To-Do to Done: Hacking your to-do list with positivity

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  1. Wake up (on time)
  2. Shower & get ready
  3. Breakfast
  4. Teach 7:00–4:00
  5. Work on writing projects
  6. Laundry
  7. Do the dishes
  8. Go to bed (on time)

This was my to-do list from a couple days ago, and I’d be willing to bet that many of you have ones that look similar. Aside from the small satisfaction of crossing things off, they don’t exactly spark the drive and motivation we need to conquer the day like champions. And let’s be real — sometimes we’re so desperate for instant gratification that we add things we’ve already done just so it looks like we’ve crossed things off the list.

To-do lists are a handy tool. They help us track and organize our days, stay on top of appointments and deadlines, and make us feel more productive than we actually are. There are countless apps and journaling methods that claim to keep you motivated through cute graphics, stellar organization, and reward systems, but I’ve never been able to stick with any of them for more than a couple of days. Why? Because there is no why. I can’t seem to motivate myself to do things just for the sake of doing things, I need to have a reason for doing them. That’s where my “Let’s do this!” list comes in.

I made my first “Let’s do this!” list (furthermore referred to as LDT) as a desperate attempt to convince myself to go through with my first day of substitute teaching. I had accepted the job as a short term, interim kind of thing to tide me over before moving, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. I had no teaching experience outside of small tutoring groups, I was heading into an inner-city district I didn’t live in, and it had been years since I last worked with kids. In short, I was terrified.

When writing my to-do list the night before, I had a crazy idea. I knew I had to convince myself to go through with it somehow, and the normal bullet points weren’t going to do it. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Set yourself up for success — get up on time and do yoga to start your day feeling refreshed rather than rushed.
  2. Be a teacher to wonderful children who need some love and stability — just by showing up and trying something new, you will have succeeded.
  3. Put yourself and your health first and head to the gym to work off the day’s stress.

A little cheesy? Yeah, for sure. But guess what: it worked. So I did it again. And again. Soon, the LDT became my go-to format for planning ahead. Repeating positive mantras to myself in the mirror feels fake and uncomfortable, but taking time to think about the genuine reasons behind what I do provides that same sort of encouragement without the “awkward” factor. I don’t make an LDT every night, but it is helpful when there’s an especially stressful day ahead and I need some reassurance.

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

Ready to ditch your boring to-do’s in favor of a “Let’s Do This”? Here’s a few tips and trick to get you started.

  1. Keep it short: Did you notice the difference in the lengths of my first to-do list and the LDT? Long to-do lists can be un-motivating because they’re just plain overwhelming. We often stuff them so full that there’s no way everything can be finished in a 24 hour period. Keeping your LDT short — between 3 and 5 major items — helps you determine your actual priorities for the day. If those get done early, great! Move on to the less-essential items. You’re much more likely to follow through with your list if it appears manageable, especially if one or more of the tasks are daunting.
  2. Be honest, but positive: Put some thought into why you’re doing what you’re doing and why those 3–5 items are your priorities. Is paying your bills fun? No, not at all, but you’re doing it for a reason. Saying “I’m paying my bills so they don’t shut off my water” may be motivating, but it will motivate you out of fear, not out of hope. Try this instead: “I’m paying my bills today because I’m taking the initiative to stay on top of my budget and maintain my standard of living.” See the difference? The latter statement gives you the power and helps you feel more accomplished when the task is completed. Think about which phrasing would sound more impressive if you were telling your mom about it: “I paid the bills today,” vs. “I took initiative and stayed on top of my budget! Look at me being a real, genuine adult™.” That’s the kind of self-talk to use.
  3. No item is too small: Sometimes even small daily tasks can seem daunting. If you struggle to get out of bed most days like I do, put it on the list. You’re doing your part to start off your day the most relaxing way possible. Do you find it difficult to eat meals? Put it on the list. Eating regular meals is great self-care, and you’re providing your body with the fuel it needs to keep doing awesome things. Can’t bring yourself to clean your home? Put it on the list. You’re taking care of your possessions and giving yourself a calmer, more inviting environment to live in. Look at you, taking those small steps to better yourself. You’re a rockstar!
  4. Keep at it: Writing an LDT can feel really, really weird at first. That’s okay! The more of them you make, the more natural and second-nature it will become. It’s also quite possible that you’ll find your self-talk becoming more positive as you train yourself to think about why you’re doing the things you do. Take a chance on intrinsic motivation!

Are there any daunting events coming up that you could use some extra encouragement on? Try practicing an LDT by writing one out in the comments. Stuck on how to flip a scary task to a positive achievement? Let me know below, and I’ll do my best to help you rephrase it. Best of luck — you’ve got this!