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!


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