How I Learnt to Write a Realistic To-Do List
T he chances are, if you’re reading this, you are interested in productivity in some way or another. Maybe you want to become more productive or maybe you’re just interested in productivity in general. Whatever floats your boat. For me, I must confess I’m not a productivity guru. I do have some pretty decent habits that have lead me to write fifty articles so far this year, so I’m not totally unproductive either. That sounded like a sly humble brag, which it wasn’t the intention at all, I was just trying to say I’m not a totally unqualified to write this piece. To be honest though, writing is a total joy for me. I don’t tend to put any ‘to-do’ lists around writing because I just write when I feel like it and because I’ve created some decent habits this year, I feel like it most days. That’s the beauty of habits. Your brain feels like it because you’ve taught it to.
The to-do list however, that’s for all the things I normally don’t want to do. I think to myself, if I stick it on a list, then it’ll get done. And that’s where this story begins. My to-do list used to be totally ridiculous and completely unrealistic. I started renovating my house about a year and a half ago and I remember writing out the initial to-do list. It had circa one hundred and seventy items. I remember quite vividly taking a week off work to start the renovation and I spent the whole of Monday thinking about where to start. Tuesday rocked around and after feeling horrendous that I hadn’t achieved anything on Monday, Tuesday was a day of just ripping every bit of wall-paper I could. Wednesday I spent overwhelmed again. And by the time Thursday came about I was pissed off I’d wasted the week and now the whole of the first bedroom looked like a total shit hole.
I don’t have Monday’s to-do list but it would have gone something like this:
Take wallpaper off bedroom one
Wash down walls
Anyone who’s done a bit of renovation in their time will know how unrealistic that is for one day. And if you haven’t I’ll give you the cleaning equivalent.
Polish living room
Hoover living room
Wash the carpets
Put washing on
We’re talking a long whole slog of a day. The cleaning list is better because the tasks are shorter. Which means, you get to tick them off quicker. If you’re anything like me, the joy comes in ticking things off the list.
Now, what I learnt about trying to do everything in one day is a few things.
#1 You become disappointed if you don’t do everything
Even if I did half the stuff on the list I’d go away feeling completely annoyed. I’d feel like I’d had an unproductive day and that I wasn’t doing enough. Even if I’d slogged away for five hours straight. I’d still feel like it wasn’t a productive day. I would feel defeated by the day.
#2 Having an unproductive day leads you to feel demotivated
Because of my previous day, I would feel like there was no point. Like I wasn’t getting through the amount of things I needed to do to be productive and that just made me feel worse. I would spend time thinking about how demotivated I was to do anything and consequently waste the day. I would write a to-do list but feel like it wouldn’t even scratch the surface and because the day before was ‘unproductive’ I didn’t see the point in any of it.
#3 Feeling overwhelmed is the quickest way to do nothing
Because I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the task, I ended up doing nothing. I just ended up not writing to do lists, not spending my evenings on the house and quite frankly mostly giving up. A spell of unproductive days lead to that becoming my new normal and that then ended up being what happened for the next few months. Big, fat, nothing.
And I think the house is a good metaphor for a lot of goals. Goals by nature are going to be fairly audacious, otherwise there would be little point pursuing them. If the things we desire were easily attainable, we probably wouldn’t desire them very much. They are so attractive because they are hard to get. Sound familiar? It’s true in love too.
After a while I got fairly bored with constant disappointment so I decided to experiment with mixing it up a little. What if I wrote three things on my to-do list? If I set out to achieve less in a day, maybe I could end up chipping away rather than trying to sledge hammer the whole thing. So my to-do lists went from extensive and unachievable to modest and within arms reach.
They looked more like this:
Sometimes, I experiment with having no to-do list and see what happens (I know I live a wild life).
But in all seriousness, I think sometimes we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to conquer the world in one day and it’s just not practical, sensible or realistic. Us humans tend to over-estimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in a year. The reality is that, anything big is made of tiny things.
“The journey of a thousand miles, starts with one step” Lao Tzu
Life is a series of small steps. We get fooled that people all around us are running an unrivalled pace. And if we could only figure out how they are running so fast, we could be as successful as they are. But they aren’t.
We’re just seeing them at mile nine hundred and ninety-nine and presuming they started yesterday.
For me, I learnt that if I can conquer three things every day, that works for me. A smaller to-do list makes me more productive and more importantly, it makes me happier.
Originally published at https://www.careerhealth.info on April 25, 2020.