I've got a confession to make. I'm in a dysfunctional relationship with my to-do list. No longer a useful list of daily tasks or long term goals, my to-do list has taken on a life of it's own; it now holds the power to define my mood and sense of self. I used to be in charge, but now the list owns me. It owns me like a pawn shop broker a week before payday.
Yes, yes we all know that when used correctly, a to-do list can be a super helpful way to stay organized and keep "on track." But my to-do list is driving me Stepford wife style crazy. It has become the judge and jury of my worth and the gatekeeper to my contentment. Needless to say, it's cramping my style.
I tend to see my to-do list as something that will help me relieve anxiety -- when the to-do list gets smaller, so will my anxiety. Mistake. While it feels great to check things off the list, when there are still pending items I feel like a failure. Instead of being able to relax into bed at the end of a long day, I toss and turn anxious about all I have left to do tomorrow and feel bogged down by feelings of shame.
So let's review: Just how well is this list working?
1) The tool that was intended to reduce my anxiety has actually increased it with the added bonus of making me feel bad about myself. 2) My relationship with the hamster wheel of getting stuff done is at some level just providing an illusion of progress through constant movement, 'cause let's be honest, the list is never actually "done." 3) By making myself check the box next to each "to-do" in order to obtain emotional freedom, I've made myself beholden to the list. Objectively speaking, I'd say my relationship with the list is about as effective as the rhythm method.
So while I don't believe that giving up the to-do list altogether is the solution, I do believe that there are far more healthy ways to relate to it. I've given a lot of thought to what those might be, and I believe the following four steps will help create freedom from this dysfunctional relationship and break the illusion that the to-do list is actually a helpful tool in decreasing anxiety. I commit to changing my relationship with my list today, and I invite you to join me in that journey.
Here's what I propose:
1) Look At The Big Picture
If you are at the end of your life thinking back at how you spent your days and what experiences added value to your short existence on this earth, what do you suspect is going to feel more important to you -- spending quality time with people you care about, being fully present and enjoying the moment, or having completed everything on your list? This life is short and we've got to remember that. Focus on what really matters to you and let that, rather than the list, be your guide.
2) Be Realistic About Urgency
Differentiate real urgency from manufactured urgency. Some things really are time sensitive and the rest we just convince ourselves are. Many of the things we tell ourselves MUST get done today are really a matter of preference versus necessity. Here is an example, I recently just moved and I refused to do anything else (eat, sleep or be nice) until all of the boxes were unpacked and everything neatly put away. And while yes, a mess is inconvenient, it's certainly not going to kill me to stop for dinner and finish the rest tomorrow. (If not for me, for my poor fiancé cowering in the corner with a box of cereal and a Xanax.) Paying a credit card bill by its due date = real urgency. Unpacking boxes in order to preserve sanity = manufactured urgency. In that moment I let my manufactured urgency take precedence over one of my real values -- enjoying a meal with my partner. So try to differentiate between the two and then take a deep breath and let go of the non-essentials (not permanently, just for now).
3) Defuse Task Completion And Worth
Your value as a human being is not contingent on how effective you are at crossing things off your list, so stop tying the two together. Would you ever tell a friend that they are a worthless, ineffective loser because they didn't complete the things on their to-do list? Of course not, then don't say the same things to yourself.
4) Accept That You Sometimes Can't Do It All
Eckhart Tolle explains, "The intensity of the pain depends on the degree of resistance to the present moment." If the present moment includes a to-do list with uncompleted items, acceptance may be the only choice. The alternative is stress, guilt, shame, and all around feelings of crappiness. And we all know that is not helpful. Ask yourself if you are willing to accept the discomfort of not getting it all done so you can refocus your energy onto other things that are more important to you.
So next time you feel overwhelmed with your to-do list ask yourself: Am I in charge of the list or is the list in charge of me? If it feels like the list has a hold on you make a commitment to trying the strategies above (or whatever else you think might work) so that the list can resume it's rightful place as your friend instead of your enemy.
What are your challenges with or solutions to managing your to-do list stress? Share with me on Twitter @TempestaLCSW.
For more health and well-being tips check out my website at www.danielalcsw.com