Starting A To Do List? Don’t…

Many of us are going to wake this week and once again try to make or adhere to some form of “to do” list. My advise is to save yourself the time – and don’t.

This is heresy for the “getting it done” crowd and I can fully appreciate that. However, there is a far greater number of people who’ll sit down with good intentions – start making a list – only to have feelings of overwhelm as this list morphs in length with something rivaling Rte. 66.

You start out thinking “OK, just five or so.” Then as you start writing your mind begins rambling and prompting you as in: “How about this one? Oh, and what about that one? And – oh crap I really need to get that one done.” Followed with so many more you begin having anxiety flashes caused by what now seems like an endless list you’ll never get done.

So the greatest of all reasoning to cure this dilemma comes forward: “This is useless. I’ll never get these done. I’m just kidding myself.” And you put down the pen, the phone, the pad, or close the program which believe it or not gives you an immediate “Whew! That was a waste a time. At least I can cross that off the list.”

Here’s a normal progression of what “To do lists” look like just after a few hours never-mind days later.

  • To do turns into: Try to do
  • Try to do turns into: If I Have Time to do
  • If I Have Time turns into: I Would Like to do
  • Like to do turns into: I Might do
  • I Might do turns into: It Would be Nice to do
  • Nice to do turns into: Maybe Someday I’ll do
  • Someday I’ll do turns into: I’ll Probably Never do
  • Probably Never turns into: Just plain never.

We’ve all been there. So why does this happen? The reason for the vast majority of people is they treat “to do” lists as if it were a reminder list. That is where the crux of the problem exists for a great many. To do lists are exactly that – to do. However, with no real consequence for not finishing or doing; why would one think they’ll do them?

To give a real example of a to do list one needs only to look at what’s called in the trades a “Punch list.” These are lists made by contractors et al. for the sole purpose of making sure specific items or tasks are completed. Not just because they are required as to sign off on a project. It’s also for the purpose of insuring against charges of breach of contract, or other monetary damages. Not getting done that last item on the list could end up not only costing serious money. It can mean the difference in some cases of profits evaporating into complete losses.

These “punch lists” are the real example of a “to do” list. Lists with real consequences. If your list doesn’t hold the same perils of penalty as this; then all you’re doing is writing reminders for yourself while acting like they’re something more.

Many will begin feeling all the guilt or blame one wants to throw at oneself for not being able to get things done. It’s a vicious circle – self-imposed – and causes more frustration than if one did absolutely nothing. (Yes. I did just say that.)

If you truly want to make a “to do” list that has actual impact you first need to get it in your gut the difference between “to do” – and a reminder. Most make lists calling them “to do,” when in fact there merely only a reminder list.

If they are not the same, then feelings of guilt or frustration should not carry the same weight either. Seeing, and understanding the difference between the two can make all the difference in the world if applied correctly.

A proper “to do” list should probably be anything but – a list. If you really want to make a change and start moving forward you should have only 1 – possibly 2 things written down that must get done before you sleep. Something that you commit to with all the sanctity of a vow, legal contract, or promise to your mother. Something you’ll do no matter what. No excuses if for an act of God will you be relentless as to complete it. Period.

Whatever task or “to do” must be something that carries some weight in your personal hierarchy of tasks to complete. (I shouldn’t need to say or explain this but, we’re experts on looking for loopholes) Don’t pick a task that’s so easy the bar to jump is actually recessed into the floor. i.e., checking your Facebook® status – again.

It doesn’t need to be the hardest either. (though that isn’t necessarily bad) Just something that carries some weight that will actually improve your day knowing you did it. Which allows you to move onto other tasks tomorrow. This gets you into the habit of taking charge over your schedule with true, meaningful, accountable action.

Everything else treat them for what they likely they are – reminders. (You can make this list as long or short as you like while adding or deleting on the fly when ever the need hits in a dynamic fashion.)

Some might scoff at such a proposal. Far too many will look and think, “C’mon, just one? How does doing just one thing make any real difference or change?” It’s a fair question.

The problem is we don’t feel we’ll make the improvements or changes necessary without some great bold plan that feels overwhelming when we reference it. Thinking goes: If it isn’t big, it’s not worth it. However, more often than not immobilization is what normally follows because, now that inner voice shouts; “Are you crazy! You’ll never get that done. Maybe you should re-think this?” And you fall right back into your old routine.

If you want to see the power of incremental change there’s probably no better example than what’s expressed in Alan Weiss’s “One Percent Solution®.” If you improve by only 1 percent per day – in 70 days you’re twice as good.

Don’t take my word for it. Do the math. I suggest thinking about the ramifications of such an improvement and what it could mean to your life or career as your first “to do” for the upcoming days.

© 2012 Mark St.Cyr