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…
DO THEM ANYWAY.
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.