As communicators, we're always dealing with high-volume workloads and endless to-do lists.
But the lists never get done. They just grow. And that feels AWFUL.
We feel guilty that we can’t get through everything. We blame ourselves. We feel completely unrewarded at the end of the week. It’s exhausting.
But guess what? You’re not alone and your endless to-do lists are not your fault.
Our inability to get through every item on our to-do list is down to a psychological phenomenon known as the planning fallacy.
The planning fallacy is our tendency to think we can complete tasks in a shorter time than is possible. We vastly underestimate how long it will take to actually get through each task on our to-do list.
This idea of time estimation has been well studied by researchers. In 2015, a published study called "When plans lead to optimistic forecasts" by Buehler & Griffin found that people often underestimate how long it will take them to complete a task. They said we're prone to “unrealistically optimistic forecasts”.
Another study in 2022 reported the same finding: humans have difficulty with time estimation. In this study, researchers asked 210 participants to estimate how many minutes it would take them to complete a particular task. They reported back a week later to say how many minutes it had actually taken. And guess what?
47% of participants underestimated how long their tasks would take to complete. Stuff always took longer than expected. (I FEEL SEEN!)
But now that we know we are terrible at time estimation… what can we do about it?
Introducing: the Timeblocking Technique.
Timeblocking is a scheduling approach where you break your day up into blocks of time. You assign specific tasks into each block so that you know exactly what needs to get done and when you’re going to do it. I learned about this from Nir Eyal and it changed how I approach my work, forever.
This technique isn’t just about scheduling your most important work or scheduling time to focus without distractions. It’s about scheduling EVERYTHING. Even checking emails, taking breaks, meeting people for coffee… so that you can plan out your time in advance, don't get overwhelmed and then focus on completing one thing at a time. Each block of time can be 15 minutes / 30 minutes / an hour – whatever works for you.
Here’s what a timeblocked calendar might look like:
Timeblocking will change your life.
It works because it’s based on a well-researched technique that psychologists call “setting an implementation intention”. In other words, “planning out what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it.”
Let's say goodbye to feeling overwhelmed and constantly falling behind on our to-do lists.
Here’s what I want you to do:
Step 1: Plan
Start with timeblocking one day of your calendar. Just one day. Outline the specific tasks or activities you want to work on for that day. Estimate the amount of time you want to allocate for that task and put it in for as many blocks of time as you think you’ll need. But remember… we’re terrible at time estimation. So you can’t just do Step 1. You need to do the rest of the steps too.
Step 2: Commit
Make a commitment to work exclusively on the task in each block of time. Turn off your email notifications and your Teams/ Slack notifications. Give your undivided attention to the task you’ve set aside the time for. No multitasking allowed! Bonus points if you put your phone in the other room so you’re not even tempted to look at it.
Step 3: Reflect
Take 15 minutes at the end of the day to reflect on how this went. Here’s some questions for you to answer:
Did you estimate the right amount of time required for the tasks? Or did they take longer than you thought?
Did you stick to the plan for each block of time or did you find yourself getting distracted?
What interfered with your plan for the day?
Step 4: Iterate
Take your reflections from step 3 and make a concrete plan. What did you learn from step 3 that you can put into practice? For example, you might find that you need an extra 30 minutes a day for email than you thought.
Once you’ve completed step 4, go back to step 1 again. Rinse and repeat. You’ll get better with practice and your ability to estimate your time will improve as you reflect on how your time is being spent.
Not only does this technique help you gain control of how you’re spending your time, but it also gives you a tangible, powerful way to have a conversation with your manager about your workload. Show your manager your timeblocked calendar. Work with them to collaborate on how your week should be spent and what each block of time should focus on. Bring them your reflections on how long you estimated a task would take versus the reality of how long it really took.
This is a great approach because when your manager gives you a new task, you can work together to to identify what should be removed from block of time in your calendar in order to fit it in.
I’ve been using this technique for years and I can vouch that it works.
You will have more structured workdays, you will feel in control of your calendar, that dreadful sense of overwhelm will disappear. You will have the time and space to think creatively again. It is a whole new way of operating at work that will transform your productivity and make you feel like you’re back in the drivers seat.
Whenever you're ready, here are 3 ways I can help you:
Consulting: I help organisations create effective systems of internal communication. This includes reviewing your current system, developing internal communication strategies, establishing internal communication functions and more. Book a free call to discuss how I can help you.
Coaching: I offer 1:1 coaching for a small number of clients to amplify your strategic abilities, gain confidence in your decision-making, improve your communication prowess and feel empowered to be creative at work. Email me for details of 8 and 12 week coaching packages, or simply book a one-off 60 minute session here.
Training: I run workshops on effective internal communication, measurement, AI in internal communication, newsletters, effective writing and other internal communication topics. I often develop bespoke training for clients. Email me to discuss your training needs at email@example.com.