Stop being a slave to your to-do list
Take a deep breath, and plan for your dreams
Do you know the feeling when you see your plan and know you won’t make it?
Every morning, I would open my notebook with tasks and goals. A never-ending list of chores, deadlines, and responsibilities.
I struggled to get things done. I had big dreams, but they always seemed to slip through my fingers. My days were a mix of unfinished projects and missed opportunities.
I lost countless hours on anxiety induced by the ever-growing task list. The tool that once promised peace of mind and order became a torturer.
That was enough. At first, I was an unmotivated drunk who was scared of doing anything. Next, I became a super motivated, anxiety-driven dopamine junkie. I was either dying out from a meaningless existence or burning myself out with everything that showed up in my sight.
And I did the former with my to-do list – a never-forgiving and always judging god I served for years.
I knew there must be a better way. If you look at your to-do list and panic, stick around – I was there. If you feel more anxiety than joy when you plan your day, that’s my area of expertise. We’re about to discover why it’s worth to tame your list. Let’s dive in.
Why I Didn’t Deliver Even When I Had Everything Planned
I made three grave mistakes when I started planning my days:
- I wanted to plan everything
- I didn’t prioritize
- I was rigid
Everything is not manageable
I put everything on my list.
You know, like brush your teeth or do the morning workout. My idea was to have everything in one place. But the result was a list long like a Chinese Wall. Every time I looked at it, I had sweat on my hands, and my heart pounded.
All of those minor things clouded the most important task.
I had to write a journal, meditate, and walk before writing. But the truth is I only needed to care about writing. All the rest were my habits, which I kept elsewhere.
No priorities mean confusion
You can do anything, but not everything.
― David Allen
Next was the lack of priorities.
It was connected to putting everything on my list. When you have 20 tasks, the priorities become fuzzy. Habits were mandatory, so I ended up with 10 high-priority tasks. In reality, only three to five were essential and urgent. When I tried to choose which ones, I scratched my head.
I thought: “I have no idea what’s important”.
That thought stayed with me for years.
No flexibility means resisting how life already is
Life is a change.
Opossing that brings misery. And I was miserable because I wanted everything done at any cost. Once, I wrote my journal at 1 a.m. after driving for 13 hours on a car trip from Poland to Portugal. Some might see this as virtuous, but I had no choice. If I hadn’t done it, I’d spent the night thinking about what mistake I was.
I was terrified when my girlfriend wanted to go to the beach in Portugal. What with all my plans? I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish everything. The next day, I’d try to catch up.
Everything became a source of stress. Therefore, I never rested.
Anxiety and the lack of rest made the to-do list a burden I didn’t want.
The Wrong Way Out
My first idea was to drop planning.
And I did that for a time. Initially, it made me free like a bird. The sky was blue, and clouds slowly floated around. But then the wind started tilting trees. Silence got covered with leaves humming. The pleasant light aura got dark and colorless. The storm came, and I was lost in the woods without a plan.
When I dropped my daily planning, I struggled with progressing my projects.
The work on my journaling course, which was delayed 6 months, completely stopped. I looked at how many things had to be done, and I couldn’t see the end of it. So, I procrastinated.
Finally, the stress of being lost took over, and I had to tame it.
What I Got From Making My List Work for Me?
Resigning from a to-do list was a mistake.
So, I went on a little research adventure to see if I did something wrong. I’ve found ideas that improved my results. The sky became blue again, and the silence was no longer hidden behind the humming leaves.
The new to-do list process gives me three benefits:
- Stress reduction
Not writing down my plan made everything spin inside my head.
After introducing changes, I had a clear distinction between work and personal duties. My priorities were set and included in the list. The new list makes things clear. I look at it, and I know what’s important.
I no longer feel lost.
We remember unfinished tasks better than finished ones.
The science uses the term The Zeigernik Effect. One unfinished task can become a burden. Having tens of them only makes things worse.
In the article Consider It Done!, E.J Masicampo and Roy. F Baumeister write that committing to a plan lets us think less about the task. Preparing a to-do list is a form of planning. The stress reduction comes from two points:
- I stop thinking about unfinished tasks, so I free my mind
- I work efficiently on the current assignment, so I have a sense of progress
As a result, when we went for a vacation by the sea, I rested. We were lying on the beach. The waves made a soft swishing sound as they hugged the shore, like a cozy, never-ending hug from the sea. The sea shares its calming secrets with anyone who listens.
I felt relaxed. No stress. The list of tasks was waiting for my return.
Another reason for writing a list is motivation.
First, by writing down a task, I assume it’s doable. Like a mission, I’m setting out to accomplish. The cogs in my brain start turning rapidly in the background. My whole self aligns to complete the mission.
Second, when my pen strikes a line through a task, the sound of it is music to my ears, a tangible victory over procrastination. Crossing things off gives me satisfaction. I feel an accomplishment that can’t be matched by watching 9gag.
With each completed task, I feel the weight lifting from my shoulders. It’s not only about getting things done. It is about moving one step closer to my goals.
How I Slayed the To-Do List God
I reviewed my expectations after going back and forth between planning and no planning.
First and foremost, it was to make my to-do list work for me. I wanted to reduce my stress level, not increase it. And I wanted to motivate myself to work.
Start with the why
I like to know why I want to do something.
Asking why is a simple yet powerful technique to weed the weeds. So, I put down my pen and take a moment to think. Why do I want to start writing another article when I have one ready to edit? It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion, revealing the purpose beneath. Editing bores me. I looked for a way out.
Furthermore, you increase your chances of completing the task by adding why.
74% of students who wrote why they wanted to graduate STEM subjects were majors compared to 70% of those who didn’t. The difference was more significant for students from minorities. When I explain that editing is for making my piece understandable for others, it’s no longer a tedious task. It becomes the only way to help people through my writing. The effects wear down after time, but it’s enough to start.
The “why” was the only helpful advice on waking up at 5 am. Finding a reason for doing something requires little effort but gives tremendous results.
Manage expectations, The Magic of Doing Less
Life remains a flurry of to-dos.
It’s impossible to finish them all. So, I came up with ways to cope with that fact. A reasonable idea was the Minimum Viable Day (MVD). The core is to work on one thing without seeing the rest. And the plan consists of one big task, three medium, and five small tasks. No matter how long the list is, I consider it done after finishing MVD.
Then I read about treating your to-do list like a menu. I loved the idea at first. I could pick and choose what I wanted to do. But then I remembered my problems with prioritization and procrastination. It would be too easy to do the small tasks and avoid the important ones.
Then it hit me: the only problem I have is overplanning.
I can never deliver everything because my list is too long. The ultimate trick to manage expectations is to plan less. Now, I plan only as much as I deliver on average.
And you know what? It works. Planning less leads to accomplishing more. Because I no longer stress myself for nothing.
My endgame plan contains a maximum of 2 big, 3 medium, and 5 small tasks. I had to go from 1 to 2 big ones because I write and code and love doing both. Remember to add your touch.
Watch the progress
Motivation is key, and nothing is more motivating than seeing how far I’ve come.
In terms of to-do lists, I keep this simple. Right next to my daily plan, I write what I did. It includes what I planned and more. Two days ago I played badminton with my girlfriend. It wasn’t planned, but it’s great to see that we spend time together, even while having a lot on our plates.
Seeing what I did gives me traction.
Sometimes I can’t deliver everything from my list, even if I do my best to make it reasonable. Life happens. And writing down what I did helps me understand that. The key to increased happiness is enjoying the obstacles, too.
Go for simplicity
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication when it comes to managing your tasks.
― Leonardo da Vinci
I overcomplicate things.
My plan was elaborate and hard to follow. I had many tasks and subtasks on many lists. That all looked cool but was hard to maintain.
What works better is making things simple.
Now, I plan the day on paper, the evening before. I have two columns for work and personal stuff. On the top are the top priority things. And I always leave some space to modify my plan. Simple doesn’t mean rigid.
When defining tasks, I go with what, when, and how.
What is about clarity. “Finish article” makes me anxious, and I prefer “work on publishing the article about the to-do list.”
When I handle with order. The higher the task, the sooner I’ll work on it.
How I add when something is unclear or requires additional steps.
Before, I’d create a subtask in Clickup and spend 20 minutes linking everything so it looks good.
Simplicity wins because I can maintain my plan easily.
The Key to Success
One thing decides if my to-do list is excellent or not.
When I randomly put things on my list, I get little benefit from it. I still feel lost. For example, when I mix work and personal tasks, I can’t prioritize them well. It’s easier to keep those separated on two lists.
But to even start prioritizing, I must know what I want.
Don’t worry. They’re all against me. But I have one advantage: they don’t know what they want. I do.
― Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
My way of finding out was by asking myself what I wanted. And in this article, I explain how I did it. In short, I asked myself questions to find out which areas I could improve.
When I knew what I wanted, I went for the biggest, most impactful task first.
I write before I work. I work before I watch TV or play games. I talked to my girlfriend before watching 9 Gag, although I never planned to watch 9 Gag.
I start big because I have the most energy in the mornings. And the energy and confidence from tackling the most important assignment I use for the rest of the day.
How do I choose the biggest, most impactful task? I feel it. I’m either excited, stressed, or overwhelmed by it. I know it requires effort and no distractions. My reactions to the task are the best source of insight about its importance.
Ultimately, making my to-do list less stressful and more helpful has been a big success. Instead of the god I serve, I have a friend who helps.
I learned it’s important to keep using a to-do list, but make it mine. This means picking the right fights. I define the why when a task scares me or bores me. When planning, I keep the number of tasks reasonable instead of planning everything I can. Right to the to-do list I keep the “done list” to always see the progress and reason for not delivering something. I always keep it simple and do my best to understand my priorities.
I don’t feel anxious when I look at my to-do list. I use it to organize my life to achieve my goals faster and with less stress.
So, remember, a good to-do list is like a friendly helper that makes your day easier. To manifest the positive side of it, stop trying to be perfect. Focus on what you can do. Honesty pays and makes you less stressed. It’s no magic, but the results are magical.
What do you do to make your to-do list less stressful? Feel free to share your ideas with me!
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