In case the title didn’t give it away, this blog is about keeping a to-do list, but for a reason you might not suspect: as an effective antidote for worry. And, hey, let’s face it, in 2020 we can use all the antidotes we can get! So, bear with me here, as I can’t believe I’m writing an article about keeping a to-do list either. This should be interesting, or at the very least mildly entertaining…
In my teens and twenties, I thought to-do lists were something reserved for old people. Old people being, of course, anyone aged thirty and above. Now, at forty-five, I incessantly follow the lists I make for myself . . . and, I’m astonished I ever thought thirty was “old”!
I know, the mere thought of a to-do list can sometimes feel like an awful burden. Who doesn’t dread a never ending tally of honey-do’s, a register full of things that you would much rather eat a jar full of habanero peppers than actually do, or a brutal record of tasks that would take over ten hours to accomplish when, similar to the Alanis Morissette song, all you have are two. A little bit ironic don’t-cha think?
For many years I viewed a to-do list as an impediment to life’s natural unfolding in real time. I feared keeping a to-do list would make me, almost, unnaturally organized and distract me from the natural flow of the day.
I also figured that if I were smarter and more able I wouldn’t need a to-do list. I viewed keeping a to-do list as an insulting obligation, even though I was the one who crafted the very list I labored to complete. Explain that one to me. Here, I was pressuring myself to do my to-do list, then passive-aggressively hating myself for having to do a to-do list in the first place, before forcing myself to actually do it. My well intentioned to-do list attempts quickly turned into guilt inducing to-be-stressed list accomplishments.
I mention these to-do hang ups because you might have similar ones. Or, maybe, very different ones. If you don’t have any to-do hang ups, then I suspect you must use to-do lists to accomplish everything, up to and including reading this article. So, go ahead and check it off your list before continuing, I’ll wait . . .
With my laundry list of to-do hang ups, it might sound odd for me to report that I credit my to-do list routine with much of my ability to stay grounded, and even experience a fair deal of happiness, during this challenging year that’s become a dark parody of itself. Isn’t it ironic that this year is called 20/20, when it can so easily cause a person to see cross-eyed?
I certainly never expected to find refuge in a to-do list, much less discover that in addition to enhancing my mood or ability to relax, keeping one could keep me from wading too deep into the muddy waters of frustration, stress, fear and sadness.
FROM TO-DON’T TO TO-DO
On countless occasions during 2020, I’ve found myself teetering on the verge of depression after scrolling social media, reacting to an article, or watching the news. While it’s often nice to have a variety of ways to stay abreast of current events, I would rather not have a buffet of cringe worthy breaking news stories laid out before me at all hours of the day. I’d much rather find the desert bar, complete with chocolate chip cookies, vanilla ice cream and homemade rhubarb pie. And, in a way, that’s where the to-do list comes in.
COME ON Jason! How DARE you compare a to-do list to a desert bar? That’s like the worst comparison EVER! How can a measly to-do list make one iota’s difference in how I feel about the exhaustingly frequent, nauseatingly difficult things occurring around the world at this extremely complex moment in human history?!
The answer is simple. A to-do list puts your focus on the things you can actually do something about. The news, on the other hand, is more like a to-be helpless list of story, after story that you can do very little, if anything, to resolve in a healthy way.
For me, feeling powerless is the utter pits. So, after watching the news, instead of wallowing in hopelessness, helplessness and happy-lessness, I make an effort to acknowledge my feelings of sadness, fear and anger. After that, I refer back to my to-do list and start in on the tasks listed. And, no, it’s not always anywhere near as easy as it sounds to simply break my concentration from what’s bothering me and refocus it on taking a productive step forward. But, the challenge is very much worth it. I accomplish more of the things I want to accomplish, which makes me happier, gives me more confidence and provides me with a sense that I’m moving toward something meaningful to me. In a way, my to-do list is my recipe for creating good news in my life and, hopefully, even in the lives around me.
If I can create my own feel good news, I don’t feel the need to wait for the news of the world to be uplifting before I allow myself to feel better.
If I can create my own feel good news, I’m willing to bet that you can too.
Are you ready to try this worry antidote for yourself? I know, it sounds like a ridiculously simple idea. But like many very simple ideas, it can be difficult to implement, so, I encourage you to first take the following assessment…
My Relationship with To-Do Lists is Best Described by:
A – The last time I made a to-do list was ten years ago and I showed that to-do list who’s boss by NOT DOING A SINGLE SOLITARY ITEM ON IT! Thank you very much!
B – I use a to-do list for everything, in fact, every breath I take is on my to-do list and after each one, I check it off. Without my to-do list, I’d be, well, very lonely.
C – Honestly, I fall somewhere between A and B. I appreciate my to-do lists in some ways and despise them in others.
D – I’ve never seen, much less kept a to-do list in my life.
E – You keep saying To-Do. Don’t you mean tofu?
What scenario best describes your feelings towards to-do lists?
No matter which scenario you chose, I encourage you to read the following to-do list tips and consider ways in which you might grow and reinforce your to-do list practice, so that you can do more of what is important to you and spend less time arm wrestling with worry.
A few to-do list tips. OK, actually 10 of them:
1 – Be proactive in creating your list. Make it before engaging with social media, or the news, or anything else you anticipate might be emotionally draining. If your experience is like mine, sometimes it’s harder to motivate yourself to do something, even if that something is making a to-do list, when you feel emotionally spent or agitated.
2 – Experiment with breaking the tasks on your list into their smallest parts. Can you break a task into subtasks or micro tasks you can accomplish in 10 to 20 minutes? As an example, maybe you know cleaning out your attic will take 3 hours. Can you break that task into 9 or 10 micro tasks? Breaking bigger tasks into micro tasks is an important part of making your list more appealing and doable. You want to be able to focus on completing a small task, crossing it off your list, and moving on to the next one in order to build momentum. Momentum feeds the feeling of accomplishment and feeling accomplished feels good. A list with tasks that are too hard to do in one sitting, like finding the meaning of life, will likely overwhelm you and trigger excuses to procrastinate or worse, make you feel worse.
3 – Just start. Even though your mind might be thinking of two dozen other things it would rather be doing. Just start.
4 – Once you start, stay with it. Even if it’s unbearably uncomfortable, stay with it until you at least start to feel comfortable.
5 – Designate a minimum and maximum timeframe. Tell yourself something like “I intend to check off at least one item” or “I intend to work on this list for at least 30 minutes.” Likewise, set a stop time, “I will not focus on my to-do list for longer than three hours today.” Adjust the minimum and maximum range as needed on any given day. The point is, if you reach the minimum, you’ll have at least accomplished something and setting an end time ensures that you don’t get so caught up in the list that you neglect other obligations.
6 – Give yourself a single-use “Pass”. If you encounter an item you need to do but truly can’t bring yourself to do at the moment, don’t get stuck on it. While it may be ideal to try and break this item into smaller, slightly more digestible tasks, it’s also important to give yourself permission to skip over it and move onto more appealing tasks. Moving onto more appealing tasks will help you build momentum and perhaps a deeper commitment to the list. Just remember to come back to the task you skipped within a reasonable amount of time. Resist the temptation to keep putting it off or moving it down your list, which is a sneaky, and all too common, unproductive habit.
7 – Remember a to-do list is not about making perfect use of your time, but rather using your time to do something to move yourself in the direction you want to go rather than feeling stuck and miserable.
8 – Challenge yourself to work on your to-do list on at least some occasions when you don’t feel like it. The action of doing even the simplest task on your to-do list requires focus. And moving your focus away from something that has you feeling bad can help you feel better.
9 – Consciously choose whether to-do or not to-do your list if the pressure of working on it runs the risk of making you feel worse. If you choose not to work on it at a certain time, remember to come back to it. Having the option to-do or not to-do at any given moment gives you freedom of choice. And knowing that you have freedom, of any kind, is essential to your wellbeing.
10 – Because, what list do you know that stops at nine? What additional to-do list tip(s) did you think of while reading this list? Add them to your personal to-do list tips and/or list them below in the comments section for all of us to consider incorporating.
JASON FREEMAN is a Professional Speaker and the proud owner of a Speech Impediment. He is also the author of “Awkwardly Awesome: Embracing My Imperfect Best” and a Perseverance Coach.
He excites and encourages his audience to break through the barriers of their own limitations using a method he created, called “doing your Imperfect Best ™”.
His Imperfect TEDx Talk can be viewed here.