full.
  2. Cut intentionally. Planning work on a calendar makes you realize just how much you have to do and how little time there is to do it. What do you do when you don’t have room for everything? You start cutting. Eliminate the low-value activities to remove the distractions. Automate what you can. Delegate everything that someone else could do. (Eliminate, automate, and delegate—in that order.)
  3. Prioritize clearly. Like any plan, it’s only as good as the paper it’s written on. What’s more important is the clarity it gives you. Your schedule will slip. When it does, what will you cut? It’s going to be rough until you get used to estimating. If something goes long, it can blow your entire day. What are you going to cut? Not a bad thing, if you were doing the most important thing you could be doing.
  4. Focus intensely. When it’s time to work, get to work. You have scheduled this time to achieve a certain result. Protect that time. (Tip: schedule time to check email, return calls, and deal with deferred interruptions.)
  5. Work sustainably. Block out your time according to what works for you. Thirty minutes for a conference call, an hour to run errands, four hours for creative work. Most importantly, schedule breaks. Not only does it help you stay on track when one task runs long, but you need rest. Don’t burn yourself out.

Finally, two principles to keep in mind:

  • The Pareto Principle (aka the 80/20 rule). Once you hit the point of diminishing returns, move on. Done is better than perfect.
  • Parkinson’s Law. A task will expand to fill the time you give it. This works both ways. Give yourself enough time to do a good job (keeping the 80/20 rule in mind), but you should be just slightly uncomfortable. It helps keep you moving.

If you want to use just a calendar, remember to be flexible, especially when you’re getting started. You will feel the pressure of the schedule. Work when it’s time to work, then switch off. Disconnect and spend some time in Quadrant 2 renewing yourself.

You’ll quickly notice that tasks don’t roll over automatically from one day to the next. In order to get on your calendar, every task has to prove its value, every day. That’s a good thing.

By scheduling your time instead of your tasks, you stay focused on what you’re trying to achieve and how long it will take you to get there. At the end of the day, you may not have accomplished everything you set out to do, but you’ll have accomplished the most important things.

Question: Have you tried scheduling your day without a task list? How did it go? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.