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Time management is an outdated concept, and many of the traditional “tips” aren’t relevant for the 21st century. One typical piece of “time management” advice that is contrary to effective task management is to try to estimate on your to-do list how long each task will take. If you are using a logical and useful process for managing your task list, time estimation for tasks has no place. This might seem like a good idea if you organize your tasks by scheduling time for each one on your poor task managementcalendar, and you need to know how many tasks to schedule in a day. But that’s not a good use of your calendar.

Why Time Estimation for Tasks is a Bad Idea

First, people are bad at guessing how long things will take. Also, scheduling tasks on your calendar is almost always a bad idea, because let’s face it: our days rarely go the way we plan them. There are a few cases where the concept of “time blocking” can be helpful, but routinely scheduling tasks on your calendar virtually ensures that you will spend more time reorganizing your calendar than actually getting things done. It’s also an easy way for something to fall through the cracks – that meeting runs over the time you had scheduled to return the call to the client, and you forget to move that “appointment,” and days (or weeks) later you realize you never called the client back.

What to Do Instead

For effective task management, keep your tasks on a task list (electronic is best), and prioritize by (arbitrary) due date. By “arbitrary,” I mean the due date is the date you choose when you say to yourself, “When would I like to have this done, given its relationship to everything else I need to do?” Of course, this only works if you actually know everything else you need to do. And this is only possible if you have everything on your task list, not:  some things on your list, some things in your email, some things on sticky notes, some things in the notebook you take to meetings, and some things in your head. Once you have everything in one place, you can adequately assess it.

Reality Bites

Part of “assessing” your workload means recognizing everything else that happens in a given day, such as meetings, time to process email, phone calls, unexpected developments, new priorities, conversations with co-workers, etc. If you’re honest about your capabilities, you’ll have to admit that you’ll likely only have the opportunity to accomplish three to five tasks in a day. So if you’ve got 90 tasks on your task list (some related to bigger projects, some not), and you accept that you’re likely going to average only three per day, you are then forced to recognize that as things stand, there will be at least three tasks that probably won’t happen for 30 days, three for 29 days, and so on. If this is ok with you, you now have control over your existing workload, only needing to work in new things as they come up, negotiating with yourself over what gets bumped. OR, you decide that timeline is not ok with you, so now you have the opportunity to renegotiate deadlines, delegate some things, work extra hours, bring in a temp, etc. Either way, you are planning appropriately, but you didn’t waste any time trying to estimate how much time each task is going to take.

Summary for Effective Task Management

  • Don’t waste time estimating how long each task on your list will take you. In the end, it doesn’t matter.
  • Keep everything you need to do on one master (electronic) task list.
  • You won’t get as much done in a day as you think you will.
  • Prioritize by arbitrary due dates, chosen by considering each task in terms of everything else that needs to get done.