Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Tyranny of the To Do List

Unlike my dear wife, I am not given to insomnia. When I'm tired, I can go to bed and get to sleep very quickly. In fact, through much of my adult life, going to sleep is one of my coping mechanism for dealing with stress. All of this is why I'm a little freaked out that I haven't been sleeping well lately.

Several times in the past few months, I've found myself wide awake in the middle of the night, thinking about what I have going on, decisions I need to make, and things that need to get done. This creates a spiral of despair.

I'm worried about all I have to do.
Which means I don't sleep well.
Which makes me not at my peak the next day.
Which means I don't get as much done.
Which makes me worried about all I have to do.
Which means I don't sleep well.

I can't live like this. And so, I've been thinking about why I've felt overwhelmed lately. I don't think that the problem is that I have too many hats to wear. And I don't think the problem is that I have too much to do.  Instead, I've come to think that the problem is how I've making my to do list.

When I sit down to make a to do list - and, by the way, I use the iPad app ToDo to do it - I end up listing absolutely everything that pops into my mind. As I'm thinking about what needs to be done today, I also end up thinking about what needs to be done tomorrow and next week and three weeks from now. It's not unusual for my to do list to have 80 or more items on it at any given time. These can range from the very important - Submit Fundamorphosis manuscript - to the very unimportant - Get that damn Payphone song out of my head.

Rather than being an aid to efficiency, my to do list actually makes me want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head. As long as something comes to mind, I don't want to forget it or risk neglecting it by not putting it on my to do list. But I can't sustain a happy, effective life when the sheer size of what I have to accomplish leaves me feeling paralyzed.

Here's the strategy I employing now. In addition to my master to do list, I have begun a second, daily to do list. It's purpose is simple. The only things that go on this list are items that answer this question:

What do I have to do today that will let me sleep well tonight?

I know that I want to sleep well tonight. I don't like how I feel when I am too overwhelmed to sleep. I want the sense of rest that comes with accomplishment. And so, following Steven Covey's habit, Begin with the End in Mind, I've started to give myself a list of things to get done today that when 9pm rolls around and Vanessa and I are pouring a glass of wine will make me feel like I've made a dent and can relax. This helps me to better prioritize. It helps me to manage my activities. And it keeps me from being overwhelmed by having an agressive yet attainable goal for what I can accomplish with my day.

Today's list had 14 items on it, including writing this blog post. I can get that done. And it will feel good tonight when I did.

How about you? What do you do to manage all of your responsibilities?




I hear ya! I worry over things at 3 a.m. that never even occur to me in daylight. Which has led me to believe that there are no good thoughts at 3 a.m. (add the relevant Amityville Horror references if you'd like). I'm glad you separated your "Today List" from your "Master List". I recently added a new list: "The Albatross List" for all those things that have been hanging around my neck or over my head or wherever for months or even years. Just the name makes me smile. And the imagery is pretty good too. But the stuff on the list still stinks! Happy listing to you! LOVE the title, by the way!

Jae said...
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Anonymous said...

My friend Jackie is writing a series of posts about "To-Do Lists" on her blog. She's asking people to share what is working for them. I love your idea of listing what you need to do to sleep well tonight. You might consider sharing this post with Jackie. Here is the post she did about MY to-do list:

Robb Ryerse said...

Thanks for the headsup, Jody.