Lists Rule

Lists Rule

It's a harsh truth that out of the myriad things I want to do with my life – and there are a lot! – I won't be able to do all of them. Or, rather, the odds are extremely small that they will all happen. It's not due to a lack of interest on my part; it's simply due to prioritizing what's important.

I know, I know. The default response to, “How are you?” is, “I'm busy.” We've taken busy-ness to be a merit badge of adulthood, suggesting that we have so so much going on that taking on anything else is just too much and will be the one thing that will put us over the top. The truth is that I do have a lot going on... and so do you!

Letting Go of the List

For a list-driven person like me, getting to a place of letting go of the list has been very difficult. It used to be that when I set up my to do list for the day, I'd feel genuinely bad if I didn't take care of everything on that list by the end of the day. And sometimes, I'd sneak things in to my own detriment (like doing a chore in the early morning or late night before bed). This was really misaligned with what I needed but, because I felt so much self-inflicted time pressure, I knew I would feel incredibly good if everything on the list was ticked off.

So if I had that attitude for a day's worth of items, imagine how I started to feel about bigger things. The life things. Starting a family! Buying a house! Dealing with Comcast customer service! Doing a budget! Instead of plunking those on a Someday list (a prioritization) they'd sit around on this big list of unsorted, unprioritized things I was going to do, and I'd look at that list and... yes, that meant I actually had a scorecard to compare myself to! It was setting me up for the negative, and showing all the things I hadn't yet done. I didn't see it as inspirational anymore; I started to see it as a failure tracker.

Working with the List

I will probably never be someone who isn't list-driven. That, I understand about myself. But I've had to really sit with my emotions and let my brain take a breather in order to get to a more comfortable place with them. I need lists. But, I don't need them to drive me; I need to use them as the tools they are and rely on my self to guide me. A big leap! And, it requires changes in the way I feel and think about lists.

The first idea I've had to relinquish is that everything I think of can be done now, and is all highest priority. Silly, right? It was easy for me to talk about the importance of prioritizing a product backlog, but it wasn't easy for me to say that about my own needs and wants. Yet if I didn't even pretend to rank things – and I historically didn't – I felt defeated. Instead, I had to really comb through the list of items one-by-one and be honest with myself. Anything that I couldn't truly do today... I'd schedule for another day, throw into the Someday list, or – big scary one – take it off the list. (And yes, that last one hurts.)

Another very important change: I add and prioritize self-care items to my to-do list. I've also added inspirational messages to the items' descriptions. It's a small gesture but it's been a big help. I'm the only one who sees them, but it's just a nice heads-up from past me. I observe, however, that I'm still struggling with having self-care items get deprioritized or bumped. Worse, they're often the first to go for me, because my brain seems to find things that are more important to do. Definitely something I am still working on!

How to Prioritize

When reviewing my lists, here's what I ask myself about each item. And yeah, I'm breaking out a list.

  1. How much do I care about this?
  2. How much do other important people care about this?
  3. Can I see myself doing a good job of this (today/tomorrow/next month)?
  4. When this is done, how will I feel about it?
  5. Do I actually have time to do this (today/tomorrow)?

The first two work together: there are certainly things on my lists that are not of my own choosing, but other people in my life who matter are depending on them. I need to balance those priorities: it may be something that isn't terribly interesting to me (see #4!) but when it's done, I'll be glad that I helped someone else. If it's something I care about, then I should work to give it a high priority.

Question 3 is important too. If I feel I can't do a good job on something, then I ask myself if this to-do item is appropriate, really. Something like the fabled “clean out the garage” task is a bit large, and I might not be able to finish the whole thing in one fell swoop. Chunking something down gives me a better shot of doing a good job of it, which again, is important to me. This is also a prime time to ensure these actions line up with my overall intentions.

#4 is where my emotions come into play. If I simply will get the little kick from checking something off the list, that may be enough for some items (“Unload dishwasher.”) But for others it won't be. I try to imagine how I'll feel and react on the other side of that item. Will I be relieved? Stressed? Pleased? Proud? Sad? Thrilled?

And the last question: is there actual time to do this. That's where my calendar comes into play. I find it very helpful to actually schedule time on my calendar This puts my brain at ease and answers the, “But when will you do this?!” question. If I can't do it today, I notice a tinge of regret, but plop it onto a day when I think I can do it.

The End of the List

While I'm still a list fan, there are plenty of times and days when I give myself permission to go off-list and not do anything on it. When I first started this practice I felt immensely guilty, because I wasn't being busy nor productive. But now I see it as time to simply be, to simply exist, and let other parts of me take the helm for a while. This has given me a little more balance, a little more flexibility, and has improved my relationship with lists.