Friday, May 11, 2012

The Tyranny of the List: How to Break Free of Your ‘To Do’ List

Lists are great things. They help give us focus and remind us of things we need to do. They’re essential in most work situations. They’re useful for remembering to buy a present or ring someone, keeping appointments, getting what you need at the supermarket, and completing an urgent admin task to avoid getting fined or penalised. And they’re absolutely indispensible in goal setting. They can also be important for people suffering depression or struggling to fill unstructured time.


Every now and then they need to be ditched. I’ve discovered that letting myself off the list-leash on a regular basis can be a good thing, even if it’s just temporary. If you’re fond of lists, or you want to become more spontaneous, it could be a worthwhile exercise to have a list holiday, no matter how short. (If you’re a bit chaotic and just starting to use lists to get more focused, it’s probably not a good idea – yet.)

Not that it’s easy. Truth to tell I’m addicted to lists, especially the daily ‘to do’ list. Writing the list and then ticking the items off once I’ve completed them gives me a sense of comfort, security and achievement. Perhaps you’re the same. Sometimes not doing something that we strongly believe we need to do right away, even if intuition is telling us to leave it for now, can be excruciating.

And that’s part of the problem.

Over the last two decades or so I’ve worked very hard to develop and trust my intuition. One of the reasons for this is my tendency to behave in quite compulsive, driven ways. Many of my actions over the years resulted in putting much energy into particular aims, goals or activities that weren’t right for me.  All too often the form – getting something done and ticking it off – was more important than the worth (and sometimes timing) of the behaviour. I would complete a task or work towards a goal in a bloody-minded way, while completely failing to listen to the faint intimations within that were gently telling me what I really needed to be doing at that particular time.

I’m now much more intuitive, but this ability has been hard won (wish I’d learned it when I was a young un!).

In the past six months or so I’ve noticed that, especially where the weekend is concerned, I  write my ‘to do’ list and then often partially, and sometimes completely, ignore it. That’s because my intuition is telling me to do something completely different. I might end up sprawled on the carpet watching DVDs on a Saturday afternoon instead of mopping the floor, or staying home and writing instead of meeting up with a friend (or the opposite).

The results have been fascinating. When I ignore the list, I follow my energy, and yet things still get done, although not always in the timeframe Id envisaged. When the right time to mop the floor comes, the energy is magically there to do it. Or suddenly I might get the urge to do some yoga in the lounge room instead of having to force myself. And after my slothful afternoon watching DVDs, hey presto! I’m recharged and ready to face the world again.

 What if you procrastinate?

There’s  a really important caveat here. Following your energy isn’t the same as procrastinating. I may still not want to mop the floor (in fact I never do; it’s the domestic task I hate the most, with cleaning the bath coming a close second). But the energy is there once I start, and the task is done in an optimum way.  If you’re trying to overcome procrastination it may be a challenge to ditch a  ‘to do’ list, but it could still be a worthwhile experiment.

On the other hand, list-ditching can sometimes help with procrastination. Imagine youve been planning to get a Twitter account. Youve been putting it off because you assume its going to be difficult and complicated, and the more you think about it the more trouble it seems. Then one day when youre being spontaneous your energy leads you to Twitter and before you know it, youve signed up. Spontaneity can help ditch the overthinking that can lead us to put things off.

None of us has unlimited energy or time. We’re all trying to juggle various roles, interests and activities. When I trust my energy and  throw the list away, even for a short while, I find I get a surprising amount done with less effort.

I don’t want to make out that I’m some sort of spontaneity saint. Quite the opposite. In fact at the moment I’m itching to update my long-range goal list; I’ve let this go for a while and I’m really feeling the need to have that structure again.

But even when I give myself the safety and structure of a list, whether its a daily or long-range one  – and as I’ve said, I need daily lists during the week – there’s flexibility in it. If something doesn’t feel right to do at a particular time, I won’t do it. Sometimes it may feel right to do at a later time, and sometimes not at all. I still keep my A4-sized  diary open on my desk, reminding me of any appointments or particularly urgent tasks.

Ditching the list can be especially valuable for creativity. We all know that the muse doesn’t turn up at scheduled times (although self-discipline encourages it to do so – that’s a separate topic). Being willing to drop everything and write a book chapter, complete a sketch or strum the guitar for half an hour means you make the most of your creative energy.

An exercise for the list-addicted

If you’d like to be more spontaneous, you could experiment with ditching your ‘to do’ list, but you don’t have to go all the way.

One option is to write your daily list and then simply give yourself permission to ignore it if necessary. Try doing one or two things on the list, and see how that feels. (Better still, write your list slowly and intuitively - you may be surprised at some of the items you end up with!)

Another option is to give up the list for, say, a few hours. Write it, but give yourself a few hours off, or don’t write it at all until halfway through the day.

The more daring option is to have an entire list-free day – scary but fun! Enjoy the ride!

I’d love to hear about where you are with  ‘to do’ lists – whether you’d like to become more disciplined with using them, or are trying to be a bit more spontaneous.

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