When you wake up, is your first thought “What day is it and what do I need to get done today?” Do you formulate a long to-do list before your feet even hit the floor? I bet that’s not where it ends. You probably run through it again in the shower, add things to it while you’re getting ready, and feel like your to-do list is your constant companion whispering unwelcome reminders in your ear all day.
There’s nothing wrong with having a to-do list. They are useful tools to remind you of necessary activities and, if you use them correctly, they should help to keep your head clear. But it seems like they’re having the opposite effect. ‘Doing things’ carries the addictive potential of a hard drug. The dopamine hit from crossing a task off your to-do list can be deeply satisfying, even if the thing on your list held no importance. It’s easy to see why it’s so tempting to keep adding things to the list and why it’s so distressing when things sit there unfinished.
When the to-do list starts dictating your day and defining your self-worth, you eventually feel like a mouse on a treadmill, working hard but getting nowhere.
To-do lists are only helpful tools when you also know what not to put on them. If you don’t have a discerning approach to each item before your add it, your list will inevitably grow and grow. It will get too long to be humanly possible to complete; it will cause great frustration when the day you had planned is not the day that unfolds; and it will drive you to undertake tasks that didn’t need to be done.
It’s time to use the to-do list checklist
Start by writing a comprehensive list of all the things you believe you must do over the next 24 hours. Include work tasks and general life tasks, and any little ideas that have been making you think “Maybe I should do something about that.”
As well as capturing all the physical tasks, consider the things that are occupying your mental space and list those too. For example, worrying about how you’re going to get three kids to different sporting events next weekend if it rains!
Now go through each item and use the following questions from the "‘To-Do List Checklist’ below to help you decide if the item really belongs on your to-do list today or not.
It’s time to create your “Not-To-Do List”
Have you found some items that don’t belong on your ‘to-do’ list today? If so, actually write them down on a ‘not-to-do’ list. You should keep this list handy by your side, just like your to-do list. It’s your choice what goes on there, and no-one else can tell you where things belong. But simply asking yourself those questions and having an option to put things on a different list can be very liberating.
Each morning, as you consider your day ahead and run through your to-do list, also write yourself a ‘not-to-do’ list. Aim to put at least three things on it each day, and include all the things you are choosing to not spend time thinking about on that day. As you feel space returning to your life, resist the temptation to fill it with more things to do; instead allow novel, joyful and inspiring things to arise.
This blog includes an extract from Do Less. Be More by Martina Sheehan and Susan Pearse.
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