Today I was listening to Nir Eyal being interviewed on the What’s Essential Podcast and he said:
“When I say to-do lists are terrible for your productivity, I’m not saying writing things down… we do need to get things out of our head and on to a page, I love that. What I don’t think is productive and this has been born out of studies, is running your life on a to-do list. It needs to be in your schedule. The problem with most people is that most people, when they put things on a to-do list there is no constraint. When there is no constraint, when I’m just going to do everything: 1. I get less done and 2. it feels horrible because I’m running around my life worried about the things I have not done. I mean very few people have experienced what real leisure feels like. Why? Cause they come home from work, and they’re still thinking about work. When they’re with their kids or all they wanna do is watch a show on Netflix and relax, they just feel like they should be being somewhere else or doing something else and so they don’t know what real leisure feels like. Whereas you if you use a timeboxed calendar - that’s all you should be doing. Everything else becomes a distraction if it’s not what you planned to do with your time in advance”.
He then continues throughout the podcast proselytizing about the timeboxed calendar and how it is the answer to feeling in control of your time and attention and by extension, your life. In my opinion, he is right. And that is why hearing his advice was so frustrating.
The one situation where the time blocking/timeboxing method falls over is when you don’t actually have control over your boxes of time. For example: when you are beholden to a tiny human with erratic sleeping and eating patterns. I felt this resistance most with my first baby, as I was still trying to plan my days as if I could somehow predict the boxes ahead. The night before I would make a mental map for the day assuming we would be up at 5am, and then the baby would wake at 4. I distinctly remember going on our morning walks and spending the time trying to plan out how the day ahead would pan out if my baby followed consistent naps and ‘wake windows’ like all the websites had promised, only to have it immediately thrown off by them falling asleep an hour earlier than expected.
I spent so much mental energy on this “plan, have things not go to plan, feel like I’ve screwed up somehow” cycle for months before I finally took the hint and dropped the idea that I could control my time. Some say we are given the children we need. Sometimes I think the universe sent my oldest child to their controlling type-A mum just to teach her to chill the fuck out for a second.
So if timeboxing is not working, what are you left with? A to-do list. A list of things I can do while the baby sleeps, while they are awake, and while they are eating. Then I just try to tackle the list in an ad hoc manner as the day unfolds. It works okay, but what is it that Nir said? To-do lists lead to “1. getting less done and 2. feeling horrible because I’m running around my life worried about the things I have not done”. It appears he just described what it’s like to parent babies and toddlers.
At least, for me, this is a brief season. Eventually I will be back at work enjoying the privilege of childcare. The baby will finish breastfeeding and my husband will be able to care for them for longer stretches of time. I’ll find planable chunks of time in my week opening up. Until then, timeboxing will have to wait.