The Problem with To-Do Lists

Thursday, March 01, 2018

The Problem with To-Do Lists

I have a love-hate relationship with To Do lists.

With my background as a digital producer, organisation was basically my job. I always worked from a To Do list, which was a source of smug satisfaction when it came to ticking things off. Even at home I’d create lists thinking, “If it’s written down it’s halfway done”, as though admitting the task imbued it with some magical guarantee of action. Shopping lists, cleaning lists, bucket lists! And don’t talk about when I was planning my wedding, or studying!

Yet, the more Mindful and present I became, I started to see my To Do lists as more of a hindrance than a help. The problem with To Do lists (for me!) is that they hold us to a rigid set of expectations that don’t account for changes in between. They don’t allow for “life” to happen. Be honest, if something new crops up in your day it just gets added to your list. Thereby it moves the goal post of what you expect yourself to achieve to simply equal = MORE. In the same amount of time. No wonder we spend anxious moments (sometimes hours!) looking at the To Do list thinking “there’s no way I’ll get all that done today”. I call this planning paralysis. We are overstretched, and we are blindingly reminded of the fact by it being written in front of us. We bite our nails,  massage our temples, maybe distract ourselves with a cup of coffee. We avoid facing the list because there is too much on it, and soon enough we’ve spent more time agonising over it than actually doing it.

My suggestion? Shorten the To Do list by half - keeping the most important tasks. “But Kris they are ALL important!” Well here is a chance to exercise your ability to surrender and let go. Ask yourself honestly “What do I need to do today?” not, “If I do that now then tomorrow will be easier.” TODAY. Be present and hold yourself accountable only to those items that need your attention. This is also a chance for you to allow yourself to ask for help if you need it. Busy has a tendency to be used a status symbol in our working world, and asking for help as a sign of incapability or weakness. That is complete BS. If there are items on your list that someone else is more suited to, someone else could share with you, or that you can respectfully delegate or move the deadline for - be brave, speak up, and ask for it. You do not have to do it all yourself. This does not mean slacking off and shirking your work, but we need to start asking for what we need to protect our physical and mental energy and capacity.

Once you’ve shortened your list, make this your only “visual” of what is required of you today. There is no sense in having a To Do list a mile long when it induces more anxiety than it does productivity. The old adage, “out of sight out of mind” works here for those who are compulsive list makers. And I bet you’ll find once you let go of having to “do it all” you will discover that much of your list was not as pressing as you were making it out to be.

For those bad-asses out there, I even challenge you to go one day without a To Do list at all. “But HOW Kris?!” You are all incredibly capable and know what needs to be done - so try one day trusting your “intuitive To Do”.

As a bonus, I'm also giving you my secret weapon to overcoming “list fever”. Finish your week with a “Done list”. Give yourself permission to be proud of what you DO get done, not beat yourself up over what you don’t. Sit down and write “I am proud of myself for…” at the top of your page, and write down every single thing you achieved, finished, created, began, resolved, tackled, or faced that week. From the big tasks in your professional life, to finally fixing that dripping tap at home. We do not celebrate ourselves enough and this exercise will give you a confidence boost and a reminder that you do enough, you ARE enough.

What is your relationship with the “To Do”? Let me know below!

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