My name is Tom O’Leary and this is the Time Academy podcast. Today we are talking about To-do Lists and Stress.
To-do lists are supposed to be helpful, right?
Sure, given our complex lives, they can certainly help calm our brains, which have a tendency to hang on to the undone and the unfinished.
And yet, for many people, they turn into millstones. Depending on how you use them, they can also be never-ending, depriving us of a real sense of completion no matter how much effort we’re putting in. Also, because they are future-focussed they tend to nag us about what remains to be done rather than congratulate us on what has been done. It is ultimately always about the next to-do.
Full disclosure – I’ve been burnt by to-do lists so I may be a little biased. Early on in my career I managed large-scale projects involving teams spread across numerous countries. As I was a little overwhelmed, I bought myself various time management books and set up my own system around project management software and to-do lists. It was undoubtedly pretty cool but I probably took the whole exercise too far and it increasingly felt like it was a source of stress and basically another project to manage. Now for me, the main issue was that the lists were endless so it never felt like the work was done and that sense of completion is important – to me at least. It says – you can relax now – you’ve done your bit. Go home for the evening and rest!
Many experts will claim that this or that approach is “better”. In my view, the best approach is whatever works for you now. In practice, there are an infinite number of ways to organise to-do lists and many people get by without any.
I have found, however, that to make best use of them it can be helpful to create certain rules and boundaries around what is added to and equally importantly what stays on a to-do list. So, instead of having one long list, some people find it makes sense to create multiple lists like a Today List, a Weekly List, a Someday List and even a Noday List. Let me go through each briefly but, before I do so, I would invite you not to get attached to the names of the lists or the number of lists but rather to ask yourself if there is anything in your current system that might evolve to better serve you.
So, let’s start with the Today List: This is for urgent tasks that you decide must be done today. It is a low-level tactical list so should ideally have a time (or time range) assigned for when the task is to be done. If there are items still on the list at closing time go easy on yourself and just take a moment for reflection:
- Is there a reason this wasn’t done?
- Was I trying to do too much today?
- Is the task small enough?
- Was I procrastinating?
- Is this really a priority?
Also maybe take a moment to mark what you have accomplished before you start thinking ahead and populating the Today list with the priorities for the next 24 hours.
So, let’s move on to the Weekly List: This list is slightly more strategic and rather than contain tasks this might be an outcomes list. An outcome might have multiple to-dos. For example, this week I want to have:
– Completed the proposal for John;
– Streamlined my time management;
– Booked a holiday.
You can then turn each outcome into tasks on the Today list. If something is still on the Weekly list at the end of the week you might consider the same sort of reflective process as for the Today list.
The Someday List: This is great for those tasks that you might do some day and want to keep somewhere safe. The invitation, however, is to try to not to look at this list more than once a week or even once a month and if something feels right them bump up the priority.
And finally the Noday List: This would only be needed if you struggle to delete items from the Someday list. Some people feel the need to keep an idea somewhere and check through it every couple of months.
So using To-do lists in this sort of way can help some people to prioritise and do what will have the greatest impact today. Remember, anybody can get busy but accomplishment is reserved for those who know what they want.
I would just like to leave you with a few final thoughts. Firstly, just because something is on a to-do list doesn’t mean it has to be done (or at least by you). As the poet David Whyte noted:
“The great tragedy of the to-do list is that it was put together by the person you were yesterday.”
That was then, this is now. Today’s You doesn’t need to be held hostage by Yesterday’s You. You can thank them for thinking of you and yet make your own decisions.
And, in closing, I would invite you to keep this question by your side: “What do I need from my to-do lists today?”
Thanks for listening to the Time Academy podcast. I hope this has offered you a slightly different perspective. If you find it helpful please share! I’d also love to get your feedback and hear your stories so please feel free to email me.