Why Your To-Do List Doesn't Work And Why You Still Feel Overwhelmed


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On the podcast this week I answer a question about to-do lists and why they don’t always work.

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Episode 171

Hello and welcome to episode 171 of the Working With Podcast. A podcast to answer all your questions about productivity, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

You would think that the simple act of writing down everything you have to do onto a coherent list would be simple and easy to do. It makes sense, get everything out of your head and onto a piece of paper or into a digital task list so you don’t forget what needs doing.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that. Problems start because of the kind of things we put on our todo lists and the kind of things we omit from the list. We then end up focusing all our time and attention on the wrong things leaving the more important things left off and neglected.

This week, it’s all about making sure you have the right things on your list every day.

Don’t forget, if you do have a question you would like answering on this podcast, all you have to do is email me: carl@carlpullein.com and I will be happy to answer the question for you.

Okay, it’s time for me now to hand you over to the Mystery Podcast Voice for this week’s question.

This week’s question comes from Jen. Jen asks: Hi Carl, I’ve been making to-do lists for years but have never felt they help. When the list gets too long I just ignore it because it is so overwhelming, and when I do use the list all I end up doing is doing more work. It leaves me with no time to rest or relax or do anything else but work. Is there a correct way to write a to-do list that I am missing?

Hi Jen, thank you for your question.

You are right is asking this question Jen, because there is a misconception about to-do lists that many people have and that is if you write everything down that needs doing you are help-way to becoming organised. You are not.

You see, when we think of to-do lists, most people think they are the realm of your work only and any personal tasks are just an afterthought. So you will often find twenty or thirty tasks are all related to your work—write this report, prepare that presentation or call this client—and then two or three tasks related to your home life—do laundry, clean up the living room or take the trash out tonight.

Now it may well be true these tasks need doing, but they are superficial. None of these improve your life in anyway. They don’t improve you as a person, they don’t move your goals and aspirations forward and while you might get credit for doing a good presentation, that’s all you get—credit. You rarely learn anything that improves your life.

I’ve had an interest in reading and learning about successful people since I was around eleven years old. I’ve been fascinated by what makes one person massively successful and another a failure. I don’t mean that in a judgmental way, I mean that in the way a highly talented, initially successful person, loses it all and never comes back. I can spend hours reading articles and books and watching documentaries about people.

The thing about highly accomplished people is they don’t use to-do lists. Well, not in the way most people use them. And this is the same for seemingly very productive people too. They just don’t use a to-do list in the same way most people do.

So what is this secret?

Well it starts with knowing what is important to you. You see, if you want to become more accomplished in the things that you want to be more accomplished, then the majority of what goes on your to-do list must be the things that will move you forward on those things.

If these are not on your to-do list you will never accomplish them. Period. Sure, you will accomplish getting your laundry done and your living room cleaned up and if that is your life’s goal then well done, you’ve found the secret to creating a meaningful to-do list.

But let’s be honest here, I’m sure getting your laundry done and your living room cleaned is not your life’s mission.

So what is it you want to accomplish? That’s not an easy question to answer because there is so much choice in the world today.

If we go back two-hundred years when most of us lived an agrarian life, there was always a purpose. Prepare the land for the seed, sow the seed, tend to the crops during the summer and harvest in the autumn. The goal was to maximise the yield of our crops. If we didn’t there would not be enough food for our family to eat during the winter months. Our life’s purpose was to ensure there was enough food for our families.

We did not waste time repairing walls, painting our house or other cosmetic tasks in the spring, summer or autumn—if these things needed doing we did them in the winter months. During the growing and harvesting seasons, our focus was on making sure we maximised the yield of our crops. It was a life or death decision.

Today, when you look at most people’s to-do list, very few of those tasks involve maximising the yield of anything. Most tasks are cosmetic and move very little forward.

This problem is because with so much choice about what we can do, we end up dabbling at many things and mastering nothing, but if you want to be accomplished, if you want success at anything you have to stop dabbling and start focusing on mastering.

And what does that mean?

Well, you need to know exactly what it is you want to accomplish. If you don’t know what you want, how will you ever know you are on the right path towards achieving it.

How many of you are mothers and fathers? I am sure you want to be a great parent—being a parent is certainly not something you want to be dabbling at. But let me ask you this: how many of you have tasks related to being a great parent on your to-do list?

Surely, if being a great parent is important, you want to be spending time each day on nurturing that, not panicking about whether you completed last month’s sales figures for your boss. If you are panicking about these types of tasks, then your to-do list is not working for you. It’s working for your boss (or company)

So what can you do to make your to-do list more effective and more in tune with your needs and not the needs of others?

Well, start with that question: What do you want? Now there are eight basic areas in everyones’s life that needs attention. These are:

  • Family and relationships
  • Personal finances
  • Career and business
  • Health and fitness
  • Personal development
  • Life experiences and lifestyle
  • Spirituality
  • Life’s purpose

Almost everything you want out of life will come from these eight areas. We all want great relationships with our family and friends, we want a successful career or business. We want to be fit and healthy, have continuous personal development, a solid financial base, enjoy life and live in the moment and not the past.

When you have these in balance you will feel happier, more fulfilled and relaxed about your life.

If you put all your time and effort into your work, you will feel the imbalance and it will be like you are just a cog a the wheel. You won’t feel happy, fulfilled or even enjoy life.

And that is why most to-do lists do not work. They are too focused on your work and not on your life. You need to switch it round. Your to-do list needs to be focused on your life, not just your work.

How do you do that?

Let say you want to become an author. It’s been a dream of yours since you were in middle school but you have never done anything about it. Where do you start?

You start by writing a book. That’s the only way you will become an author. What do you need to do to write a book. You need to write. So, you need to make sure you have a task on your to-do list called “write book” or “continue writing book” and that task needs to come up on your to-do list three to four times a week. You also need to find time for writing on your calendar each week. Set aside a block of time however frequently you want it to be and make sure that is what you do at the appointed hour.

Or it could be you want a great family relationship, then you need to make sure you have tasks on your to-do list that support that endeavour. Tasks like “arrange date night with my partner”, “decide where to take the kids this weekend”. The tasks won’t happen by themselves. You need to initiate them and they need to be priorities.

The next thing you need to do is to understand the concept of “when at work do your work. When at play do your play and never mix the two”.

What this means is you have time each week for when you are at work. Traditionally this would be Monday to Friday 9 til’ 5. So between these hours, that is exactly what you do. You do your work. You don’t socialise, do online shopping or doom scroll through your news or social media feeds. You do your work.

Then you have ‘play time’ or time when you are not working. During these periods you work on your other tasks—developing your relationships, working on your health and fitness and hobbies. You work on the things that are important to you.

Now most modern digital to-do lists will allow you to tag or flag your tasks. So all you need do is flag or tag tasks related to your work and when at work those are the only tasks you see. You work on these. When you finish work, you close your work tasks and you pull up the list of non-work tasks and you work on those.

When you build this balance into your to-do list, you know you are working on your life and not just your work. Work is just one part of a life. It’s important, but it is not all important to the exclusion of living your life. You life needs to be nourished, developed and lived

Most people feel unfulfilled, stressed out and overwhelmed because their to-do list promotes this imbalance. It might help your work, but it destroys your life and no work is that important.

It also goes to heart of why your to-do lists don’t feel like they are working Jen, they don’t work because they are imbalanced and no motivating you.

The only way to change that is to understand that work is just one part of your life. You need to bring in all parts of your life and make sure you are working on these consistently.

Finally, back to something I eluded to earlier. Mastery. To become a master at anything means you work on developing your skills consistently. Let’s take the example of becoming an author. The only way you will master writing is to write. Make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and write some more. You need to be doing this consistently. I mentioned Ian Fleming before—Ian Fleming created James Bond and he had a process for writing his books.

Between March and December he would research and practice writing—he would collect product names, research them, write about them in a little notebook, experimenting with different prose styles and word combinations. Then between January and March each year he would go to his bungalow in Jamaica, and each morning write between 9 AM and 12.

This consistency produced a book a year for twelve years between 1952 and 1964, when he passed away. None of these books wrote themselves. Ian Fleming had to have the tasks—continue researching book and continue writing book on his task list.

What was the driving force behind this activity? Ian Fleming knew what he wanted. His goal was simply to write "the spy story to end all spy stories" and that is what he did every year for twelve years. He executed on his goal and the tasks related to that goal were on his task list.

There you go, Jen. Hopefully that has helped. Don’t use your to-do list for your work tasks exclusively. That will only create an imbalance in your life and leave you feeling stressed out and unhappy. Instead make sure the things you want do and accomplish are prioritised on your list every day.

Thank you for the question and thank you, again to you for listening. It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.

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