The problem with to-do lists

The problem with to-do lists is that they can make you less likely to do the things you want to do.

You start out with the best of intentions, clean sheet of paper in hand, confident that it’s all going to be achievable this time. Oddly, as you write things down, you notice your confidence diminishing ever so slightly… However it’s ok because you’re making a to-do list and to-do lists are the answer to everything.

Once you’ve written down everything you can think of and sat and looked at your list for a while trying not to feel alarmed, you decide to start ticking things off. Some easy jobs first — just to make inroads into it. Yes! You’ve done three things. You’re on a roll! It doesn’t matter that those were three of the things that you would have done anyway and that you’re studiously avoiding the other things in the murky bottom bit of your list. No, you’ve done three things out of your 107 things to do and therefore you’re making progress.

Then the phone rings and someone asks you if you’d mind doing something for them and of course you wouldn’t, so you say yes and then, once you’ve put the phone down, you add that thing to your list and it’s now 108 things, but that’s ok because you’ve done three and…

Maybe now is a good time for a cup of tea. However, whilst you’re making a cup of tea, you notice that you really need to descale the kettle, because you’re tired of having crunchy tea, so you add that to the list — and now it’s 109 things and you’re feeling a bit less deserving of a celebratory “I’ve done three things!” teabreak. Your to-do list is starting to feel a bit less like the answer to everything and a bit more like a reproachful, slightly neglected pet.

Here’s a way to make a to-do list work better. Take an enormous piece of paper (or fresh document on your computer, or whatever works for you). Write everything on it. All of the things that are cluttering up your mind, waking you up at night and generally making life a bit un-fun.

Now get a little piece of paper. Make this your to-day list. Read through your massive, enormous to-do list and choose a very small number of things. Maybe three. Maybe five. Only you can decide, but the rule is — you can only put things on your to-day list that you are committing to do today. So if you think it would be nice to get around to looking at that corner of the kitchen where everyone mysteriously deposits things that are impossible to find homes for, but know that deep down there isn’t a hope in hell that you’ll do it, DON’T put that on the list. If, by contrast, you’ve noticed that the supermarket basil plant you bought is looking horribly dehydrated and you think you could probably water it whilst waiting for the kettle to boil a bit later on, then DO put ‘water basil’ on the list.

It might seem as though you have ridiculously low expectations if you only put a very few things on the list and they’re pretty small ones at that, but here’s the thing…


Don’t analyse. Don’t judge. Don’t beat yourself up. Just DO THEM.

When new things come to your attention and you need to add them to your to-do list, do that. Just don’t put them on your to-day list — unless you are willing to absolutely promise yourself that they’re going to be done by the end of the day.

When you get to tomorrow and you look back and see that you did the three things on your to-day list from the day before, you will feel ever so slightly better. When you look at the pot of basil that is now not-dying, you will feel a little more like someone who’s getting on top of things. And when you make your new to-day list and choose your next small handful of things to achieve, you’ll feel ever so slightly more confident that you’ll get them done.

You’re not ever going to clear your to-do list completely — that’s not how to-do lists work. But if you get into the habit of checking your to-do list each day, choosing just a tiny number of things from it to put on your to-day list and then actually doing them, you will always know what needs doing, you will be making a steady impact and you can go to bed at night knowing that you’ve done what you said you were going to do — which is worth a lot.

Tightrope walking

There’s a delicate balance between gentleness and challenge: a kind of tightrope walking.

Lean too far in the direction of gentleness and you will never feel really fulfilled, never know what you’re capable of. Life will gradually constrict to the point that it feels mildly – and then extremely – suffocating.

Lean too far in the direction of challenge and your mind and body will struggle. You may develop a habit of anxiousness, as a default state. You will exhaust yourself and lose the joy that comes from simply being, without doing.

Recognising which way you need to lean to correct yourself is an invaluable skill.

There are times when the very best thing you can possibly do is nothing. Sit down. Sleep. Drink tea. Watch Netflix. Cuddle someone or something for a long time.

There are other times when what is required is movement. The voluntary experience of discomfort. A stretch, beyond what is easy, into the unknown and scary.

Only you know, in any moment, which of the two is what you need to grow stronger. As you walk the tightrope, pay careful attention – which way do you need to lean right now?

The extraordinary power of small wins

In moments of feeling overwhelmed, depressed, anxious, exhausted and out-of-control, it can be really hard to know what to do.

And even if you work out what to do, actually doing it is a whole other thing.

However, even in those moments, you have access to an extraordinary super-power: the power of small wins.

Here’s how you access it:

  • Choose one tiny thing. It might be cleaning your teeth, or making toast, or touching your toes. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just needs to be tiny – for you. What’s tiny for someone else, or what you think should be tiny for you (but is actually really scary), isn’t what you’re looking for here. It needs to be something that you KNOW you can do, even if you don’t feel like it.
  • Now do it.
  • Once you’ve done it, notice that you did it. Make a celebratory cup of tea. Call a friend. Give yourself a hug. Just notice that you are someone who just did something. You are the kind of person who says they’ll do things and then does them.

If you’re feeling up for it, you could find another tiny thing. Do that. And then celebrate again…

The important thing here is not WHAT you’re doing, it’s the fact that you’re committing to doing something and then completing it. You’re shifting your view of yourself from ‘someone who is overwhelmed and out of control and can’t do anything’ to ‘someone who does things’. It’s about a mental shift. The things you choose to do are incidental. You’re turning yourself from someone hopeless into someone hopeful.

You don’t need to do things all day long – in fact it’s really kind of important that you don’t, because that would be exhausting and not very helpful – but if you keep choosing a tiny thing to do and then doing it, you will start to get your sense of overwhelm under control. And from there you can gradually introduce other strategies that will banish it for good.

Tiny steps. That’s all.

Body knowledge

It’s tempting to imagine that thinking is the answer.

I’ve always been a great fan of thinking. I like to imagine that it will help me solve everything.

Increasingly, though, I find that not-thinking has a lot going for it.









Just being.  A human animal in a body that can do so much more than simply think.

When you pay attention to what your body knows and ignore the mind-prattle for a bit, it is astonishing how well informed you can become.