I failed my To Do List

Back in the 80’s I took my very first course in productivity, it was a Franklin Covey course and I had myself a brand-new Franklin Planner to go along with it.  As I took each piece of paper that I had scattered around my desk, pinned to a bulletin board or taped on the refrigerator at home and transferred them all into that planner I began to feel lighter, as I dumped all of the things I was trying to remember out of my mind and into that planner I remember thinking that this was a miracle. 

Well three decades later and many iterations of productivity classes and approaches to accountability and “To Do” lists in general I feel like I have a certain degree of expertise at these things.  I am a doer, I always have been, I can power through a to do list like a machine sometimes.  Over the years I have used many different planner systems and ways of organizing the things that I needed to do. 

Coming into this year I decided that I was going to use a bullet journal style planner of my own making. I knew I wanted it to identify the most important things that I needed to get done so at the top I have my “BAMs” (Big Ass Minimums), the three things that had to get done that day. 

Beyond that I had a list for reneejenais (my Wisdom Empowerment business), a list for Renee (just my personal stuff that I wanted to hold myself accountable to doing) and my client list.  Also on the page I listed out the hours of the day from 6AM – 10PM so I could have a visual depiction of what my day looked like to refer to, even though I use an electronic calendar as I move through my day this helped me to identify the times outside of my client day when I could get other things done.  I also added a box where I would write my intentions and mantras for the day, short statements that would provide a reset for me anytime I felt like my day was running away from me. 

For a while this system seemed to be working really well for me, I was moving through my day ticking things off my list but over time I began to put more onto my list. Surely, I could power through doing a bit more.  I wanted to meditate so I added it to the list to hold myself accountable to that commitment.  I wanted to get back to learning French so that too went on the list.  Writing my mantras even went on the list.  For a while this seemed to be okay, I was getting these things done. 

One evening around 9:30pm after a full day, I looked at my list and I had my meditation, French and a couple of emails to send, I remember thinking well I can surely get all of those things done and that would feel good even though it would take me past the 10pm time I had set for myself to go to sleep. That night shortly after 11pm, I turned out the light having completed my list I remember thinking well at least my list was done and while I was going to be short of my 8 hours of sleep goal at least it was only one night. Then what happened next you might ask, yup, it happened again and again. Before I knew it, I was getting into a pattern of staying up late to get everything done on that list. Then I noticed that if I got a break during my day, even just a few minutes, I felt like I had better consult my list and see if there was anything that I could accomplish in those few minutes.  I knew that something needed to change, it was beginning to feel like my list was controlling my life. I started to adjust a few things off my list and while this helped, I still noticed this almost compulsive need to be productive until the list was done. I was not allowing myself to relax until the list was done.  Just writing that is difficult to admit.  I felt like I was using my list to escape my life in a certain way. It was crazy! 

One day I was doing a zoom hangout with a girlfriend of mine and I was talking to her about my to do list struggle and she asked me the perfect question in the perfect moment. “What if you throw it out?” Getting rid of my to do list, just the thought of it was like asking me to cut off my arm.  She asked me what I was getting out of it and I admitted that the biggest reason I used a list was so that I wouldn’t forget things that I had committed to taking care of.  Ever since I had issues with my thyroid a few decades ago, my memory just isn’t what it once was so I rely on lists to keep from having to remember things in my head.  This part was the good part of using to do lists for me so I knew that as I was rethinking my approach that I was still going to need some kind of a list.  I had to admit that the other thing I was getting was that dopamine rush from just checking things off the list but the part where that had gone wrong is that I was inventing things that I would normally do anyway to have on the list just so I could check it off, like it was some kind of a drug or something, this part needed to go but I also have a deep seeded desire to be productive and focus on the right priorities, so some aspect of productivity tracking was still needed. 

So, a few weeks ago I quit my To Do List and I implemented two lists.  A weekly reminder list, this is a list of things that I don’t want to forget to do at some point during the coming week.  The second list that I am keeping is a “I have accomplished list”.  This is just a list of what I did do. 

The reminder list since it is for the week doesn’t become this compulsive thing that I have to get done today.  And the accomplishments list allows me to see where I am focusing my time so I can determine if that really aligns with my values and priorities.  I will tell you, letting go of my daily To Do List felt like I had woken up in a foreign land for the first week or so, I felt ungrounded at first but as my accomplishments list got things added to it, I began to recognize that I was still a productive person after all so I was able to relax into this experiment a little more. 

This is very much an experiment that is still in progress and it will change as I need it to but ensuring that I have effective tools around me and I relate to them in a healthy way seems important.  How is your relationship with accountability & productivity? I would love to hear about your experience, please leave a comment below.