How to Shift Your To-Do List from "Things I Have To Do" to "Things I Want To Do"

by , June 23, 2016

In this twist on the old adage, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Marla Cornelius urges us to reframe how we label tasks. Rather than a task being something you either do or don’t want to do, she recommends looking at every task as inherently valuable in its own way. What does this mean for your to-do list and time management? Read the blog and find out. 

Recently, I was in a meeting when someone asked me to pause for a moment so he could capture some things down in his to-do list. I couldn’t help but notice his notepad. There were two columns: Things I want to do and Things I am excited about.

Most to-do lists I see are generated from a very different kind of mindset—endless lists of things we have to do which are seldom written from a place of excitement or joy. Instead this person used the Things I want to do column to shift perception of his must-do list.  Rather than labeling mundane or less-exciting tasks negatively, he chose to frame them as tasks he wanted to do because they furthered a purpose (e.g., writing that funder report enabled his organization to close a grant and reapply for funds) or contributed to a goal (e.g., taking on a less interesting project helped him earn the money to pay the rent on a new apartment).   

That dissonance between what I want to do and what I think I should do is what David Allen calls an “ambient angst that pervades our society—the sense that there’s probably something we should be doing that we’re not, which creates a tension for which there is no resolution from which there is no rest.”  

Does this ring true for you? If you’d like to shift away from this hamster wheel of endless tasks, toward a more meaningful to-do list that takes into consideration your personal priorities and sustainability, read on.

Who and What Matters Most?

If you want to make this shift, a first step toward resolution is to get grounded in what and who matter most and then align your actions towards those priorities:

  1. What people in your life are most important to you?
  2. What brings you closer to fulfilling your purpose?
  3. What brings you happiness and joy?
  4. What contributes to your personal well-being?

Once you have spent some time reflecting on these questions, write down your priorities. Then, take a hard look at current reality and ask yourself if how you are spending your time, attention, energy, and resources reflects what matters most to you.

Capturing Reality

To capture reality, we must first interrogate our memories. People are terrible at accurately accounting for the timing of events—timing refers not only to how long an event lasts (estimation of duration), but also when an event is likely to occur. As explained in this recent study, “There are no sensory receptors specifically dedicated for perceiving time. It is an almost uniquely intangible sensation.”

Similarly, no matter how much planning we do to anticipate deadlines and stay on top of things, we consistently get it wrong. That’s called the Planning Fallacy and it’s based on what’s known as the optimism bias (underestimation of how long something will take or how much it will cost, even when we have deep prior knowledge).

Try these three simple exercises as a way to begin your exploration:

1. What Pictures Are on Your Phone?

Pick up your smart phone and scroll through your photos, looking just at the last three months:

  • Are there pictures of you spending time with your favorite people?
  • Who’s not in your pictures that you care about?
  • What places are captured; are they places that give you joy?
  • What activities did you capture? Can you see yourself and those you care about engaged in things that matter most to you?

2. What’s on Your Calendar?

Pull up your calendar and review the past three months of appointments and activities:

  • How often did you work on your days off?
  • How many days did you exercise?
  • How many appointments were for activities that you looked forward to? How many did you dread or wish to avoid? 
  • How much unscheduled time did you have?
  • How often did you spend time with family or friends?
  • Now, look at the next three months and see if you have any time booked for what you love most.

3. What’s on Your Bank Statement?

Because how we spend our financial resources is often a reflection of our priorities and values, a lot can be learned by looking at our past bank statements. Download your credit card and/or checking account statement and review the past three months of spending. After you sift through recurring household expenses (rent, insurance, utilities):

  • Where does most of your disposable income go? Is it spent on what matters most to you?
  • If you are able to save, what are you saving for?
  • Do the items that you bought (products/merchandise/clothes) reflect your values and priorities?

What does your review tell you? Are you able to strike a balance that’s right for you when it comes to how you spend your time?  Of course, there are times when we have to buckle down and just get stuff done—no matter how joyless some tasks might be—but being more aware of how we are investing our attention gives us the opportunity to be more intentional and prioritize what matters most.

Interested in further exploring time management and personal sustainability? Come to our upcoming class Manage Your Time and Energy: A Path to Personal Sustainability (August 4).  

Marla is a senior project director at CompassPoint and board chair at DataCenter: A Research Justice Organization.

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