Who doesn’t love the feeling of ticking things off the ‘to-do’ list?
Get the kids to school. Tick.
Hang the washing up. Tick.
Answer emails. Tick.
Ring the library. Tick.
Write the article. This one will probably go on tomorrow’s ‘to do’ list.
The truth is that long ‘to-do’ lists don’t necessarily get us closer to the big goals. It was only when I ditched the painfully detailed ‘to-do’ list that I finally finished my 80, 000 word thesis, published a number of articles, successfully pitched my first book and got commissioned to write blog posts.
What if the secret to productivity isn’t doing more, but doing less?
What if ditching your ‘to do’ list might bring you closer to your goal?
The opposite of busy is not relaxed but focused
Tony Crabbe, in Busy: How to thrive in a world of too much, writes about how the “The opposite of busy in today’s world is sustained, focused attention. It is deep engagement in activities that really matter to us, or in conversations with those we care about.”
The problem with ‘busy’ is that it gives us the illusion of being productive. We cram every spare moment with commitments but none of these bring us closer to our big dreams.
Workout first thing. Breakfast meeting at 8am. Four different clubs to take the kids to during the week. Add to that every meeting that arrives on our calendar. Spanish lessons on a Thursday. Park run at the weekend. Drop the washing at the dry cleaner. Pick up supplies for the weekend outing. Post the birthday cards. Phone the window cleaner. Phew, I’m exhausted just reading that. Can you relate?
When we are constantly switching from one task to the next, we never really give ourselves the time to be truly immersed in one task.
In Deep work, Cal Newport writes about the importance of focusing on one task for a longer stretch of time. Specifically, deep work refers to “activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.”
Some isolated long periods of time to work on these deep tasks are good for us.
Deep work is in contrast to non-cognitively intensive tasks which are low-value and easy to replicate. Think responding to emails, scanning websites, and using social media.
Practicing a minimal ‘to-do’ list can give us space to practice focussing on the activities that really matter.
If we don’t put the small things on the list, they will get done anyway (if they need to get done)
What if you don’t need to bake cakes for your sister’s birthday party and bought cakes will be just as good? What if you don’t need to take the car for a valet every six months or ever?
Do you really need to dust the pictures (actually, this is something I’ve never done, and I’ve got passed worrying what the in-laws think when they come to visit).
You may need to negotiate with someone in your life to lower expectations about what really needs to be done or what needs to be done by you. This may be your boss, it may be a spouse or parent, but it could actually be you.
Do you know what can be more exhilarating than crossing things off the ‘to-do list? Realising that they don’t actually belong there in the first place.
The truth is we can’t do everything. If writing is a priority, we need to decide what we are going to cut from our ‘to do’ list in order to give ourselves the time to write.
A year from now,the small things on the ‘to-do’ list won’t matter, but the big things will
Let me get this clear here. When I’m talking about the small things here, I really am talking about the small things. Not the small things that are really the big things (like having an extra cuddle with your kid/ dog/ in the morning before you get up), but the small things that really are trivial—ironing the sheets—does anyone actually do this anyway?
Picture yourself a year from now. What would you like to have achieved by then?
Will it have been taking the car for a valet three times? To have sorted through your 50,000 digital photos? Organised your inbox into folders (my friend, there’s a search function on the email for a reason—and don’t even get me started on inbox zero).
Or are your goals more likely to be:
Sent off your proposal to an agent? Written three articles for publication? Finished the first draft of your ebook?
These last three are all TOTALLY doable. Wherever we are now. If we prioritise them and take the small things off the list.
If you don’t have a ‘to-do’ list, you will do the big stuff first
While I find it helps me to have a list of smaller things to do so that I don’t waste brain power thinking about them, I find that if I don’t look at my small things ‘to-do’ list first thing in the morning, it’s easy for me to get started on the important things first.
If it’s important enough then you won’t forget it.
You will remember to do the big stuff first.
The truth is we can’t do everything. If writing is a priority, we need to decide what we are going to cut off our ‘to do’ list in order to give ourselves the time to write.
So while you might not like to ditch your ‘to do’ list entirely, you might like to think very carefully about what makes it onto the ‘to-do’ list.
If something is important enough anyway, you’ll remember to do it.
Today, I decided to try not using any to do list. And do you know what happened before breakfast? I wrote this post.
In sum, we achieve more by doing less. Focus more. Work less. Get more done.
Try it: just for a day. I dare you. Ditch the ‘to-do’ list.
Grab your free get writing done download for more tips and tricks on how to integrate writing into your busy life.
Leave a comment. What have you found you can live without putting on the ‘to do’ list?
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