Productivity / Business Productivity

Why I ditched the to-do list

We all have that list of things to be done somewhere in the back of our minds – but is the act of having a list actually stopping us from completing it?

18 March 2016 by

I am a worrier by nature.

It took me a long time to admit this. I thought I just worried over certain things, until I realised that certain things meant…everything.That was when I finally admitted to myself that I’m a worrier.

I’m also a highly organised and goal-oriented person. I work best when I know clearly what needs to be done, and preferably when and how I’m going to get it done as well.

Yes, you guessed it. I’m a to-do list fanatic. I’ve used them for years, and tick them off every day.I even found this awesome website that allowed me to build a to-do list, access it and add to it from anywhere, colour-code tasks, tag them, add notes, arrange by date order…you name it, you could organise it. I loved that list so much. It was like my security blanket, making sure everything got done and no task was forgotten, no matter how trivial. Then I realised something else.

The to-do list was making me worry more.

Somewhere in my highly organised brain was the idea that any day on which I didn’t accomplish the entire to-do list was a day wasted. It didn’t matter if some of the tasks actually couldn’t be accomplished for a couple of days; they weighed on my mind all the same. More items seemed to go on the to-do list than come off it, which stressed me out .. and this only delayed things more while I got un-stressed.

"Then I realised something else - the to-do list was making me worry more."

So late last year I came across a concept which I adapted for my own use, with surprising success – instead of listing everything I have to do, I set goals.

The principle is simple – each night before bed, I write down a few things I want to achieve the following day (I call them my Squad Goals, because I find it funnier). I usually aim to come up with five things, and they can be absolutely any kind of task, so long as it can be achieved the next day.

Sometimes they’re personal – ‘Write letter to Elle’, or ‘half an hour reading’. On Mondays ‘yoga class’ frequently appears in my Squad Goals, because I need a little bit more motivation to actually get me to class. I also have practical goals – Mondays usually also feature ‘grocery shopping’ and a recent goals list says ‘Get toilet fixed!!’, since I got sick of using the toilet in the second bathroom all the time. The third kind of goal on my list is professional, like ‘Finish ASO article’ so I know which piece I need to be working on right now, or ‘Blog post’, because my parents complain if I forget to write down my adventures for their vicarious enjoyment, and working on my blog is good practice for writing and building my brand.

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The first few days with my goals list were tough. My poor anxious brain was frantic with worry that some important task would be forgotten or some crucial job left undone. But after a week or so, I started to relax into the routine, and I discovered a couple of interesting things:

1. Productivity

My current job is part-time, so I spend a lot of time sitting in my apartment feeling hopelessly unproductive. Having tangible goals to cross off each evening started making me feel more engaged, more motivated. Five things to do per day is not overwhelming, but it’s enough to give you a sense of achievement when you complete them all.

2. Prioritising

The other thing I noticed a few weeks in was that all the nagging jobs my brain was worrying about hadn’t made it on to a single goals list yet. Despite the apparent ‘urgency’ of the tasks that drove me to write them on my (previous) to-do lists and obsess over not doing them, when I gave myself five things and five things only to do the following day, somehow those things didn’t seem important any more (after all, they weren’t important enough to be one of the five). Without me even realising it, my brain had started prioritising tasks, a skill my previous supervisor had despaired of ever teaching me.

3. Relaxation

Almost in tandem with the above, once my brain figured out how to prioritise the most important jobs for the coming day or days (because sometimes a task arises on Saturday that can’t be dealt with until Monday morning), I stopped stressing over the things that I didn’t prioritise. In fact, I hardly even think about them. Yes, the buttons on my coat do need to be re-stitched at some point, but they’re fine for now, so they’re low priority. When they become a high priority, they’ll go on the goals list, and I know when that happens that they’ll get done. Until then there’s no need to think about it.

Just like that, my brain has accepted the logic of my goals list being high priority and everything else being unimportant.

Swapping a to-do list for Squad Goals seems like such an insignificant change, but it makes so much sense for me and suits the way I think. It’s even changed the way I view myself – the ineffective slacker is now a successful achiever. For someone who sub-divided her colour-coded, customised to-do list just 12 months ago, I’m proud to say I’m never going back.

Are you a to-do list addict? Do you think you could give the Squad Goals thing a go?

Caelli Greenbank

is a freelance writer and cycling journalist. When not writing about pro cycling, she chronicles the ins and outs of her quirky life teaching English in Spain on her website here. Connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn.

Comments

  • Interesting. Don’t you find that not writing down those extra things you’d like to do (but aren’t yet important enough to be daily goals) just keep swimming around your head and worrying you? I’m similar in that too many to do’s makes me unhappy. But not writing it down might make me feel worse!

  • Ruby

    I still use to-do lists, but the end result is the same as your new system I think. I have an overall task list which has everything that needs to be done at some point. Then for each day I pick out 3 to 5 tasks that I want to get done that day – and that is my “Daily To-Do List”. That way it is easier to feel I have achieved what I set out to do that day, and I’m not staring at the big list each morning getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it. Much more effective for me.

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