Releasing the To-Do List

I’ve always been really attached to my to-do list. It gives me a sense of order in the midst of chaos. It makes me feel organized. It gives me a feeling of control, of having a plan, and of knowing what to do next.

My obsession with scheduling and to-do lists started in eighth grade. I had a teacher named Ms. Marsh who was a stickler for detail and had a “take no prisoners” attitude. She had no problem subjecting those who failed to meet her extremely high bar to public humiliation, and, even worse for a perfectionist and people-pleaser like me, she wouldn’t hesitate to give truly awful grades. Ms. Marsh taught me that if I wasn’t extra-organized and my own task-master, she would do it for me, and not in a gentle way. I never did get my A from Ms. Marsh, but the path was laid.

Ever since then, I started evaluating myself not on the quality of the work that I do, but on that quantity of to-do’s that I am able to cross of my list. Throughout my years in school, I was praised for my ability to juggle many things while meeting deadlines and being “responsible.” I learned the secrets to academic success: the fastest possible ways to satisfy the teacher (aka, how to cut corners and still get straight A’s). I learned that in school, learning wasn’t meant to be for learning’s sake, it was for finding the paths of least resistance in order to be able to spit out the “right” answers when you are called on, or arguing the “right” argument (or one that the teacher will agree with) on papers. I was a good pupil and I quickly mastered these skills – so much so, that in college, I racked up scores of academic awards: Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and a bunch that I don’t even remember.

However: I never learned how to think… to really, deeply, think, and to create an environment for myself that would allow me not to “do,” but to “create.” I also never learned how to value my own thinking. And it never occurred to me how limiting my to-do list proved to be in my life.

Flash forward 14 years after that eighth grade class, and I found myself in an amazing 3-day workshop led by my coaches: Carolyn Fryer-Jones and Michelle Bauman. They asked us, what do we want to let go of in our lives, that isn’t serving us? I had no idea what to say.

Later though, I had a moment of clarity that fundamentally shifted the way I now work: my to-do list is limiting my potential! I’d been assuming that all items that get added to my to-do list must be completed for me to give myself an A. To me, at this point in my life, getting A has become equivalent to loving and accepting myself, giving myself the necessary time off to recharge, choosing to silence that mean inner-voice that is constantly telling me that I haven’t done enough. In my book, to accept that I’ve done enough, I need to have visibly, physically “done enough.” The problem? For as along as I can remember, I have NEVER gotten through a daily to-do list! And it’s not only because I can’t seem to accurately plan how much I can accomplish in a day. It’s also because each action item brings up a slew of other possible action items. Our big projects and major successes are comprised of hundreds and thousands of daily baby steps. When one step is completed, the next is unveiled – how do you know you’ve done “enough” for that day?

At the workshop, I realized that the to-do list was making me captive to the hundreds to tiny little tasks (many of which don’t really matter – and some of which just don’t need to be done, ever!) to the detriment of huge, major steps that I might undertake if I gave myself room and time to think long enough to uncover them. I realized how much creativity had been locked out for so many years, because I’d been waiting for the day when I would get through all the to-do’s. I realized that when the to-do’s end, life ends! Thinking and creativity and peace, and reflection must happen within the context of those to-do’s, but these important experiences mustn’t be ruled by the to-do’s.

This little realization caused a major shift in how I now work and more importantly, in how I relate to myself, It was as if in that moment, a huge weight that I’d been carrying on my back for years lifted. Since then, I’ve actually felt lighter, I’ve had more ideas, I’ve been sleeping better, AND, surprisingly, I’ve been more efficient! Most importantly, however, I have become kinder to myself, which has made an enormous difference in every area of my life.

This is one of the many reasons why Jennifer and I wanted to create such a container of growth and realization for our clients. Our 3-day workshop in September is an opportunity for you to explore: what in your life isn’t serving you? In what ways are you keeping your brilliance and potential prisoner to an old habit? What assumptions are you making about your world that are keeping you in that pattern? And – are you willing to try on a different approach?


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