When Your To Do List Fails You

Update 2019/03/19: Replaced a photo

So, I moved my desk. It used to be in our second room, which we called “the computer room”, which also doubled as storage. With Hubby’s job now – he’s working from home – …well, we tried both of us working in the same room, but nope, that won’t suffice. We agreed that moving my workstation was the way to go.

My desk is in the living room now, which in our apartment was the only reasonable thing we could do. It isn’t completely set up yet, so I can’t share a photo with you just yet. Patience, little grasshopper, it will come in due time. {:

What was interesting though is that the desk move prompted a complete change in priorities for me. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes the most important things seem to be the least important things. Suddenly all the things on your to do list aren’t important, and instead it’s more important to do this other nagging thing over here. It’s like the priority shifts suddenly and something that should be on the back-burner is immensely important and has to be done right this second.

Sticky Notes To-Do List photo by sue seecof
Photo by sue seecof

It’s strange when that priority shift happens.

Part of it is I think when you’re a firefighter (I’m puttin’ out fires all over town, baby) too much of the time, once the fires are finally out you either have to use your remaining time on something that isn’t at the top of the list but will fit into the allotted time you have leftover, or you’re just tired and want to do what you want to do. Or, you know what, you sit around waiting for the next fire to show up because you know it’s just around the corner and you don’t want to be caught up in the middle of important things when it does.

But, there are 4 great steps you can take right now to get yourself back on track:

Step 1: Re-populate your to do list with more information

I think most of the problem with to do lists, the main reason they fail for so many people, especially those who work for themselves, is that the tasks are just way too broad. For instance, your task might be “work on that soda company identity package,” but that’s going to seem daunting as a to do list item.

Do you know why?

It isn’t a to do item.

That, my friend, is a project, so it’s time to step up your project management game. Make a list of every tiny task you’ll have to do to complete that project. Break everything down to the smallest possible tasks. Those tiny tasks become your to do list for that project, and you can schedule things properly. Each little item shouldn’t take very long, it won’t seem as daunting to look at, you’ll feel accomplished when completing each item which will motivate you to continue, and you’ll steadily make progress.

Step 2: Prioritize, Delegate, Abandon

Let’s face it — most to do list items are fluff. How many of those things do you need to do? I’m betting not many. Delete anything from your list that doesn’t need to be done.

We sometimes come up with a project that sounds wonderful but as time passes we lose all motivation to complete it. It’s like that old chair that you bought so you could re-finish it, or that quilt you wanted to make for your grandmother but you never found the time for it. These are great, noble things, but you procrastinate for far too long. Then every time you look at that chair or those fabrics you bought for the quilt, you feel guilty which gives you even less motivation to complete it.

Cut yourself some slack. Give yourself permission to abandon a project that you had great intentions to do but you know you just won’t ever get to it. If it’s really important and must be done, break it down into tasks and schedule them. “Finding the time to do it” just won’t happen. You have to make time.

After you’ve abandoned everything you can and removed all the fluff, see if there’s anything remaining that you can delegate to someone else who might be better at it than you. Everyone has a talent. Everyone has a passion. Identify what your passions are, and as well as what things aren’t your passion, because those things might be holding up your progress. Learn to delegate those things. Maybe you like to sew but the idea of cutting all the fabric into shapes is unappealing. Maybe you have a friend who just loves measuring and cutting up fabric. See if you can pay or barter with your friend to prepare the quilt blocks for you.

Step 3: Say No

From here on out, before you put anything else on your list, decide if you really need to do it, and if you really have the time to do it. And in fact, Step 1 will help with this. Broad projects on your to do list can convince you that you have more time than you actually do. A new project comes across your desk and you think, “Hey, I only have 5 things on my to do list. I can handle this.” It’s only later that those 5 things turn into a mountain of smaller tasks and you realize you shouldn’t have accepted that project at all.

Breaking your projects down into their smallest tasks will give you a better idea of exactly what you need to do and exactly how long a project will take, so you can make better decisions when a new project comes your way. And you’ll also be more confident in saying no to a project because you have an actual time map that proves that you can’t handle another big project. Saying no is hard because we want to be superstars and do it all, but we can’t, so we have to figure out what’s most important to us and stay focused on it.

Step 4: Take a break

Hey, if you’re having that big of a problem with completing something, take a break. Don’t underestimate the power of breaks, and definitely don’t skip them. Take your break. Go get a coffee, go for a short run or walk, have a power nap, have a quick game of Tetris — do something to get your mind off of your tasks for a while. Don’t stay at your desk. Don’t check email while eating lunch. Take a REAL break. Giving yourself that time away from your desk and your responsibilities will allow your brain to rest for a while so you can come back to your tasks refreshed.

2 Replies to “When Your To Do List Fails You”

  1. This year I have been trying to learn how to take a REAL break. I am well versed in resting my body. For a long time my body needed to be still a lot from low energy. Lately I have become aware that my brain needs to rest too. I have a tendency to overuse it to the point that it went on strike earlier this year. I am so used to filling my brain with information and ideas and inspiration that it’s hard to let go and simply sip my tea and do nothing else.

    1. I can soooooo relate, Jennifer. Usually it’s my body that’s protesting, but sometimes it’s definitely my brain, and I’ve also noticed that over-using my brain can lead to low physical energy as well. We’re taught from a young age the “go go go” mentality, and it’s doing us a lot of harm. Remembering to take actual breaks is a step in the right direction. Sip that tea and enjoy the moment! (:

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