July 5, 2012

Making Room for Yourself on the List

It's time I confessed. I have never, ever checked off all of the items on a to-do list. I am a midlife woman and I've been making these lists since I was a child (should I consider that last part pathetic?), yet I've never had the satisfaction of placing a crisp checkmark next to that final to-do. 

My husband, a wonderful man who hyperventilates just thinking of making a list, says that I'm too ambitious a list-maker. "It's not ambition, it's optimism!" I respond. Each evening when I make my to-do list for the next day I'm convinced that I can complete every single task in the next 24 hours. 

After all, if I didn't think I could get everything done, I'd be setting myself up for failure, no?

And why would I do that?

Set myself up for failure, that is.

I had a conversation with a friend about this a few years back. She said that she'd asked herself similar questions and had come up with a possible answer:

"If I make a list so full that it's impossible to complete," she said. "I must be incredibly busy, right?  And being incredibly busy is the reason I don't do have time to do the things I keep saying are important to me."  My puzzled look encouraged her to elaborate.

She explained that she crammed all manner of things on her to-do lists, from minor tasks that she could complete in under five minutes ("email my accountant to confirm our meeting this Tuesday") to major undertakings that would take much longer ("update my financial records for the quarter"). She also included activities that she loved and wanted to do more of, such as playing the piano and taking lessons to improve her skills.

"Because my list is long, I always have unfinished tasks that roll over to the next day," she went on. "It's a given that I'll prioritize the things that I consider most pressing, the ones that have deadlines or that involve commitments to others. So It seems I never get around to spending time at the piano or scheduling lessons."

She paused.

"I suspect there's something else, too. If I'm too busy to play or study, then I don't have to face my fears that I'm really not very good or that I won't get any better."

Does any of this sound familiar to you? It did to me. I'd occasionally had thoughts along those lines. Why was time for the things I was passionate about, like writing, for example, always so hard to come by?

That afternoon, as my friend generously shared that she might be sabotaging herself because she was afraid of not living up to her own expectations, I promised myself that I'd take a closer look at how I was choosing to spend my time each day.

What did I do? Well, one thing didn't change.

I still make to-do lists that have way too many items on them. I still don't know why. I've stopped worrying about this.

But I did modify how I handle my lists:

1. As I prioritize the "must-dos" on my list, I make sure I've included one thing that's there purely to bring me pleasure. Some days it's a small thing, like making sure I schedule an extra half-hour for reading a book I'm really enjoying. Other days, it's getting time in for catching up with a friend over coffee, or for starting an essay for my writing class.

Planning ahead and scheduling these on my calendar makes it easier to keep the commitments.

2. I pay attention to that which, like my friend, I have strong positive feelings for but have conflicting feelings about. For instance, I try to figure out why I'm hesitant to begin or to return to a specific writing project.

Whether or not I uncover the reason, I start anyway.  I let myself off the hook by committing to work for only 15 minutes. Usually I get so engaged in what I'm doing that I keep going after the 15 minutes are up.

The fact is, it's not about how long or short our task lists are. It doesn't matter whether we keep them on sticky notes, on our computers, or in our heads. What's crucial is that we hold a choice spot for ourselves in them. 

Each day merits a gift that we give to ourselves. If not now, when? 

Where and how do you put yourself on your list?

Image by Liz Henry, on Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.


  1. Very nicely written. I also make lists, mostly so I won't forget the "important" things. I have learned recently to start spending some time on lower-priority items, or rather to reprioritize with the knowledge that I am not a machine. Hard to remember sometimes. I like the way you said it better!

    1. Jefro, I'm the queen of needing to be "productive," so I'm with you about how hard it is to remember that we're humans and not machines. Why is it so hard to be kind to ourselves and remember that life is supposed to be joyful? I'm still working on that one...