How I Stopped Letting My To-Do List Control My Life

home to do list

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How I was doing it

I love making lists.  I mean, REALLY love them.  And I always have. Long, detailed lists for everything. As a kid, the weeks before summer camp were filled with notebooks full of lists…what to bring, what I needed to buy, outfits for each day…everything had a list.  I figured that if I had a list and a plan, nothing could possibly go wrong.

So it’s really no surprise that my adult life has always had a to-do list. And a planned schedule.  Days and weeks planned out ahead of time. And sub-lists with steps for everything ON my list. I was always being ORGANIZED! And PRODUCTIVE!

Why I stopped…

 In theory, but…I wasn’t.  Not really. On paper, it all worked out perfectly.  All those tasks on that list would get done at exactly the right time and then I’d have the ultimate goal – free time and an empty list!

Guess what never happened.  I could NEVER get to the end of my to-do list.  In fact, most days, I couldn’t even stay on top of the things I had planned. I’d wake up the next day, feeling just a little more behind schedule and just a little more anxious about that.  It was like a snowball running down an endless hill.

It just wasn’t working. My to-do list, written and planned with the best intentions of staying on top of all the things that needed to get done, was not helping my life.  It was dictating my life.

Something would get in the way.  You know, a long day at work, a sick husband who wanted to be loved on, a day with just no energy…there was always something. And I always felt behind schedule. Overscheduled. I couldn’t be flexible with my time, because all of my time was already spoken for – by that LIST.  I had no free time to relax, to enjoy, to just be.

This year, I’m trying something new.

What I’m doing instead

I love the beginning of a year.  It’s a fresh start and a good point to try something different.  And I decided it was definitely time to try something different.

I’d seen articles and books about choosing 3 items a day to complete.  And I’d think to myself “3 things??? Do you know how many things are begging for my attention each day?!?  3 things wouldn’t get me past breakfast!”

But since what I’d been doing my entire life wasn’t working, I decided to give it a try.  I picked up a planner from Amazon (this one) that was geared toward this crazy “3 things a day” idea.  With much skepticism.

Each morning, I sit down with a cup of tea or coffee and spend 10 minutes jotting down a few things I’m grateful for, the top 3 tasks I’d like to get done that day, and then a “brain dump” of all the thoughts swirling around my brain.  Things I want to do, something I’m trying not to forget, how I’m feeling, how yesterday was…basically anything taking up brain space. (More on this idea later, but it’s proving to be a GREAT way to clear out my mind before the day starts.)

And for all my doubting, here’s the crazy part…IT’S WORKING!  I knew it after only one week. I was relaxed and accomplishing things I’d been putting off (or rescheduling) for months.  I had free time again!

Why it’s working

I was so very skeptical of this concept.  How could anyone possibly expect to get everything done with only 3 tasks each day?

But I had been SO focused on getting all the little, daily tasks done, that by the time those were out of the way, I just didn’t have the energy or motivation to do the bigger and more meaningful tasks.

Do you remember that old analogy with the jar full of stuff?  Rice, pebbles, golf balls, water…that one? That was my life and I was doing everything backward.  All the little stuff was taking priority…and then there was no room left for the bigger tasks.

Now, I’m actually getting important tasks checked off my list. (Okay, I admit it, I still have a list.  Old habits. But it’s not a scheduled, TO-DO LIST. It’s more of a “Hey, I should probably take care of this one of these days, so I’ll write it down” list.  I use Trello for that, so when I think of something to add, I can just drop it into my phone and get it out of my brain.)

Each morning, when I plan out my day, I assess what kind of day it will be and pick 3 things from my Trello board.  If it’s going to be a busy day, I pick 3 easier tasks. If I think I’ll have a little extra time, I pick some of the more time-consuming items.  Most days, I have a mix of both. And then, I do those things first. Yes, I still have to do dishes, laundry, and those other normal chores, but I do them AFTER the top 3.  If I don’t have time, no big deal…I’ll catch them the next day. And if, say, we’re out of clean socks, laundry gets to be one of the top 3.

And it’s working! (Can you tell I’m still a little amazed?) I’m actually being MORE productive by planning to do fewer things each day.  I have room to breathe again. I’m not behind anymore. Sometimes, I only get 2 done. (Life happens, right?) So, I just make that last task one of my priorities for the next day.  Sometimes, I blow off the top 3 entirely to go have some fun with my husband. Impromptu dinner out? I would not have even CONSIDERED saying yes to that before, or if I did, I would feel stressed and anxious the entire time about all the things that weren’t getting done.

This is WORKING!  I finally have the freedom and the time to accomplish things I’ve been trying to get done for months.  And even better, the dishes still get done too…

My to-do list is no longer running me.  I’m in charge. I’m relaxed. I’m FLEXIBLE!

home to do list
home to do list
home to do list

How to try it out yourself

Want to try it out too?  Even if you’re as big a skeptic as I was, I think it’s worth a try.  If it doesn’t work, what have you lost?

I suggest you take 2 weeks and follow these 5 steps:

  1. Wake up and pick 3 tasks that you’d really like to complete each day.  Be realistic about it. If you’re working a 10 hour day or busy with family obligations, don’t choose something like “reorganize the garage”.  Tailor your daily tasks to the time you have available.
  2. Try to do your 3 tasks FIRST during your productive time, then do the normal daily things (like laundry…ugh) afterward.
  3. If you need to reschedule things based on how your day goes, it’s okay.  If you have time, try to complete another small task instead.
  4. Plan for time-sensitive tasks to be done ahead of the due date.  Need to renew your license? Or get the guest room ready for visitors? Plan to make it one of your top 3 before it’s due.  Then, even if you need to bump it to another day, you won’t feel behind schedule.
  5. If it’s really important or time-sensitive or just something you’re dreading, make it a top priority and complete it first.  Real talk here, I hate gathering up the trash and putting it on the curb. So on trash days, I do that first! It’s out of the way, it’s done, and you will feel on top of your game for the rest of the day.

If you give this method a try, I would LOVE to hear what does or doesn’t work for you!  Drop a note in the comments, I read them all!

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