To-Do Lists: Perception vs. Reality

The other night after we had turned out the lights and said our good nights, Ben whispered in the dark, “Do you ever feel like your to-do list is done?”  I reflected for a moment, and answered, “Yeah, sure, sometimes.”  And he said, “I don’t.  I feel like I’m always behind and never on top of my shit, and it’s stressing me the f^&* out.”  And this got me to thinking.

There’s this idea that a to-do list is a thing that can be completed.  You write down the things that need to be done, and cross them off as you finish them.  Eventually, you finish all the things and the list is done, right?  Wrong!  Because as soon as you finish all the things on that list, more things pop up that need to be done.  That’s life–there’s always something you need to complete.

There’s a fundamental disconnect in the perception of the to-do list versus the reality.  The perception of the to-do list is that you can finish it and feel accomplished and just be done.  But the reality is that you are never done.  For every item you cross off the list, you put two more on.  But it’s your attitude toward your seemingly never-ending list that is what determines your personal concept of success versus failure.

Option number one is that you can let your list overwhelm you.  You focus on all the things you have yet to do instead of the fact that you are crossing things off the list.  You, like Ben, are stressed out, cranky, and feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day.  You put off doing fun things because you “should” be productive and cross more items off the list.  This option, in my opinion, is not good.

I prefer option number two, in which you simply accept that life continues on.  There will always be things to do.  But instead of worrying about everything left to do, you rejoice in the fact that you crossed three things off today’s list.  OK, yeah sure, you added three things, but at least you’re making progress, you’re moving forward.  As long as you are making progress, you should consider yourself to be successful.  You can’t be all business all the time, and you can’t get bogged down in lists and “shoulds” and obligation.  Life carries on whether you check off 3 items or 30, and you can’t be stressed out all the time.

At this time of year, it’s really easy to get caught up in the mania.  I know my to-do list is currently 20 items long and growing by the minute.  And yeah, I’m a little stressed out, but I know it will get done.  I’m not going to let it get to me.  I refuse to let my list get the better of me.

And now, I’m going to share a few of my tips with you so that you can be less stressed too.

1.  Keep your list with you, or in an obvious, easy-to-see place.  This may seem like common sense, but surprisingly often, I make a list and then leave it at home, and when I want to get stuff done on my lunch break, I’m struggling to remember what I need to do.  Make it easy on yourself.  If you keep your phone on you all day, write it in your Notes app.  If you have a planner, stick it in there.  Put it on your fridge.  Whatever will help keep it visible and keep you on track.

2.  Make your to-do list as detailed as possible.  For example, instead of “Do laundry,” write “Wash laundry,” “Dry laundry, and “Fold/Hang/Put away laundry.”  I say this for two reasons.  First, this ensures that you won’t forget anything, and will keep you on task.  I usually get through the washing and the drying, but laundry doesn’t get put away for at least a week.  Second, you will get increased satisfaction from crossing off multiple items on your list.

3.  Tackle smaller/easier items first.  I know a lot of people like to go the other way, tackling a big project because they think it will make them feel more productive.  I like to do it this way, though, because, like with number one, I get increased satisfaction and feel more productive with every item I cross off the list.  If I can eliminate 3 or 4 items in the time it would take to do just one large task, I feel great, and my list looks that much less daunting.

4.  Break your list up by day.  I do this all the time.  I make one large, master to-do list for the week, with places I need to go and the things I need to do there, shopping lists, whatever.  Then I take a look at my calendar, and break the list out according to where I can go and what I can do each day.  Breaking it up into manageable, scheduled chunks makes the list seem less huge and impossible.

5.  Don’t be a control freak, like me.  I am just a little bit Type A, and I’m often stuck in the “If you want it done right, do it yourself” mindset.  Don’t do this!  Ask your spouse/significant other/kids/parents for help.  I bet if you looked at your list right now, there’s at LEAST one thing that someone else can help you with.  Yeah, maybe your hubs will grab a different color of wrapping paper than you would have chosen, but in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter?  Now you can just wrap the damn gifts and move on!

And just remember what I said before–it’s your choice how to handle this never-ending to-do list called life.  Take it on one task at a time, and never lose sight of the fact that whether you cross everything off or not, as long as you’re moving forward, you are succeeding.

5 thoughts on “To-Do Lists: Perception vs. Reality

  1. txa1265 says:

    I think that it IS really important in all areas of our life to have physical to-do lists, and that the ones at home should be similar to your work lists. You should have broad and longer term goals, but each day should have a list of what you reasonably plan to accomplish on that day or at least during that week.

    Lisa will occasionally stress out in the middle of the night about a variety of things, some that she has control over and others that are beyond her control. One of the key things for me is to never worry about those things you cannot even influence, let alone control.

    It is like other people – you can only control how you deal with them, nothing more. With to-do lists, they are YOUR list and you can only control your own. So if you stress over outstanding items, build your lists differently. Right?


  2. Lily says:

    It’s actually comforting to hear that so many people are overwhelmed right now, I have been feeling crazy the past couple weeks. I feel like yesterday was the first day in a month where I felt on top of things!

  3. Amy says:

    My to do list is never done. I make a list once a week, adding to it and crossing things out as I do them. The next week, I carry over the undone items as a starting point, so the to do list never goes away. I suppose if I look back a few weeks, my past to do list would have been complete. I try to keep my “you MUST do these things” to do list separate from the “I’d like to do all these things” to do list. That helps me feel less like I’m never getting ahead.

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