Completing The Proverbial To Do List

Ball and ChainWe all have them. You know, that list of things to do that you’ve been tallying up in your head for weeks, months even. I’m not talking about the things on your daily to do list, like taking the dog out or washing the dishes. I’m talking about those items that are relatively low in priority on the daily to do list, but fairly high on the life improvement to do list.

I thought I’d remedy my to do list problem when I started this blog (about a year ago) by limiting myself to five major life improvement tasks per month. I was feeling overwhelmed with all of my commitments, and I needed to clear my head of obligations.  Getting down to only five major tasks relieved my stress at the time, but now, working on five life goals at a time doesn’t suit me anymore.  Five is too many to work on at a time, and since last year, my goals have grown and changed.

This is the current to-do list that is floating around in my head:

  1. Train the dog
  2. Spring cleaning sale
  3. Get back into an exercise program
  4. Study for (and take) the teacher exam
  5. Blogging for my other blog
  6. Work on my novel
  7. Finish my new website
  8. Find freelance writing gigs
  9. Post-defense thesis revisions (I haven’t defended yet and my adviser still isn’t satisfied with what I’ve got; she gave me suggestions to start incorporating into my piece)
  10. Find and apply for summer jobs

This list doesn’t include all of the stuff that I already do on a regular basis.  Every time I think of something else I need to do, it’s like I add a new ball-and-chain that I have to drag around with me.

I figured out that five was too many to tackle at one time when it got down to the wire with my Master’s thesis. In order to get that done, I had to forgo pretty much any other goals I wanted to complete. I had to be singularly focused.  (While I had no other choice if I want my MA), I got the thesis done, to my liking, within the allotted time frame.  Although I still have more work to do, it’s fairly limited and isn’t hanging over my head the way it has been for the past year.

When some people are extremely passionate about one life goal, they get into intense focus mode. They eat, live, and breathe that goal. They carry on with their usual everyday tasks, and put the rest of their energy into achieving that goal. Everything they see in front of them is just a stepping stone to that goal, whether it is relevant to the goal or not.

My friends, I am not one of those people.  I’ve always wished I could be passionate, dedicated, and singularly focused. But I am a dreamer, planner and a flake. I have many dreams, and I make all the plans in the world to accomplish those dreams. Yet on most days, I flake out on my plans. I flake out on my to do list and opt for internet, TV, relaxing, or lying around the house.  I read this interesting article called The Complete Flakes Guide to Getting Things Done. And it’s been helping me, so maybe it could help you too.

Nonetheless, I’d like to impart what I’ve learned from that article and from my experiences to you all.

Work on one thing from your list at a time. Like a said before, I had to focus exclusively on my thesis to get it done. Anyone that’s done a Master’s Thesis or a Doctoral dissertation knows that most everything in your life gets neglected when you are trying to finish up your degree. Don’t think about your other goals while you are completing that one goal. If you do, you’ll get distracted and procrastinate. Use laser like focus to zero in on that one goal and make it a daily priority. Work on it EVERY DAY, in EVERY SPARE MOMENT. Before you know it, you will have reached your goal and can move on to the next one. If you want life to be easier and less stressful, work on one thing at a time.

Treat every task on the list as if it were major goal. What if one of your goals is something you should be doing every day, but you aren’t  Sometimes our goals aren’t specific achievements marked with a certificate,   but habits we’d like to develop, like meditating, working out, writing every day, learning a language or working on our craft, etc. To prevent getting overwhelmed and stressed out, focus on this habit exclusively, as if it were any other life improvement goal. Don’t try to start working out, for example, if it isn’t already a habit, while you work on another goal. Starting an exercise routine is just as challenging as doing a thesis or looking for a new job. Challenging yourself to start a new habit is difficult– I’m sure you’ve heard: it takes 21 to 66 days to start or break a habit. It could be three months before you can work out consistently, without making excuses. Don’t short change yourself the time you need to get a new habit started. If you do, you are setting yourself up for failure.  And once you’ve reached your goal of making that task a habit (like exercising), then add another.

Make your reward for reaching your goal, unrelated to that goal. For example, I’m trying to work out more. My reward isn’t “weight loss” or “better health,” even though I’ll earn those things by exercising. My reward has nothing to do with my weight; it’s not a new pair of smaller sized clothing (that I have to lose weight to wear). My reward for working out is a new guitar.  All I have to do is exercise 80% of the days from March 1st until May 1st, and I get my guitar.

Do your best to keep up with other daily tasks. This was by far the most difficult for me while working on my thesis. It will help you from drowning in laundry and dirty dishes. Also, you won’t have those little tasks hanging over your head in addition to your main task.

Prioritize your life-improvement to-do list. Training my dog shouldn’t be as high up on the list as finding summer employment. She’s not destroying anything; my little pup is defying me and it’s just annoying. But I  will survive without training her right now. I must put my to-do list in order and work on the time sensitive items first. You would do that with any other to do list. Do the same with your life improvement tasks/goals.

And most importantly, think about one task at a time. Yes, I need to I need to find a summer job, my dog needs training badly, and I’m paying for a personal website that isn’t even up right now. But if I think about all of these things while I’m trying to make those final changes on my thesis, nothing is going to get done.  It’s just the way it goes. I tend to waste a lot of energy thinking about what I should be doing, instead of just doing it.  Giving myself permission to be single-minded assuages the guilt I have about not working on the other tasks. Is it really going to hurt me if I don’t exercise for one more month, if I haven’t consistently for a year? Probably not. If I’m thinking about it and feeling guilty, then I’m wasting time and energy I could be directing towards the goal I should be working towards.

I love the lyrics to this song, they’re inspiring and relevent so I thought I’d include the video in the post.

Jordin Sparks, One Step At A Time