Escaping The Tyranny of the To-Do List

todolistsOne of the participants in a recent workshop BlackLion and I co-hosted, while explaining what she wanted to work on, essentially said she wanted to stop being a slave to her to-do list.

Can you relate?

Life is full. There’s work, immediate family, home-tending, extended family, exercise, friends, volunteering, self-care, creative projects, spiritual practice, and oh yeah, you should probably sleep now and then. Phew! Sometimes it can feel like you’re on that proverbial hamster wheel, powering through the day’s list and then getting up to do it all over again the next day.

The thing is, life doesn’t stop. Well, except for when it’s your time to die, but that’s probably quite a ways off – and even then, we don’t really know what happens to your consciousness. For now, though, you keep on breathing, your heart keeps beating, and your brain certainly churns out the thoughts. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking you are what you do.

Our culture is certainly set up that way. “And what do you do?” is one of the first questions most people ask when meeting someone new.

The trouble comes when you begin to identify your self-worth with your productivity. It does feel enticingly good to check off those items on your list. I like it, too, and I’ve been known to write something down that I did, just so I can have the satisfaction of checking it off.

But let’s put the almighty to-do list in perspective. You are not more or less worthy based on what you achieve. You are inherently worthy and divine just by virtue of your existence.

A list is a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. I keep lists because I have lots of ideas and I enjoy a wide variety of activities. I also don’t like trying to remember stuff – I’d rather keep the front of my mind free for creative play, and the back of my mind is already full of stories and whimsy and who-knows-what. I’d rather let the list do the heavy lifting in terms of the memory game.

But I no longer let the list be what determines my every move. Sure, some things have hard and fast deadlines – you know, like taxes, planning a birthday party, or that report that’s due at work. Most of the items on my list, though, are things that I choose, and thus the timeline is mine to determine. I treat the list as a menu, a suggestion of activities that I can choose to work on when I feel so inspired.  For example, I’ll set aside a chunk of time for working on writing, or on my business. But rather than being specific, I’ll consult the list to see which related items are inspiring me and which need my immediate attention. This helps me stay in the creative flow, and not get bogged down with tasks that might not be joyful for me that day.

My list also serves as a way of tracking things that are important to me, like how much exercise I’m getting or the things I’m thankful for (I love that my Leonie Dawson planner actually has a section for that).

A to-do list is a container. It’s a place where you can store things that are important to you, to be fished out and polished up at your convenience. Remember that you are the one who wields the tool, and let go of attaching your self-worth to the tyranny of your to-do list. It’s an easy shift to make, once you think about it, and one that will make your daily life much more joyful and easy, when you let it.


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