The Trouble With To-Do Lists

By Paula Lorimer, Psychologist/ EPC Clinical Director

I recall my spring to-do list well: convert a barrel into a rain barrel, stain the fence, put up gutters along the garage wall, and plant the garden. I looked forward to the completion of these tasks and opening my garden as I would then get to enjoy it for the summer. What I am struck with now however, is the “new to-do list.” I haven’t quite finished the existing ever mounting one; get the car washed, clean the couch, write chapter one of my book, return calls and e-mails, and write an article on “The List.” I also didn’t magically acquire new time to complete these tasks. I’m sure you have a similar, unfinished list as well. I’m also sure you can relate to the pressure of trying to get it all done, crossing things off The List, only to add three more things to it.

This is the trouble with to-do lists, they are essentially great ideas of things we would like to accomplish, but they exist in a vacuum; meaning that when we write The List, we imagine there is actually enough time and energy to complete everything. I don’t know about you, but so far I have never had enough time in a day to complete the entire list. It creates unrealistic expectations and you might find yourself running from one task to another without enjoyment. As The List takes on a life of its own, we chronically feel that we are running out of time.

We put all kinds of things on The List, such as priorities like making a doctor’s appointment, as well as non-essential tasks like dusting the bookshelves. Once it’s on The List however, it becomes a commitment to completing these tasks and thus, a ‘should-do’ list. A list of things we have to get done or something bad will happen such as a missed appointment or feeling guilty. The word ‘should’ by its definition means an obligation, which inherently creates pressure and stress. The more ‘shoulds’ you have, the more stress you have.

We tend not to prioritize certain tasks. Rather all tasks simultaneously become priority number one and we ‘should’ get them all done. You’re already behind before you start. It is impossible to have more than one priority at a time; the very definition of a priority is something that is of higher importance than other things and therefore gets attended to first. Multitasking is a myth, as the human brain can only effectively focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking would better be renamed Scattered Attention and Inefficiency Syndrome.

The List also represents a way for us to measure our productivity and ourselves; “Look at how much I got done today” and the pleasure that comes with such sentiments. Or “I didn’t get anything off The List, I feel so unproductive” and the guilt or dissatisfaction that accompanies it. We live in a world that values productivity and it has become part of our self-image and self-esteem. I admit, I like to cross things off The List – it feels good. But I still feel good about myself if I don’t cross things off as well.

I’m not advocating giving up The List, as we often need one to help remember things, organize our thoughts, and to help us get important things done. But we do need to develop a different, healthier relationship with The List, so it becomes an aide rather than a burden.

New List Solutions:

  • Use a list as a memory aide, not a commitment record or should list.
  • Challenge ‘shoulds’ by replacing the word with ‘I would prefer’… It reduces the pressure and gives choice and freedom instead of obligation. “I should clean out the garage” vs. “I would prefer the garage was cleaned out, but it is still in decent shape and doesn’t need attention.”
  • Prioritize one thing at a time on The List, instead of asserting that everything needs to get done now.
  • Make smaller lists. It’s not a race to finish as many things as possible. Making smaller lists means more realistic expectations and you might actually complete your tasks.
  • Examine your list and see if you can actually remove some non-essential things from it. I would like to paint the side fence to match the stained one, but it’s non- essential this year and might never be.
  • Slow down, be mindful, and enjoy the task (as best possible) as you do it. Take a break after to enjoy completing a task instead of hurrying to the next one.
  • Recognize you are not measured on how much stuff you get done in a day. At the end of day you are not a better or worse person for crossing things off The List.
  • Add some fun, fulfilling things to your list such as seeing a movie, playing with the kids, taking a nap.
  • Put yourself and self-care on The List. If you’re not on The List yourself, you’ll never be a priority among other important tasks, and this could have negative consequences on your health and wellness.

Now that I have written this article, I can gladly cross it off my list. That’s pretty much all that was on it for today and it is liberating not to have anything else to do next. Enjoy your spring and perhaps more reasonable and enjoyable list.