To Not Do

Who out there uses to do lists?  I have been a list-maker pretty much since I could write words. I have goal lists, monthly action item lists and today’s to do list.  Have your to do lists ever gotten the better of you?  

Every season my husband and I sit down and discuss what we want to get done around our home.  He’s the technical expert and I’m the financial manager, so we’ve found it prudent when our plans align.  Over the years, I’ve watched him struggle with to do lists – even those constructed by us, together.  My husband has big dreams and really likes to do a good job at everything he does.  When I begin to ask him what he’d like to accomplish, his list goes on and on.  Admirable, right?  Yes, however, there is a downside to it.  He has a history of beginning lots of jobs and feeling overwhelmed.  Naturally there are feelings of frustration when he can’t get it all done.  The to do list we made together which was supposed to help us both, begins to haunt him.  

I’ve learned that in addition to being the financial manager in these conversations, I also am the time management expert.  Our seasonal conversations now have a different energy to them and I find them to be a lot more positive.   My husband tells me what he would love to get done in an ideal world.  And I challenge him to narrow the list down to what must be done and what is reasonable given the spare time we have.   

All of this aligns with a podcast on focus I listened to this summer by one of my favourites, Dr. Henry Cloud.  He says that we need to attend and inhibit.  We need to decide what activities need to done in a time frame to achieve a goal (attend) and stop those things that get us off track (inhibit).  This supports our working memory to keep what is important to us up front in our minds.  Research shows that when we get off track, like stopping deep focus work to answer an email, we lose 15-20 minutes of productivity.  

Back to yours and my to do lists… my husband is not alone in the struggle with to do lists.  I’ve been known to be carried away by a list that is pages long and has no real chance of being completed.  When this happens, I quickly separate my paper into 3 triage units:  what absolutely must get done today, what I would like to do today and what I can bring forward to next week.  If I get the “must do’s” complete then I feel like the day was productive.

For those who use to do lists, you know there is nothing more satisfying that crossing out each item (or using check marks) and ultimately getting things done.  Why set yourself up for failure by creating unrealistic expectations?  The purpose of the exercise is lost.  To do lists are tools, like any other things.  We need to make the tool work for you and not the other way around.