The Illusion of the To-Do List

The to-do list, preferably in bullet journal form, sits to the left side of your desk which is of course cleared from clutter. You tackle the tasks in order, churning through emails and assignments and projects, cheerfully checking each one off in order. Ta-da, your day is done!

In college I lived by my to-do list. The school gave out planners (it’s unclear why, since most people had smart phones and I doubt used them) and since I was living an analog life, this awkwardly sized bound notebook was the key to my academic and personal success. Every assignment was recorded, every club meeting and many dinner plans. If I intended to go to a party or show that weekend, it was in the planner.

Since I am addicted to the self-improvement side of the Internet (even though it often doesn’t make me feel so good), I love when productive Youtubers share their secrets for getting things done. I just discovered Anna Akana and she posted a video a couple months ago about the way she gets her millions of projects completed. The part of the video that stood out to me was how she changed her relationship with the to-do list.

She talks about being almost addicted to her to-do list, to that feeling you get when you cross something off. To get that feeling more, she would fill her to-do list with minor tasks like “clean the cat litter” or “eat lunch”. She would end each day feeling like she accomplished a lot, even though all she had gotten done was things that she would do anyway. The big, meaningful tasks, the ones that are working towards her big goals, are left unaccomplished.

Over the past few months since I left college (and before I got into my good academic routine while I was still in school), these kinds of habits were sabotaging my productivity. Looking at my to-do lists from a couple months ago, I can see that they are filled with miniscule things. I don’t need to put “unload the dishwasher” on my to-do list! I do this every day; it does not need a reminder. Neither does “help Andrew study”; my brother will come to me for that. It gave me the illusion of productivity, of  a day filled with completed tasks, but wasn’t helping me move forward in my life.

Following Anna’s additional advice of creating a life map for 2016, I wrote down a list of goals. Mine are probably a little too general and don’t have a clear deadline, but right now I’m working towards: financial security, working in the field of economics, writing, and fitness. Now, when I make my t0-do list, I make sure that I’m working towards a couple of these goals every day. Applying for a job and mowing a neighbors lawn count for working in economics and financial security. Posting on this blog and going to martial arts class count towards writing and fitness. Now I’ve established what my big-picture goals are and have the tasks that work towards them at the top of my to-do list, making those goals that much more achievable.

My question now moving forward is how to make sure that I still complete the minutia of daily life. Even though it’s not working towards one of my goals, I do need to pick up my brother from school and clean the countertop in the bathroom. In order to make sure that these smaller tasks don’t take over the day and prevent me from moving forward with my larger plans, I keep those tasks on a separate list, sometimes written down and sometimes mental. this helps me procrastinate the tasks off each other more effectively (say, avoiding cleaning the bathroom by writing a cover letter instead). This makes sure that I don’t end up with a day where I cleaned the bathroom very thoroughly and caught up on black-ish but didn’t exercise or send out any job applications.

While Anna Akana’s video gave me the kick in the pants I needed right now, in other times in my life it would have been the opposite of what I needed. When you’re dealing with mental illness, those to-do lists with small tasks like take a shower, eat a vegetable at lunch, leave the house before dusk, are very meaningful. If getting out of bed is momentous, you need to work on that. Writing those tasks down and crossing them off can give you that little bit of momentum and feeling of accomplishment that you need to keep working towards health, or even just staying alive that day. When you need to feel a little less worthless, writing down all the things you accomplished that day and including these little tasks like taking the dog out or texting a friend or wiping down a countertop are an easy and important way to do that.

The key, then, is knowing which point you’re at. Are you struggling to complete the daily tasks, like showering or making sure you have to eat? If you need that reminder, those things should be on your to-do list. But if you’re past that point (or maybe were never there) and are getting bogged down in a day filled with tiny tasks while your big goals sit to the side unattended to, re-vamping the focus of your to-do list is a way to make sure that you are working towards your goals effectively.

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How are you using your to-do list to work towards your goals? Do you have an app on your phone that helps you keep track of what you’re working on? I’m on the hunt for a good one as I switch more of my life over to my phone.

Send me your recommendations!

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