Sometimes You Don’t Actually Have To Choose

Alexis Haselberger
5 min readApr 10, 2023

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Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-holding-pen-and-using-a-tablet-5053742/

If you’ve spent any time in the “productivity space” online, you’ll see something that at first appears to be a big debate:

  • Is it better to use a task list, or to time block on your calendar?

Before you read any further, let me ask you: Are you on “team task list” or “team time block”?

No matter what you said, I bet you feel pretty confident about your answer.

(Unless you said “neither”, and in that case, please, please don’t skip this one.)

Proponents of each method tout why their method works best.

But here’s the thing: the epic battle of task lists vs. calendars is a false dichotomy.

There’s no reason you have to pick a side.

Me, I use both techniques. And I’m fairly sure I’d be less effective if I picked a side.

Now, you might be thinking: “Isn’t that overkill? How much time do you spend managing your tools vs. just getting stuff done?”

And here’s my secret: I actually don’t spend that much time in either of these tools. I don’t have a lengthy planning process, or a detailed review. (You can see my actual numbers below.)

I spend minimal time on my tools; just enough so that they drive my work forward, keep me focused and don’t let me lead myself astray.

But let’s take a look at why folks think that there’s one method to rule them all and why folks pit these 2 useful techniques against each other:

The argument in favor of task lists generally go something like this:

  • They’re an external brain, helping you achieve that “mind like water” state that David Allen is always going on about in “Getting Things Done”
  • They let you categorize and organize what you need to do
  • They help you prioritize

The arguments against task lists generally go something like this:

  • They’re overwhelming
  • It’s easy to overcommit
  • It’s hard to prioritize
  • Most people are better at adding to the list than doing the things on it
  • You’re overly ambitious and just keep pushing things from day to day
  • You use it for a little while and then give up

The arguments in favor of time blocking generally go something like this:

  • It helps you be more realistic
  • If it’s not on the schedule it won’t happen (Or as Gretchen Rubin says “What can happen at any time often happens at no time”.)
  • It helps you properly allocate time and avoid overcommitting
  • It helps subtly refocus you throughout the day

The argument against time blocking generally go something like this:

  • Why bother? I just blow past my time blocks.
  • Blocks aren’t helpful because I always underestimate the time I need
  • Urgent stuff always pops up and ruins my plans

And you know what? ALL of that can be true, on both sides.

But here’s why I’m a fan of both methods:

I need my task system to store ALL the data, to be a true external brain for me. I don’t want to rely on memory. At all.

A task system has features like checkboxes for next steps, and a comment field to document what’s been done. Calendar appointments aren’t designed to contain all that ancillary data or to provide a history of your progress over time.

And, I need time blocking to help me figure out WHEN I’m going to do the things in my task system. If I just have a task system, even if I have dates and times in it, I’m very likely to overextend myself, and be left feeling defeated.

When I look at my calendar to see when I have time to do something, only then will the date in my task system be accurate. Otherwise I’m just hoping and wishing I’ll have the time.

If I use my calendar to intentionally think about how long things are likely to take and when I can fit them in (and make sure to give myself some buffer), then my task system is in much better shape.

It’s a symbiotic relationship.

And if you’re still thinking, “this sounds like it takes a lot of time to manage”, I want to share with you some real numbers:

  • 30 minutes a week
  • That’s how long it takes me to look at my calendar and my task system, and to make a reasonable, realistic plan for the week ahead.
  • 5 minutes a day
  • As things change, as new things come up, I often adjust my plans (tasks and time blocks) in the moment, so that I’m never having to put “update my systems” in my task system.
  • And I typically spend about 2 minutes at the end of each day to reassess my plan for tomorrow, and make sure it still makes sense for the time I have available. And if not, I adjust my plan.

My goal is “ Task Realism “ and these 2 tools, task system and calendar, help me get there.

Do YOU need to use both?

You just need to do what works for you!

  • If you get along just fine with your task list and don’t need to associate actual time on your calendar, by all means, skip the time blocking.
  • And if you don’t need to store the details of your tasks and projects outside of your calendar because you have some other system (or a very impressive memory!) for doing so, then by all means, don’t bother with a task system.

But if you find that it’s helpful to have a central location for all your task details (your task system) and to have a visual representation of your task list on your calendar (time blocking), well then there’s no reason you have to choose one over the other.

This isn’t an either/or situation. It’s a yes/both situation.

Just like anything, think about your own needs and what works for you!

Now, I often see a bit more skepticism about time blocking than I do about task systems, so if you want to learn more about time blocking, I’ve got you covered. Here are a few pieces I’ve written on the subject.

And let me know, do you have any symbiotic processes that work well for you, but might seem counterintuitive?

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Originally published at https://www.alexishaselberger.com on April 10, 2023.

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