What does your to-do list look like today? Is it long, short, detailed, written down, in your head? I generally have two going at any one time – one for personal tasks (on a post-it), the other for work-related items (currently experimenting with Trello). I love lists in general, as I find they give me a sense of order and control. To-do lists, in particular, are helpful when I feel overwhelmed. I find making a structured list of the apparently million things I have to do makes me feel less dispersed, disorganised and fearful of forgetting things.
However, the list also has a dark side. Like with smartphones and social media, it can be very easy to let the tool we have created to help order our life start to order us about. To-do lists, for many people, can become a source of anxiety, guilt, frustration and overwhelm. This is often the case when the list gets too long, or when we get too attached to finishing the list, or when we feel the list is not of our own making but filled with tasks dictated by our friends, family, the boss, society, or indeed our own inner perfectionist.
Keeping the list in its rightful place – a useful tool, not a stick to beat yourself with – can be achieved, however, with a few mental adjustments and some simple re-organisation techniques. Here are some ideas for ensuring the list serves you and not the other way round!
Any re-thinking of your relationship with the to-do list must start with relinquishing the idea that the to-do list will ever be empty. One of my personal gurus, Richard Carlson, reminds readers in his bestselling Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, “that when you die, your “in basket” won’t be empty” and that this is, in fact, a good thing. Having stuff on your to-do list means you’re alive and active, that you have projects on the go, that people rely on you. Once you accept that the to-do list will never be blank, you can release the idea of having a perfect day when you finally get it all done and clear the decks. That is simply not possible, nor is it what life should be about.
Once you’ve got your head round that, there are numerous ways to restructure or reorganise your to-do list to make it feel more manageable.
Turn your to-do list into a plan
There is an old saying that coaches love which states that a goal without a plan is just a wish. The same idea can work for The List. The idea is that, wherever possible, instead of adding items to your to-do list, you open your diary and schedule in a slot for doing the task. So, for example, if you have to prepare a PowerPoint for a meeting in two weeks’ time, don’t just write it on the list. Instead, block three hour-long slots in your Outlook planner. You can now mentally take it off the to-do list as the task has been allotted time and scheduled. I do this with a page-a-day diary that serves as my to-do list notebook (yes, I’m completely analogue with these things). This avoids me having one massive to-do list that I have to prioritise every day and gives me short, daily lists so each morning I just look at what I’ve planned for myself and get on with it. When I don’t get everything done, I simply move remaining tasks to another list, depending on when I have time in my schedule. Not every task on the to-do list can be planned in this way, but by working like this for as many as I can, I find that my floating “get that done at some point” list stays very short. Some days – whisper it – I even eliminate it altogether!
Change the title
When I was interviewing for university, a literature fellow had me analyse a poem then asked the slightly sadistic question, “How would this poem be different if it were called Ten Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead?” Given that it was a love poem about Anne Boleyn by 16th-century writer Thomas Wyatt, even my jaw-achingly nervous 17-year old self was able to recognise and articulate that the title change would make a world of difference to the reader’s expectations of the text and its meaning.
Changing the title of your to-do list can have a similarly huge impact on how you relate to it. What happens when you change “To do” into “Could do”, or “Might do”? How does that alter the way you look at the list? Clients who put this into practice tell me that, even though the importance or necessity of the tasks on the list has not changed, this new title makes them feel lighter and less beholden to the tyranny of the list. The linguistic shift turns obligation into possibility.
This is a particularly powerful tool if you have a “should do” list that you run in parallel to your to-do list. That one’s particularly pernicious. A client taking a sabbatical year to retrain while her wife continues working told me recently, “I feel like I should be making dinner every night”. When she reframed that to “I could now make dinner every night”, what felt like a guilt-provoking obligation became simple one of many options. She also remembered that she actually enjoys making supper, but by “shoulding” on herself about it, she had turned it into a chore. So, another alternative is to re-name your list the “I want to” list, or the “I get to” list. This takes it a step further and turns obligation into a pleasure. This works for me when it comes to particularly tedious tasks. “Book my daughter a dentist appointment” becomes “I want to take care of my daughter’s teeth and am lucky to be able to do so”. “I have to do my tax declaration” becomes “I get to declare taxes for money made doing work I love”. It sounds slightly Pollyanna-ish, perhaps, but much of the time, it truly does help re-frame the list and my relationship to it.
Create more lists
In parallel to the to-do list, it can be helpful to create a couple of extra lists that take the load off. How would it feel to make a “Things I am going to delegate” list? Being able to delegate to your team or even your colleagues is an important skill. There is no glory in doing everything yourself, in fact it can often give staff the feeling you do not trust them, and having an overflowing inbox makes you look disorganised and incompetent. Knowing how and when to delegate crosses items off the to-do list and puts you in a position of overseeing projects and tasks. In your personal life, it is important – especially for women, I find – to let go of control, and with it responsibility, and allow other family members do their bit. Other lists might be “Tasks I need help with”, or “Tasks that will take under five minutes” (once you’ve written that, enjoy taking an hour or two to blast through them all).
In the end, how you deal with your to-do list matters much less than your relationship to it. However you choose to keep, manage and complete the to-do list, just make sure it is serving you – helping you to ensure your life runs according to your wishes – rather than the other way round.
Managing your time and tasks better starts with some deep, inner work around letting go, relinquishing control, and prioritising your real goals and deepest values. Working with a dynamic and experienced coach to rethink how you structure your personal and professional activities can help you find greater purpose and free up time to create a life and career built with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session.