Five Ways To Get On Top Of Your To-Do List
Practical strategies for managing those stacks of things that never get done.
I got a status update from a friend on Facebook earlier this week that read something like this: “The ironing pile just never goes away! I’ve tried not ironing…but I hate wrinkly clothes. And the pile just keeps growing!”
I know. I know. Your first thought is “Don’t iron!” but it’s clearly important to her. (She confessed later on that she even irons her kids’ undershirts…Wow!) And let’s face it. Taking four people’s clothes to a dry cleaner is both absurdly expensive…and just plain absurd. So instead, my friend irons — and irons — but the pile just keeps growing.
We all have our ironing piles. For some, it’s our email inbox. (Guilty!) For others, it’s the endless pile of bills to pay. I have a stack of jewelry that needs repairs…Calgon, take me away!
You never completely eradicate your to-do list. But here are some tips to help reduce your “laundry”:
1. Take control of one thing. As my erstwhile life coach loved to remind me: “Stress occurs when you feel out of control.” There are lots of things in life that we don’t control: an ill relative…how many friends your kid has in school. But there are some things we do control and our stress is greatly reduced when we seize one of those and manage it. I recently realized that I was really stressed out because I hadn’t yet organized the travel for an upcoming trip with my mother . So one night — even though I was exhausted, I sat down for 30 minutes, went onto Trip Advisor — and sorted the whole thing out. I immediately felt calmer.
2. Divide your to-do list in half. I read about this tactic while sitting in a doctor’s office one day. (Yes, on occasion, those brochures are useful!) The idea is to separate your to-do list into long-term and short-term items. Each day, you tick off one item from the short-term list (see #1). Each week, you take a concrete step towards something on the long-term list. So even if your long-term list contains such seemingly amorphous tasks as “figure out your relationship to religion” (mine does!), you can still phone one synagogue and arrange to attend a bagel brunch. Done.
3. Take something off your plate. I once attended a productivity seminar that was run by a ridiculously enthusiastic management consultant. What I remember most from that experience — other than the skip in his stride — was his mantra to “Get it off your plate.” He maintained that the trick to a productive life lay in figuring out where to “send” something once it landed in your inbox. In my case, I like to think of this as finding a home for the things on your to-do list. It could be a physical home — a space for those single earrings/errant socks/stray Baseball cards. Or it could be a virtual home. (My husband has a file called “history” where he stores all emails relating to landmark personal/family/professional events.) Whatever the strategy, when there is less clutter in and around your to-do list, you’ll feel more relaxed.
4. Eliminate the shoulds. I’ve written before that many of the things populating our to-do lists are things we really don’t want to be doing, but feel we ought to be doing. And then we feel miserable that they don’t get done. So the trick here, my friends — (much easier to preach than to practice, I’ll grant you!) — is to be honest with yourself about which items aren’t getting done because they are a “should.” Every year in mid-December, my sister complains to me that she hasn’t yet sent out her — wait for it — holiday…cookies. What?? You send people cookies? I mean, what a lovely idea. And what a huge, annoying pain in the rear. “Do you like making cookies?” I asked her this past December. She paused. “No. Not really,” she confessed. “But I like the idea of doing it.” Exhibit A.
5. Think in terms of weeks not days. This was one of the most helpful things my life coach ever suggested. She said that rather than trying to figure out which five things you can/will accomplish on any given day (and then despair when one or two fail to materialize), figure out what it is you’d like to have done by the end of the week. Then, if you miss the yoga class on Thursday morning because you have to attend a meeting, you can still reschedule it for Saturday and check that box. Try it!
Originally published at realdelia.com.