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Making Friends With My To-Do List

Ah! The to-do list! That often dreaded presence that haunts us, lingering in the back of our mind, sucking fun out of our existence and constantly hounding us with chores! If this is your relationship with to-do lists, hang around and find out how I tamed this beast and reclaimed my fun!

Or, if you have no greater joy than ticking off the to-do list checkbox of your carefully prepared daily menu of activities (or even worse, if you have purchased to-do list templates for fun), I have been right there with you! Stick around and get to know that great Friend to your Sanity a little better. 

hand with pen ticking off checkboxes on a list

Do I need a to-do list?

Most of us, whether we’d like to admit it or not, have a to-do list. If not on paper then in our minds. Most of us do live by some sort of pattern of eating, sleeping, working. Things like brushing our teeth and getting dressed are patterns that we repeat daily and so we never need to write or record them. We just do those daily habits. But we measure the progress of our day by those habits that we mentally check off an imaginary list.

What most people relegate to an actual to-do list are the things that are unique assignments to that day. Organized, successful people generally have specific goals for their day that need to be met. The more plans you have for the day, the more likely it is that the list needs to move from your head to a written list.

Now some people love the challenge of keeping track of their list in their heads. Kudos to you. Others hate that challenge and find it less taxing to have the actual to-do list.

I am with the latter group. A mental to-do list seems to distract me from being able to actually focus on tasks. Which makes it a fun-suck.

frusted woman biting a pencil and looking at her computer

Who owns the day?

I think one of the keys to successful living is to make friends with your to-do list. And this starts by realizing that you own the list, the list doesn’t own you. The to-do list is meant to help you, not to rule over you! 

The list is your subordinate – usually, but not always –  created by you. My analysis of how to befriend your to-do list presupposes a personal list. If your employer or your family is making your to-do list, keep reading for helpful tips, but disregard anything that doesn’t apply.

Supposing you created this list, it’s good to remember that anything on it is something you put there. Probably because you want to see it done and over. 

But realize, your happiness doesn’t depend on whether or not an item gets crossed off. You can choose to have a happy day. Your success doesn’t depend on that task’s completion. At least I don’t think so. I think a successful day can’t be measured by tasks anyway. Although I will be the first to admit that I love the sense of accomplishment in completing tasks, the tasks themselves don’t measure success. If I cross off all my list and neglect my relationships, what success is that? But I love it when I cross off responsibilities that free me to spend my energy on people. That’s making friends with my to-do list. That’s when the list serves me rather than me serving the list.

People are more important than things. One of my life mottos.

But why do I feel like my list is bossing me?

I’m no psychologist. Just a student of human nature here. But if you’ve ever been a child in a family, you’ve had a to-do list handed down that required your attention. And the list needed to be treated like a priority. And there were consequences if the tasks weren’t completed well or in a timely manner.

The list became your boss and teacher. It taught you to work first and play later. The list taught you discipline. Because without the list, we would have just played all day and gone to bed dirty.

Don’t get me wrong here, I applaud teaching kids responsibilities and having them do chores. I’m all for it! There is no greater aid to a person’s future success than learning to discipline yourself. You can’t achieve goals if you can’t handle the hard work of tasking yourself to do difficult things.

Maturity teaches us that self-discipline opens doors for us. That’s when we begin to realize that the to-do list was actually our friend all along.

But as adults we need to realize now, as I said before, that we are the ones who make the list. Even though, in difficult times of our lives, it may seem that the to-do list is controlling all the shots, we need to remember that we most likely chose the list. And the payoff in the end, is what our bossy list is helping us achieve. But it is our action or inaction that rules the day. Our to-do list is helping us toward goals that we ourselves set. Makes you want to give that ol’ to-do list a hug, doesn’t it?

The to-do list is not all-knowing

Unless you happen to be omniscient (all-knowing), your to-do list isn’t either. A to-do list cannot foresee all the unexpecteds of your day. That’s why the list cannot accurately determine how much you can accomplish or even what your priorities should be. What if the washing machine breaks? Scheduling repairs wasn’t on the to-do list? Does that mean our day was a flop? No, for heaven’s sake, not! We need grace for ourselves, and grace for our list.

The children’s Frog and Toad story “A List” is an illustration of how we can let our lists rule us and spoil our fun. When you require yourself to meet all your expectations, you set yourself up for failure. The story is exaggerated and silly, but it shows the importance of holding your plans and your to-do list lightly. (Okay, if Toad had physically held it tightly it wouldn’t have blown away, but you know what I mean.)

Minding the list religiously robbed Toad’s day of productivity and purpose. If Toad’s aim had been to live productively and purposely, the to-do list would have only been a tool employed to help him toward that end. He could have carried on, adjusting himself as needed, and still had a productive and purposeful day.

Which is how I try to hold my to-do list. What I suppose in the morning as the tasks that will make my day meaningful, can be misguided and misinformed. I can let my list guide me at the start and then rearrange my priorities as needed.

Finishing the list

Back to the chore list of childhood, you probably had to finish the list before you were free. Not so, when you’re an adult! You don’t ever have to finish the list before bed. Or before you have an impromptu visit with friends. Or before you just need a break.

Don’t buy the lie that successful people finish the list. It’s my guess that successful people know how to pace themselves and have tasks that carry over to the next day. When do we ever complete everything we need to do? For you moms out there, I know the answer is never! In your case being mom is more important than completing a to-do list. And whoever you are and whatever you do, being is more important than doing. But doing helps us toward becoming who we want to be.

List: Wake up, Make coffee, Drink Coffee, Make more coffee

Prioritizing real priorities

Still stuck on your to-do list management? Still feel like your list is managing you? Try this trick. Instead of restricting your list to chores, create a to-do list that reflects your priorities. Do you need to plan a birthday party and some self-care? Put them both on your to-do list. If your massage is more important at the moment than your laundry, let your list reflect that. Who owns the list? You do! Add fun things to the list because I bet you were hoping to have a fun day.

How my list helps me

I think lists are especially helpful when you have many hats and you have to shift mental gears frequently. I use my to-do list to help me be productive when I’m shifting gears. If I just had a mental list, I would have to stop working on Moms in Prayer and then create a new mental list of tasks I needed to do for housekeeping. Then after I folded laundry, bought groceries and made dinner, I might switch gears again to blogging. I’d have to make a new list – hmmm – photos, writing, social sharing. I could get all caught up on social media and forget that I needed to organize Pinterest pins. Instead, using a list helps me to quickly move from one thing to the other. I can more easily understand and analyze my priorities when they are written down.

How my attitude helps me

I’ve hinted at this already, attitude is everything when it comes to tasks! Step one, you wrote a list! Win! Don’t you feel like a winner even in that? Your list is a blue ribbon!

And you get a gold medal at the end of the day if you have responded to your day in a way you can be proud of. Doesn’t matter what things didn’t get done. Do you feel good about what you accomplished? 

And if you feel bad about your day, is it because you let the list boss you instead of being your friend? Or maybe some really awful things came up and derailed you. “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?” (Quote from Anne of Green Gables) Tomorrow truly is a brand new day, and you can sleep peacefully knowing that it holds new hope.

Bible, empty notebook, pen

Submitting my day to the Maker of my day

One of my morning routines is Bible reading and prayer time. And here is also where I usually make a to-do list for myself. Otherwise I can get very distracted in my prayer time! I’ll start praying and then think of something that needs to get done. Since I have a paper beside me, I can quickly jot those thoughts onto my list and go right back to prayer. When I forget to have my list, I end up doing some mental juggling – trying to pray my prayers and remember the chore I don’t want to forget to do! I make the to-do list my friend and aid by letting it take the tasks out of my distracted brain and plant them to the page.

What about long-term goals?

I’ll admit that sometimes my long-term goals are only on a mental list. At other times I scribble them into the side of a legit monthly calendar. Which I typically only look at once a month. But the way to really cross those long-term goals off of your list, is to break them down into smaller steps.You can plan to tackle the small steps daily or weekly. Or set aside a day completely devoted to the long-term goal. Another way that I get those bigger projects done is by adding them to my daily list every day. Then, even if I don’t complete the entire project, I can work toward it as time permits. Let’s be honest, these big things would otherwise completely slip my mind as I work on daily tasks! Seeing them every day on my list, helps me to give more thought and focus to completing them.

Making your list

I’m a paper person myself. I have paper grocery lists and a paper to-do list. (I do use my Google calendar! See, I’m still a little with it!) I do have a notebook app on my phone that I use occasionally as well. If you’d like to find a good list-making app, ProofHub has several to choose from here. You can buy cutesy templates to print or stationary lists on Etsy. Or find a printable on Pinterest.

But really all you need of course, is a pen and paper. We like to recycle junk mail for lists around here.

Be sure to share any additional tricks you have in the comments below! If you found this article helpful, please let me know and share with your friends. I love having you as part of this blogging community! Thanks and God bless.

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