Impossible to think about, right? For many of us workaholics, busybodies, non-stop robots attempting to be human, the to-do list is our lifeblood; it’s what guides our productivity, gives us purpose, fills us with value, and helps us feel some semblance of “together.” If it weren’t for my Google Calendar, post-it notes, notebooks of action items, and other forms of task reminders, I would be utterly lost. What do I do with myself without a to-do list? How can I face others without a never-ending list of tasks jotted down on scrap pieces of paper and shoved in my pockets? Do I even have value at all if my task list cannot be thrown down a mile’s worth of stairs, written on a scroll, endlessly unraveling?

This year, in 2020, I’m challenging myself – and all of us – to break up with our to-do lists. Moving into a new year when many of us strive to embrace the “new year, new you” mentality, we can strive to shift the way we think about the to-do list and build healthier lives at the same time.

Create (and Respect) Your Boundaries

From daily/weekly/monthly planners to calendar apps to time/project management programs to notebooks, post-it notes, index cards, and much more, we use a wide variety of tools to manage ourselves and others. We are acutely aware of the volume of work to be done to accomplish short-term and long-term goals, both personal and professional. If we’re not careful, we can easily drown ourselves in the imbalance of “work to be done” and “work accomplished” since truly, the work is never done, right? While it’s a benefit to be able to plan for the long-term and see the big picture, if we don’t break the big picture down into small, reasonable, actionable chunks, we’ll paralyze ourselves before we even take the first step.

Thank goodness, though, strategies exist to help focus on things to be accomplished while also respecting your boundaries to not overwhelm your senses. One strategy to create and respect your own boundaries is this: allow only five things to be on any task list on any given day. 

While at first, it may seem like this is counterproductive to churning through our lists of things to do, it actually helps you function within the reasonable capacity for mental and physical health. Sure, you can move along to other items if you’d like, but whatever you move along to is a “get-to-do” instead of a “have-to-do” and allows for greater focus, creativity, and quality in what you plan to accomplish in a day. 

Shift from “Have-to-Do” Lists to “Get-to-Do” Lists

Part of the dilemma of the traditional view of to-do lists is simply based on what kinds of tasks are on them as opposed to how many tasks there are. On a list of 10 action items, if all 10 are “have-to-do” items – required actions based on job responsibilities or timetable – but none of the 10 are “get-to-do” items – those that spark joy and inch you closer to accomplishing your goals – consider reallocating some tasks to create balance.

Sure, let’s be reasonable. Some days you need to chug through your bookkeeping and it’s a nightmare and those days might take four of the five tasks you’ve committed to. But, you have one task left – what do you get to do because of the position you’re in, the goals you have, or what you bring to the table?

Some of this shift is simply attitude and how you build your narrative. You can transform “Ugh, I cannot stand bookkeeping and I absolutely despise doing this today,” into, “Today I will accomplish my weekly bookkeeping goals, which will allow me to accomplish my annual financial goals by helping me stay on track. It might be hard, but I’ll play my favorite Lizzo track on repeat and get through it. Let’s do this!” 

Don’t Be Your Own Worst Boss

Think about the caricature of the worst boss you’ve ever had the pleasure of working underneath. What are their traits? How do they interact with you? Make a list and then commit to not be like this person for yourself. Do you appreciate it when a supervisor gives you vague tasks? Micromanages? Offers no resources or guidance? Do you prefer a boss that creates space for self-care and gives grace or one who prioritizes productivity over the person and is managing a fleet of robots?

Be your own best boss. A boss evokes a different reaction when they say, “I need you to develop a new program as soon as possible that brings kids together,” than when they say, “By March of 2020, could you develop a proposal for a new 8-week mentorship program for youth in high school focused on art and engineering?” Often times with our own to-do lists, we are generous with the vague action items and that’s part of the battle.

“Launch a Facebook Event” isn’t just that – it’s confirming logistics of the event, developing an event description, designing social media graphics, and preparing to not only launch that event on Facebook but also on your website and any other media. 

Allow grace for yourself as you’d appreciate a boss allowing and recognize what it takes to accomplish a task. No one likes not being appreciated, so see the work you do and call it out by name and create space for it in your goals.

Honor Your Quadrants

In an effort to err as human (and not as robot) we must honor our quadrants. Quadrants are simply four categories you would use to capture your life. We each have our own to define, so not every person has the same. For example: self, family, job, side hustle. Or, self, family, fitness, job. Or, mind, body, soul, heart.

However you define your quadrants, the point is to honor them by seeing them reflected in your weekly goals. This is one tried and true way of respecting all areas of your life without harboring guilt in any one. For example, if 75% of your time during the week is allocated to your professional job, that only leaves 25% for yourself, your family, and your side hustle. What adjustments can you make? How can you scale your expectations during a week to honor your quadrants and create balance in your life?

This isn’t to say that each quadrant gets an equal share of your time and energy each week. If one week has to lean towards one or two quadrants over another, that’s life and that’s okay. But, at least with recognizing your quadrants and the need to honor them you can make those decisions intentionally.

Celebrate Yourself

So often we make to-do lists so long that we set ourselves up to fail. We throw things that need to be done onto our long list of the unaccomplished that it’s nearly impossible to meet our own expectations. Instead of ending each day focused on what we didn’t do, let’s dedicate ourselves to celebrating what we did do across all quadrants. Let’s feel valuable after accomplishing just five things instead of unworthy for not accomplishing all 30 things. Let’s celebrate the completion of five things before lunch and then be impressed with ourselves by completing another two after lunch (those are bonus accomplishments, after all!). If your best friend admitted that they’re overwhelmed with all they need to do in their life, would you throw more on their plate or would you help them organize and clear it off? Allow yourself the same grace and celebrate your work along the way.

Shifting the way we think about to-do lists is no simple feat; it takes practice, self-assurance, and encouragement especially if you’re like me in that you gain your value from your ability to be productive. The most important thing that I’m still learning is that I could get five things done in a day, thirty things done in a day, or zero things done in a day and I will end each day as valuable as ever, simply because I am. It’s tough, but in a culture that values productivity over most everything else, we can combat that expectation to err as robot through challenging how we approach the to-do list and reflecting on our own ambitions.