I used to have a love-hate relationship with To-Do lists. On the one hand, they felt like a never-ending litany of things that fueled an undercurrent of stress. On the other, there was something so wonderfully pleasing about crossing off an item on my list as I made my way through the day. Love won and have made a few tweaks to my list-making strategy, this is the go-to tool that keeps me moving forward, one little step at a time.
The construction of a To-Do list is an intentional effort so it serves us rather than works against us. When items on the list are too grand, we risk becoming immobilized rather than energized. An overly ambitious item can be an obstacle to completion, denying us the pleasure of crossing it off with an oh-so-satisfying histrionic wrist flick. The gratification and subsequent feeling of productivity associated with making one’s way through a list are motivating.
How can we capture the advantages of a To-Do list without allowing overwhelm to creep in?
Overwhelm is common with the number of responsibilities we are juggling. Many of us become paralyzed when we experience too much on our plates. When this happens, productivity and efficiency are replaced by inertia, preventing us from accomplishing anything close to what we intended.
And this is precisely why a well-prepared To-Do list can be our ally, not our foe.
No item is too small to include on the list. Routine tasks can go on that list if need be. Let’s face it, there are days when a shower can feel like a major accomplishment. Feeling like a slacker from binge-watching This is Us? Include “Me Time” on the list and suddenly you are crossing off an item that fills your cup in a world where we are often depleted. Taking time for ourselves, a.k.a. self-care, whether it be to nap, exercise, self-pamper, socially connect, etc., is necessary to avoid stress and burnout.
The secret to a useful To-Do list is in the details. Breaking down a high-level list into multiple subtasks and explicit micro tasks is key.
Three easy steps for a successful To-Do List:
1) Take a few moments to intentionally brainstorm and write the high level daily/weekly items you want to complete
2) Examine what you jotted down and break each item into subtasks
3) Look at the subtasks and determine how each can be further detailed into a series of micro tasks
This exercise is a sanity saver. The result is a comprehensive list of activities that can offer a little boost when an item is scratched off or need a reminder that productivity is not all about big-ticket items. Some days will yield many crossed-off items; other days we're lucky if we get to one or two.
I recall an article about a highly productive solopreneur who talked about how she had completed 27 items from her list while her kids were at school. This was before I had discovered the microtask methodology and assumed this superhero had posted on her blog, interviewed for a podcast, participated in multiple meetings, baked for an evening event, plus twenty or so additional actions in the span of seven hours. I have since learned that the items were more along the lines of:
- Email colleague re: agenda item
- Order more business cards
- Call the conference venue to confirm the parking situation
- Team strategy meeting @ 12:30
- Pick up dry cleaning
- Send pdf to copy center
- Schedule dentist appointment
- Work on book
- Review Chapter 8
- Speak with RG about the foreword
- Check citation in section 3.2
- Submit bio to conference
- Register Harry for the summer program
Especially now, in 2020, when so much has been uprooted and our lives impact on many levels, To-Do lists help us manage what is in our control.
Originally published at ARB Coaching, LLC blog on October 15, 2020.