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How To Expand During The Current Contraction: Complete Your To-Do List

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Last week, we examined a way to expand during the current economic contraction. The tip had to do with taking stock of all the "stuff" you have at home, and giving some of it away to someone who could make good use of it. Did any of you try this? If so, I'd love to hear how it went - what did you do, what did you notice?

Here's a different take on a similar concept. Do you have more to do than you can get done? If so, there's a certain amount of good news there - it means you have something to do! In the past, that was called a job - a job, by definition, is something that needs doing and is almost never finished. Cleaning the floor is obvious - as soon as you finish cleaning it, dust and dirt begin to accumulate again. Thus, the need for floor cleaning is ongoing and winds up producing jobs.

However, if you keep a to-do list, you may actually have a list of stuck energy, and the list helps the energy stay stuck. Normal to-do lists are easy to spot; others of us have a sea of sticky notes surrounding our work space, stuck to computer screens, hanging from the phone, and just about any surface that will accept the sticky note. Do you have dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of email messages stored in your in-box? How about voice mail messages stored in the system?

All of these are simply reminders of something that you committed to doing. In some instances, the commitment is straightforward and clear - you told your boss you would draft a new budget, you told your son you would take him to the doctor, etc. Sometimes, the commitment is a bit less clear: figure out a new sales strategy, find time to go to the gym, remember to read that new article, etc.

With stored email messages in the inbox, it gets even murkier. You may have read the message one or more times, and each time you closed the message, you told yourself you need to read it again and figure out what you are going to do with it.

Each one of these commitments, whether clear and written, kind of clear and stored somewhere, or pretty vague and perhaps lodged only in your memory, represents a bit of your energy that is locked up in the commitment you made. The energy could be mental, emotional, and sometimes even physical in nature.

Let's address the mental part first, because that's actually one of the most important parts of the puzzle. If you have ever sat down to do something, started working on it, and all of a sudden found yourself distracted by one of those sticky notes, an email message that suddenly jumped out at you, or perhaps even just a stray memory (Oooops - forgot to call Fred about getting the dentist appointment), then you know what it is like to become distracted by the myriad possibilities that you told yourself you would get done. It can be quite draining to go through a whole day of jumping from one thing to the next and still feel like you got nowhere.

If you want to look at this in your own life, here's a suggestion: back in the early 1980's, David Allen, Sally McGhee and I created what we called an incompletion trigger list. Get a copy of the trigger list and use it to create a separate list of all the outstanding commitments you have made and not yet completed.

For each item on your incompletion list, simply ask yourself, "What value will show up if I get that done?" If the answer is "little or none," then I'd suggest striking each of those items off the list. Simply tell yourself that you will not be completing that item, and that you are now releasing yourself from that commitment.

(You may also need to ask yourself if you will be letting anyone else down by not completing that item. If it will harm another, interfere with your job, or create a series of negative consequences, then you probably need to either go ahead and complete that item, or at least renegotiate with the other party).

If you go through your list, and strike off all those little or no value items, you may be surprised at how much energy you will find yourself experiencing. If you then turn your attention to what's left on the list, and start doing a couple of them, you may be even more surprised to learn how much energy you can create simply by getting things done.

The strangest paradox will probably occur: the more you get done, the more energy you will find to do even more. Logic says you will tire yourself out. Reality seems to be that the tiring thing is keeping all that energy locked up in things that aren't moving.

(PS: if you're really concerned about the stuff you are taking off the list, move them to a new list and call it something like "Not For Now, But Maybe Later." You can review that list once a week or so and see if anything jumps out at you as something you want to do. In the meantime, somewhere inside yourself you will have freed up considerable energy because you will actively know that you no longer have a commitment to getting those things done!)

So, try this out: make your list, strike off things you are no longer committed to doing, and move on what's left. Be a scientist about this - just try it and notice what happens. If you like the result, keep on doing it.

You are likely to find that your store of energy will grow and you will be able to use that reclaimed energy to further your own expansion in this time of apparent global contraction.

Let me know how it goes!

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)