In Defense of the Lowly “To Do List” (TDL)

Good Thinking Series: Are you Writing it Down?

A version of this article is now also available on Huffington Post.

Too much to do is the sounding battle cry of today’s work warriors. How do you stay on top of it all in times of ‘crazy busy’? Do you write To Do Lists (TDL)? Does this help you keep track of your priorities and tasks? Deal better with the stress and overload that is so prevalent in today’s work-around-the-clock paradigm? What are your best practices?

to do list

Overwhelm is a complex and multifaceted affair. We need many strategies and approaches to deal with the volume, pressure, complexity of today’s work and lives. Including super basic ones like the To Do List (TDL).

To Do or Not to Do?

One of the decisions I find myself revisiting time and time again when I talk or write about overwhelm is whether or not to include the notion of ‘writing things down’ — as in the To Do List (TDL) of various sorts. It seems so banal and obvious. I sometimes refer to it as the low-hanging fruit of strategies in the war against overwhelm. And especially so in the face of other shinier and seemingly more sophisticated paths to ease like meditation, mindfulness and more.

At least that’s what my inner critics try to say. But before we dismiss the TDL…..

I say: It’s not about one OR the other. It’s about one AND the other.

There are so many triggers to overwhelm — a one-trick wonder will never be the answer. We need to look at the array of strategies. And yes, that includes things like ‘writing it down’.

The more I coach clients who are drowning in too much to do (most people who work in today’s work-around-the-clock landscape!), the more I am convinced of the strong correlation between how overwhelmed one is with how well they do or don’t keep track of their priorities and tasks. Note this isn’t just about dumping down all the loads by writing out a TDL. It imperative to also learn how to prioritize. Still, writing it out and having a visible structure for one’s priorities and tasks can make a big difference.

I say yes, to including exercise, yoga, meditation and other well-being practices into your life. But if you are doing these things but not including other strategies to handle the loads and minimize the chaos of too much to do – well, then say ‘hello overwhelm’ and ‘bye bye thinking capacity’.

3 Arguments in Defense of the LDL

1) Too Much “On Your Mind”? TDL can take you from Mind FULL to Mindful

We’ve all heard the expression “I have a lot on my mind”? These days I think we all do. Literally.

Your brain is not built to store short-term tasks, to-do’s, and the fur ball of thoughts, concerns, worries, and other thinking bits that we are inclined to try to jam into our brains. Yet we act as if it is a storage bin for all that ‘stuff’!

We literally are trying to jam our brains with so much information including our myriad of tasks and ‘to do’s that this leads to a first class ticket to a ‘Mind FULL experience.

From a neuroscience lens that is the exact opposite of what the brain needs to function optimally. Our pre-frontal cortex (PFC) — responsible for critical thinking, decision making, prioritizing and more — works best when it feels a sense of order and control. Chaos and disorder impede its ability to function. The PFC loves to focus and think. Instead of respecting this proven neuroscience, we do the exact opposite. We multitask, jam our brains and in the end — create fur ball thinking. You know that fuzzy feeling, unfocused….distracted….we all know that feeling.

Writing things down relieves the burden on your brain of trying to hold onto it all. It also pre-empts the stress response. And it’s an easy way to keep your attention on the present without losing sight of the other things you will need to attend to. TDLs allow you to be free in the moment but without the danger of losing sight of what lies ahead.

In essence the TDL can even contribute to a more present, mindful you.

Hmmph. When you put it like that it doesn’t sound so banal after all.

In sum, the principle here is: Get it out of your head but keep it top of mind.

2) It’s Easy to Do. Why does effective have to be hard? If the TDL is the low hanging fruit of strategies in the toolbox than I say bring it one. Get me more low hanging fruit please.

Since when did low hanging fruit become bad? When you go apple picking do you ignore the gorgeous apples that are within your reach and instead insist on climbing the ladder and only plucking the ones way up top?

TDLs are like that. They are easy habits you can practise and start to see immediate results.

I’ve seen this happen. Over and over again. With myself and with my clients — like Jose (pseudo name). Jose is a super busy, high performing, lawyer working in international affairs. He came to me one day feeling completely frazzled. In our coaching session we discovered he’d ‘fallen off his habit of writing out and prioritizing his tasks and goals. He was feeling burdened by so much going on; tired; and overly stressed. As a result his thinking was fuzzy and his mood was somewhat compromised too.

Simply by checking in on his habits and how he keeps (or doesn’t) track of all his priorities we hit the nail on the head. The heavy – but gratuitous — chaos from that jammed up load in his brain was relieved substantially as soon as got back on track with writing (in his case, typing) out his tasks. That small, simple habit made an enormous difference. His clear, critical thinking skills were back; his mood was better and he felt less stressed and more in control.

It can be that easy.

3) From TO DO to TA DA: Celebrate the stuff you are getting done and open up your mind with a hit of positivity.

In the never-ending life of tasks ahead of us, we often forget to acknowledge and account for all that we do get done. The mirror image of the TDL is the Ta Da List. Taking a few moments to notice, acknowledge and appreciate what you have done on any given day can be very fueling. This moment of positivity can literally open our minds, hearts and broaden our thinking capacity. It feels so good too!

Over to you?

What are your best practices for getting things ‘out of your head’ – but keeping them ‘top of mind’? To TDLs work for you? Would love to hear from you.

On a final note…

Remember: the tools are many….it’s not one or the other. It’s one and another…..

…..Organizing strategies like TDLs are only part of the toolbox. There’s so much more — including:  journaling; meditation; challenging limiting perspectives; rest and recovery….and many, many more. Back soon with more….or if you like, dip into Ease and you can get on them right away.

P.S if you like this kind of stuff, stay tuned for more tele-talks coming later this fall.

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