One thing that has made me incredibly happy and active was the transformation in my to-do lists. I read an interesting article on these in a psychology magazine, and the main idea I’d like to discuss is based on Peter Bregman‘s book ‘18 minutes: Find your focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done‘. Design the proper to-do list, plan, check and evaluate. That’s it!
To-do lists seem necessary to relieve stress. Otherwise all these chores you have to do and people you need to think of keep meandering through your head, popping up at unwanted times (mainly when you’re trying to catch some sleep, or when you’re trying not to lose your concentration in a big meeting).
Once you’ve written down what would otherwise be following you around all day, there’s no risk of you forgetting about them. You can focus on your boss’s speech again or safely close your eyes -at night!- and drift off to the wonderland you’ll create.
The problem with these lists however is that they themselves are big causes of stress. It may sound contradictory, but it does make sense: there’s no risk of you forgetting about the things you really need to do, but, even worse, the list will keep haunting you until it’s been completely cleared. And everyone knows that one will hardly ever manage to do all the chores that were so ambitiously listed. Think of the line that says: ‘clear cluttered study’ or, even better, ‘sort out pictures’. Very satisfying but major tasks you that never seem to come around to doing.
Is writing it down all of a sudden more convincing than just thinking of the tens of thousands of pictures on your laptop? It isn’t, because the task is huge and you’ve just created a little box on the list that will never be ticked, even if you start sorting out those holiday snaps right away. It will take ages!
So, does the list make you feel good? Is it satisfying in any kind of way? No, it makes you feel like you can never finish anything. Because you constantly feel anxious because you haven’t done everything you’d jutted down, you lose sight of the things that actually matter. You fill your morning or even your day with the sacred list, in order to get rid of the stress the supposedly stress-reducing list has caused.
The first thing you have to do is to put the goals you can easily and quickly achieve in your diary, but make sure they won’t take up too much of your time (prioritising!). It’s feasible to ‘talk to colleague about symposium’, ‘take out trash’ or ‘buy cat food’. Leave all the bigger tasks for the new list, but only if they matter to you. Otherwise just chuck ’em.
So it’s a list, again? Yes, but not just a list! It’s one that will give you gratification, now, everyday and in the long term.
It’s all about listing (again, sorry) five priorities in your life, areas in which you want to make progress. 95% percent of your daily time should be spent on these five priorities. Of course, you can add a sixth item with a number of things that you’ll allow to take up the remaining 5% of your time.
These priorities could be materialistic such as renovating parts of your house, starting up a building project or looking for new means of transport. Financially, it could be earning huge amounts of money to cover for your outrageous lifestyle or to save for your lovely grandkids. Of course the latter, but buying All Stars every few months would be on top of my list as well, next to installing a new bathroom with huge skylights.
Maybe you want to improve your health? Personally, I put movement on my list, which is easily achieved when you have a big dog. Also, as opposed to my husbands’ job, my workplace is not located 50 km from home. I decided not to buy a second car to cover the 8 kilometers I have to ride, and I love the advantages: I don’t have to pay for that car, my income is upped with about 1,5% because I cycle and I don’t lose time commuting: running or swimming during my spare time is no longer required. Triple Win! In fact, quadrupel: I can consequently tick off the physical goal on my long term list.
Now that we’re talking work: what do you want to achieve? Are you completely satisfied with what you do, the way you do it, how you communicate with colleagues, how much time you spend working? Do you get your own work done or are you doing someone else’s job against your will? There are many questions you can ask yourself.
To me, the most important section is that of family and friends. Your long term goal could be to strengthen these ties or to create as many wonderful memories for yourself or your kids as possible. As the Swedes say: you have to water the grass in your own garden! The whole saying says that om gräset är grönare på andra sidan, har du glömt att vattna ditt eget. Translating the funny sounding words: if the grass is greener on the other side, you’ve forgotten to water your own.
When it’s time to make your list, put on some relaxing music and think about the kind of progress you wish for. It’s often not about specific goals, but about processes or evolutions you want to see come about. Living in the perfect house people in commercials tend to occupy is not my goal, but every corner that gets decorated to my liking adds to my life quality. Any positive change I realise is satisfying.
Instead of racing through your list like you used to (or, like me, didn’t used to), you’re supposed to take some time to consider whether you’re still on track. It should take about 18 minutes a day:
- 5 minutes in the morning, when you plan your day according to your priorities.
- About every hour, you can take a moment to check whether you’ve not been distracted (doing your colleagues’ jobs) and refocus.
- Before turning in or settling in the couch it takes about 5 minutes to evaluate your day by comparing it to what you had planned that morning and tie up loose ends like sending a few last emails.
In my case, it became a somewhat chaotic but colourful notebook with a symbol representing each goal.
Something specific I often think of (because I tend to forget about it) is to make more time in real life for friends. I’ve tried replacing the time I spent spying on people’s lives on Facebook by actually calling them. It’s a cliche but as far as watering your own lawn goes, it’s nice to spend more time outside home (or outside the shopping mall) with your lovely husband, or hop into that backyard with your son to play ball. Those are memories that will stick, with you as well as your loved ones.
I started planning my days accordingly in a period that I spent slumped on the couch. Taking babysteps in the right direction was a delicious decision!