Rethinking the To-Do List
Posted on March 20, 2013
Sometimes I think, if I could just check every last item off of my to-do list, I would finally be able to think clearly. The world would spread out before me like a big blank canvas, and I would feel limitlessly creative and free.
When I was in real estate, my to-do list was a never-ending, never-enough-time-in-the-day futile exercise in completion. Checking one thing off usually meant adding three more in its place. My personal to-do list sat dusty and neglected somewhere underneath my half eaten lunch, mocking me. If I got to the grocery store in the evening and my phone didn’t ring after 10 pm, that was a good day.
Now that I have more time and energy to devote to the things that matter, I still find myself battling my to-do list. The things I want to do and the things I need to do and the things that I think I should do but don’t really want to do all compete for my attention.
This weekend, I checked off several items that had been bugging me for a while (one of them for over a year!). I felt this wonderful sense of relief at having tackled and defeated these energy draining to-do’s that were always at the back of my mind.
For five whole minutes.
And then? I started to think about those other things I still haven’t gotten around to.
The reality is, no matter your official job title, there is no end to life’s little tasks. Unless you give it all up and go live on a commune. Even then, I’m pretty sure you have to remember to hoe the potato patch or something.
Leo from Zen Habits suggests ditching your to-do list all together and just doing what you want with your time. While I admire his minimalism and aspire to be as in-the-moment as he is, I don’t think I’m evolved enough to go completely listless. I’m an out of sight, out of mind gal. I will usually forget that really awesome, life changing thought I had thirty minutes ago if I don’t write it down. Same thing goes for less awesome stuff like picking up the dry cleaning.
Here’s my beef with to-do’s: if we write a list of things we have to get done, it hangs over our heads all day or week. Any given moment becomes an opportunity to pay bills, crunch numbers or run errands. Then, if we don’t use that time “wisely,” we feel guilty about the activities we do instead, like watching the season finale of Downton Abbey.
This is a self-defeating, soul-crushing way to schedule our lives. So I’ve been playing around with a few methods to turn my to-do list on its head. Here are some of the ideas that have been working for me:
Work on Yourself First:
How many of you check your email in bed when you wake up in the morning? I used to do that (sometimes I still do), but reading about MIT’s (Most Important Things) last year changed my mindset on this too-convenient little habit.
If we let the demands of the outside world (via email or facebook or flipboard) in first thing every morning, we unwittingly allow those demands to chart the course of our day.
Instead, make a list of one or two “Most Important Things” for each day and do those first. These can be working on a chapter of your book or going for a run or tweaking an essential component of a project–the things you most want to accomplish in your day but often put off or skip entirely because it’s a lot easier to check and respond to email than it is to lace up running shoes or do a downward dog. Though I haven’t perfected this as an everyday habit, I try to do it as often as possible. It’s an awesome feeling to accomplish something personally fulfilling first thing in the morning.
You can read more specifics on MIT’s on Life Hackers or Zen Habits.
Batch the Crap:
This one is from the lovely Jess Lively. Instead of feeling guilty about procrastinating on all of the un-fun stuff on your to-do list, schedule a chunk of time one day a week to “batch the crap.” This is the time for paying bills, making appointments, scanning receipts, and doing the most procrastination-worthy tasks. Showing up for this pre-arranged appointment with yourself may not be great fun, but it gives you the mental space to do what you want with the rest of your free time. No more gross “to-do’s” hanging over your head each and every day of the week. Now you know exactly when and where you’ll take care of them.
I don’t know about you, but I find list-making addictive. Once I start to make a list, I think of a bunch of extra things to put on it, just in case I’m feeling really ambitious. The result? I end up feeling bad about myself when I don’t accomplish everything on my list. Those things that were originally intentioned as “extras” become tiny unintentional failures. What a rip-off! Now I consciously make an effort not to over-list. Too much space in a day can create inertia but too little leaves no room for creativity, spontaneity and play. We often over-schedule ourselves in an attempt to feel productive and worthy. But research shows that rest and play are essential to creativity and productivity. So, let the “extra” stuff go. Does it really matter anyway?
View The To-Do List as a Fluid Life List:
A traditional to-do list might as well be called a nag-list. We can schedule ourselves to death with inane, petty tasks that detract from what we really want out of life. Or we can flip that notion on its head. If we use our lists to minimize the small, unimportant stuff and maximize the tasks that will help us accomplish our goals (publish our first book, open our own business, run a marathon) then to-do lists become life lists: fluid, ever-evolving and growth-inducing.
How do you manage all of the tiny tasks of daily life? What systems or thought processes have you found most beneficial?
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