To Do or Not To Do?

Posted in Balanced Lifestyle | June 10, 2010 |

To-do lists … I love them and hate them at the same time. What about you? Are they your motivation or are they a waste of time? The debate of to do or not to do lies even deeper: is it worth being disciplined and going by the book or is it better to live your life spontaneously giving room to your passions and creativity?

I do not think it is possible to find a person who does not have a to-do list or does not think that he/she should have one. It has become a staple in the productivity movement to create to-do lists and to follow them. But wait, lately I’ve started hearing about killing your to-do list and living in the moment. It sounds so tempting and yet … completely unproductive to me. Am I wrong?

What is the problem with to-do lists?

Did you ever write that endless to-do list full of things that you do not want to do? Every time you look at that endless list you realize how much you have not done yet and you get stressed out and frustrated. Your to-do list drains your energy instead of motivating you to accomplish things.

Maybe you are one of the creative people who hate plans and have to do whatever your heart tells you to. They like going with the flow and listening to their inner voice that tells them what they need to do today.

Going over a to-do list can be a pretty uninspiring task that drains your mental energy and makes you feel like you have a 100-pound load on your back that is constantly pushing you towards the ground.

What about life without to-do lists?

Living without a to-do list can be your dream that will give you wings in life. You let go of fixed goals, you focus on a single thing every day and you enjoy your life again. Doesn’t it sound wonderful?

It does, but only to a certain extent. To-dos also help us remember things that we need to get done (I don’t know about you but I constantly forget things especially if my twins are having a bad day.)

Discipline and planning can be motivating and exciting if you do not overdo it. I usually write some of my best articles if I have a deadline that I have to meet.

Your to-do list can remind you to spend time with yourself or set aside a few hours a week for your exercise and hobbies.

Your to-do list can make your life more balanced if you make your list balanced.

A smarter (and more balanced) To-Do for you


I must confess that I love to-do lists. You can call me boring and dull but I cannot imagine my life without to-dos. They give me energy and motivation; they ignite my creativity while maintaining a high level of productivity. The secret is to use a smarter to-do list. There is a certain degree of balance that you should bring into your planning that will turn your to-do list from a boring list into an inspiring one.

  1. Make your to-do list weekly, not daily. Daily to-dos put too much pressure on you because you do not always have time to finish everything on the list. It is much better to make a weekly list and then you will be able to decide when you feel like doing a certain task.
  2. Set priorities. Not all tasks are equal in their importance (we all know that) so I would recommend to highlight the most important ones (try to keep them under 5 for 1 week). If the task is really big then you should pick a day when you will focus entirely on this task (e.g. I usually set aside the whole day for my cleaning projects and I do not even try to do anything else that day.)
  3. Break down your to-do. In order to stay organized I combine tasks that can be easily done together in my list. For example, a trip to the grocery store and to the post office can definitely be done at the same time (if I write them down together then I won’t forget about any of them.) It might take you a few extra minutes to rewrite your to-do but it will be worth it in the end.
  4. Keep your list balanced. For every dull task write down at least 1 fun task. For example, if you have to clean the house then you can add a task of eating out that day to reward yourself for the good work.
  5. Keep your list short. I usually try to keep my weekly list under 20 items (10 is even more preferable). Avoid adding items to this list if possible. You will feel so much better if you finish your weekly plan a little bit earlier and have a few spare days just for your fun.
  6. Add fun stuff to your list. To-dos that are nothing but daunting tasks are discouraging. While you have to get some things done during the week you also have to have fun that week (remember, your work/life balance?) Write down your “me” time, add a trip to the movies or a hike in the park as well as outings with your friends on that list. This way you will not feel that your life is slipping away from you.
  7. Declutter your list. Some of the activities that we consider important are really not that important in reality. Look at your list carefully and see if there are any tasks that you can put off or completely eliminate.
  8. Keep your list where you can see it. If you do not see your list then you forget about the tasks that are on it and then at the end of the week when you finally find it you think “Oh no!” Take your list one step at a time and it will be your friend instead of your foe.
  9. Do not procrastinate. We usually tend to procrastinate with the most difficult tasks until the last moment. The truth about those tasks is that most of the time they are not as bad as they seem. Once you get to them you realize that they take less of your time and energy than you thought. Your imagination acts against you in this case and draws a picture of “mission impossible”. Once the most difficult tasks of the week are out of the way you can enjoy the rewards that you’ve put on the list and feel free and light again.
  10. Be flexible. I know that all of us have certain deadlines that we cannot change but we also have deadlines that are more like recommended guidelines. Sometimes the best strategy to get something done is to change your focus and do something completely different. Do not live by the book, rather follow the best guidelines.
  11. Keep it simple. You can spend your money on high tech to-dos or sign up for online accounts that will allow you to manage your tasks online, get reminders of your deadlines via email or cell phone. I’ve tried some of those services but pen and paper still work the best for me. I like to add a creative image to my list, use some funny hand-font for a task that seems most intimidating and absolutely adore to strike things out of my list by hand (I do it with so much passion sometimes that my list gets cut into two lists:-)) Choose the method that will work best for you but do not make things too complicated.
  12. Chill out. When you feel that your life is getting too crazy and you are consumed by over-productivity take your list and throw it in the trash. Sometimes all of us just need that fresh breath of air that is not restrained by any to-do lists.

Don’t let your to-do control your life, rather control your to-do to make it fit your life.

What is your story with to-dos? Do you use them? Do you hate them? What are your tips to keep your life organized without getting carried away in boring routines?

Keep it balanced!

Smart Thoughts (17)

  1. Jean Sarauer says:

    My brain cannot be trusted to remember important things, so these days I use a to-do list essentially as a reminder system and to help give some structure to my daily activities (grouping like items together, doing first things first, etc.).

    I’ve had big problems with my to-do lists in the past because there were a lot of ‘shoulds’ and expectations on there. So, I’ve done a lot of paring down and sorting out. If it’s not something that resonates with my values in some way or if it’s not pertinent to the stage I’m at in terms of my work or personal growth, then it’s off the list.

    • Anastasiya says:

      Jean, this is a great strategy. I feel the same way about my to-do list. I need it to keep my life organized but I do not want to be flooded with obligations and tasks that are not essential for me.

  2. I find that a “to do list” is like looking at a messy bedroom… you know that you need to clean it up, pick things up off the floor, and hang cloths up in the closet, but the more you look at it like you said, the more frustrating and stressful it becomes.

    • Anastasiya says:

      You are right, Jarrod, that is why it is so important to create smart to-dos and not just lists that we do not want to look at. To me to-do is not an obligation, it is more of a way to remember things that I have to do (whether it is calling a friend or making a business call). In my life with twins my to-do list is my best friend :-)

  3. Diana Lee says:

    My neurological problems have killed my memory and focus, so I have to write things down. But unlike the way I used to approach them, I don’t treat them as a challenge to myself and pat myself on the back or chastise myself depending on how many things I got done. I try to focus on them being only triggers for my memory & nothing more. If I don’t get something done it just moves on to the next week and I set a new reminder on my iCal so I don’t completely forget.

    • Anastasiya says:

      Diana, you have summarized the idea of to-dos for me to. They are just lists that help me remember things at the right moment, nothing else. I think that once you stop treating a to-do as an obligation and look at it as your friend then you can finally relax and get everything done.

  4. Shannon says:

    I wrote a rant in my journal last weekend that went on and on, “Resist the list!” I tend to make lists when I’m not dealing with tough stuff. I’ve been known to make list of things I’ve already done so I can cross them off and feel like I’ve accomplished something.

    On the other hand, making lists of things that make me happy, or 15 reasons why people might think I’m crazy, or what I love about my job–those are lists I like to make.

    • Anastasiya says:

      If a list is driving you (or me) crazy then there is no point in making it (by the way, it would have been nice if you have included the link to the post you’ve been talking about.) A to-do is just a reminder, it is not a measure of productivity or your efficiency. It is just a list of things that need to be done sooner or later.
      I loved your creative lists, that’s a great idea to stay positive through life. Thank you for it.

  5. Cheryl Paris says:

    Hi Anastaysia,

    It is great to have a to-do-list as long as you plan and take the action. Many times I have come across a bunch of people who have the list but they cannot find time to achieve it.
    I keep a calendar on the refrigerator and it seems to work for me. BTW, your list is great.

    Cheers,
    Cheryl Paris
    The Acorn Coach Blog

    • Anastasiya says:

      Cheryl, any list that can help us stay organized is a good list. You are right that lists that never get done are absolutely worthless and they are complete energy drainers. This is the reason why I keep my list exciting – I am actually looking forward to doing a lot of things on my list.

  6. John Sherry says:

    Boy I like this post Anastasiya. The To-do list bores me rigid so well done for adding another perspective on it.

    Trouble with To-do lists is there is always something on it to do. A never ending cycle of jobs, chores and tasks. There’s no outlet for rest and recuperation and reflection.

    What’s needed is a To-be list tabling all the great ways to relax and take in the joys of life. Now that would be short, simple and easy to do! And enjoyable too.

    • Anastasiya says:

      John, it’s always possible to combine a to-do list with a to-be list. But I think the main thing about any list is that it MUST end. Even if something on the list hasn’t been done yet it’s always good to think “Is it really important?” Some of the things on that list never get done because they are not important enough. In that case it is better to throw the list in the trash and relax.

  7. Helpful hints! I’ve found that prioritization is key. If something won’t matter in the long-term and isn’t key to me fulfilling an obligation (to an employer, or somebody else) then I try to get it off the list. Of course, the only way this works, is if you have long-term goals clearly articulated — that way you truly know what matters and what doesn’t

    • Anastasiya says:

      Having priorities in life and of course a goal that you are working towards is really the core of balanced living. Nothing else would really matter or bring us further in life if we do not have that “core” already. A to-do list can take us only from one step to another one but we must know the road that we are walking on.
      Thank you for a wonderful comment and for adding me to your blogroll. Have a great blogging day!

  8. Forgot to mention. Added you to our blogroll. I appreciate your work!

  9. Manal says:

    It seems you have a positive balanced approach to your to do list Anastasiya. I wish I can say the same.I don’t like the to do part at all :).

    I do have a list called mind dump which I use to take stuff off my mind and unload it into a spreadsheet. I do choose a couple of things to deal with every week and try to avoid adding more. My motivation is to keep a very very short list. It is getting shorter so there is hope :)

    Balance is key when it comes to do list. You provide some great advice about balancing productivity and fun.

    • Anastasiya says:

      I agree that keeping any list short is the key. I hate long lists and I can never commit to them. I like looking at my lists, getting things done and throwing the list away. If the list never gets thrown away (or completed fully)then this is a really bad and unbalanced list. There must always be an end to everything, including our tasks.