How to Do To-Do Lists Better

For a few months, I have been “pushing through” my to-do list. But that posture is failing me, lately. And what I find is something interesting underneath: Self-acceptance.

I used to make these long to-do lists. When my best friend moved in with me at one point, she had this raggedy notebook she carried around with her from room to room. When I asked her what it was, she answered, My to-do list. 

Her to-do list was not a page in a spiral notebook, mind you. It was the whole notebook.

It stressed me out just looking at it.

She let me flip through it and I saw things like: change the oil, laundry. Stamps. Write to A. Go through clothes for Goodwill. Library books.

These tasks seemed reasonable, but all together, for pages and pages and pages? It was too much. It stressed me out just knowing the notebook existed.

But it got me thinking about my own to-do list. How often it looked like:

1) Write a novel. 2) Become famous. 3) Get fit.

Huge, vague goals. Along with of course, the usual – laundry. Groceries. Learn to cook.

Slowly, it broke, that system. It was just too stressful living with that running commentary under my head. Under this list, of course is the idea that I am not ok as I am. And a false hope: That I’ll be better! Fine! If I just do a few hundred items on this to-do list.

One day, a friend of mine mentioned in passing that she only has a goal of completing one task per day. I was amazed. How did she get anything done at that rate? How did she carry on with such low standards, such sad, pathetic goals for herself?

And then, under the pressures of overwork and extreme marital distress, my husband and I started doing a Sunday night meeting where we’d write on a white board all the things we planned to do that week, and there it was, in black marker, all the insanely high hopes we had for our week.

We’d work full time, and we’d go to recovery meetings, and we’d work out, and do special cleaning projects, and go on dates! And we’d have meaningful, fulfilling family time on the weekends, and we’d move ahead on huge goals, like applying for a mortgage, or sending Christmas cards, or cleaning the basement.

So, we’d write this stuff on the white board, and then we’d feel sick and overwhelmed for a minute, and then we’d just start erasing stuff. And it was so joyful. It brought us such freedom to slash our expectations for the week. To see the overwhelm we had in mind and to simply say NO, NO, THANK YOU. NONONONONO. NOPE.

But all too often I fall back into this idea that happiness, joy and satisfaction are JUST AROUND THE CORNER if I just DO THIS ONE THING. If I just push through, I’ll feel better.

And this attitude is fine, if it’s a short term thing. If it’s one goal. One specific deadline.

But it hardly ever is.

Instead, it’s all too easy for “pushing through” to become your basic way of living – the way you get your kid dressed in the morning, and the way you eat your cereal, and the way you take a shower, and listen to your voice mails and fill your car up with gas. The way you stand up and the way you meet a friend for coffee and the way you brush your teeth. The way you move through the process of breathing and being a member of your family, then, NO NO NO, you have to say. That is too much.

It’s so easy to fall into this belief. We think, if I can just lose this weight, finish this presentation, get this degree. If I can just get this job, if I can get through this birthday party, if I can just get the closet cleaned out, if I can just  –

But we can let go of this idea that we will arrive someplace else and be perfect. That we will be done and have no more problems, no issues, no more items on the to-do list. There is, it turns out, no magic pill to solve the problem of being human.

Instead, it turns out, these problems, these are the reward.

Pema Chodron reminds us to “Relax as it is.” It’s fine. By it, I mean, this life, this problem, this situation. It’s fine, just as it is and we can relax with it.

These problems, this messy closet, this job deadline, this car repair, these are part of the exact thing we worked to get. So we can relax.

We don’t have to “get anywhere” else to be ok. We can be ok, just as we are, right now, problems and all.

We can clean the closet, or do the dishes, or not. We can do that work project, or we can wait on it. We can push through, occasionally, but more often, we find, it’s ok to just relax. We can do something or not do something and we can relax, as it is, either way.

We can move through, yes, still with the laundry and the work deadlines, and the school lunches to pack, but really there is nothing to “get through.” We just do these things as part of the whole. This is it. There is no other destination.

This very moment, the Buddhists remind us, is our home.

And we can be at home, in our home. We are perfect as we are, which is to say: We are good enough, right now. This moment, and ourselves in it, are good enough.

Unfinished, but good enough.

No striving necessary, it turns out.

The Takeaway

So, write out your to-do list and see if you can pick just one thing to do today. Just one item that must get done. And do it in the spirit of good-enough. Do it knowing you can do it or not do it. It is your choice what you do.

And when you look at the list, see if you can relax. Relax and not push through. As they say: Don’t just do something. Sit there.