Having a “to-do” list is great.

Having a “to-do” list is terrible.

Both are true.

Organized and Purposeful

If you’ve read this blog, even a few times, you likely know that I am a big believer in creativity being sustained by consistent and intentional actions. I’m not real big on that, “Oh, I’ll just wait for the Muse to strike” sort of creativity-when-unavoidable.

Yes, I too have been overtaken by the necessity to write, even when inconvenient, because the story is so loud in my ears at THAT MOMENT, so I don’t write off the Muse completely: I just think she’s an easy scapegoat for not doing the work consistently.

Regardless, I do often suggest to other writers and would-be writers that being just a bit organized, scheduled, and structured can really help them with their writing.

For me, part of that organization is to keep a running list of open items I know I need to address. I use a program on my computer which integrates with my iPhone and iPad so I can have access to the to-do list whenever I need it. It is one central place where I can jot things down that need my attention. Using a computer (or smart-device) based program saves a lot of sticky notes, much to the chagrin of 3M.

It also saves me a good deal of worry: I know that when I think of something that needs to be done, in whatever area of life (creative, business, personal, household, etc) I can quickly add it to my list and get back to focus on other things. A list like this undermines a great deal of the creative resistance which used to manifest itself as a “oh, crap, I need to email this client back, and if I don’t do it now, I’ll probably forget so I’ll stop writing and come back to it later” sort of pattern. Now, when the thought comes into my head, reminding me of some task left undone, I simply jot it down on the list, assure myself it will still be there later, and then return to my writing.

Sometimes, the very tools we use to make our lives easier or more productive can become a source of anxiety and resistance.
Sometimes, the very tools we use to make our lives easier or more productive can become a source of anxiety and resistance.

Overgrown and Punitive

On Sunday, I did a wonderful job of illustrating what can go WRONG with list making. I start my new week on Sunday evenings, generally. I begin planning and prioritizing the next six days, balancing the creative side with everything else that needs my attention.

Part of that planning is to do a brain dump of all the things that need to be on the to-do list.

Last week, I started my planning for the week, and by the time I stood up from my desk to go to bed Sunday night, I had 48 things on my to-do list. And then, on Monday, I had accomplished 12 of that 48, but after adding new things to the list, the running total was up to 53. This highlighted three problems:

  • A list like this can get out of hand. There comes a point where the list is too long, and it simply highlights how unlikely it is to ever complete everything I need to do.
  • There is also the possibility that the list will become a DE-motivator, if I’m not careful. If it feels like I’m never going to make a dent in the list, or if it feels like I always add-to more than I check-off, it can become discouraging.
  • The list itself can become a point of resistance, giving me an excuse to NOT do the important work or creative work and instead focus on those very things I’m trying to not focus on, for now.

A Few Solutions

Having a separate list for long-term needs (items that are important, but may not be addressed any time soon) can help, some, but not completely. If you are planning short-, medium-, and long-term goals, this can be especially useful in keeping it clear: I have to do A-B-C before I can L-M-N in order to be ready to X-Y-Z later. If one of the things on your to-do list for August is “buy Easter baskets for the grandkids” you may be using the list wrong.

I also try to keep the list positive, and look at it in a positive way. The best tool for this is the “top three” rule of list making. Each day, no matter how long your list is, you must start with picking the top three priorities for the day. These are the three things that absolutely must get done TODAY. Other items from the list may (and, ultimately WILL) be addressed, but those first three things take priority.

Using the Top Three strategy helps me in keep things positive because at the end of the day I can say, “I may not have got as much done as I hoped, but I got the three most important things done.” That keeps a feeling of accomplishment in the mix, and delays the apoplectic despair that can creep in when the to-do list gets too long.

(And, you may have noticed another way I keep things positive, when I described what happened on Monday. Notice, I said, “I had accomplished 12 of that 48, but after adding new things to the list, the running total was up to 53.” Even when the list is BIGGER at the end of the day than it was at the beginning, I make sure to recognize that I “accomplished 12 of the original 48 items”. Yes, it may seem like a losing battle at times, but acknowledging ANY progress is very helpful.)

Of course, the Top Three strategy is helpful in battling resistance, too. If I start the day by identifying the three most important things, I give myself a tool to fight the inner resistance monster who is trying to distract me with silver that hasn’t been polished in 23 years. “No. That’s not important. It’s not on my top three list for today.”

If you have any to-do list strategies, or if you use a completely different organizational method, I’d love to hear more in the comments section, below…

It’s a Beast! (When List Making Goes All Wrong)
Tagged on: