Giving Up The To Do List

I've got my priorities straight

I’ve got my priorities straight


I used to be obsessed with to do lists. I never realized how bad they were until I stopped. Sometimes you don’t realize the hold something has on you until the veil of its power is lifted from your life, and you experience a miraculous increase in freedom and happiness (to me, those two are inextricably linked).

The to do list is one of the best examples in my life of something seemingly innocuous that turned out to be quite counter-productive to my flow of happiness. Then again, most things “everyone else” does, aren’t actually that good for you. I am starting to know better, but it’s a bit of a process.

We are used to talking about breaking addictions in terms of chemicals, like nicotine, and alcohol and caffeine. But what about some of the small daily habits that add up to either not helping, or hindering our lives? I would argue if you do it on a daily basis and it isn’t counting toward your happiness, then there’s no neutrality: it’s a hindrance.

The to do list seems innocent enough; you write what you want to get done on a sheet of paper, or in my case, the Notes app on your iPhone. This should help increase productivity and help you better organize your life. Sometimes writing things down just gets it off your mind.

I would say this is the proper use of a to do list. You use it so you can forget about what you have to do at some future moment and to move on to being with your task at hand. You use it so your brain doesn’t become a garbled mess of errands and groceries free floating in space while sapping your mental energy and taking you away from the present. Maybe you need to write a few things down before you’re able to fall asleep and truly let go of the day. You toss a few key words on the list and never look back–until it’s time to consult it at the appropriate place and time.

The inappropriate* use of a to do list, however, was aptly illustrated by me for the past five or six years. (I’m sorry, I can no longer offer live tutorials on how to fuck up your life with a to do list).

*Yes, I know, I’m a hypocrite: this is one of my least favorite words, but I think it’s “appropriate” to use in this case.

And what’s the worst way to use a to do list? Well, you write one for every single day of the week (preferably a week in advance) including daily tasks you don’t need to be reminded of, such as making coffee, exercising and going to work. Then you map out your day to the letter, meticulously crossing things off as you go along, all while garnering a false sense of accomplishment because you– wait for it– took a shower. Bonus points if you don’t make a move without either checking it off, or consulting the list before you take any action, no matter how small.

My focus and intensity on the to do list waxed and waned, certainly. But since starting college, and especially as my schedule became more and more hectic, and never the same from day to day or week to week, it became increasingly common for me to consult my to do list before doing anything else. “Oh, I ate lunch. Check!”

I used the Notes app on my phone more than any other app, many times per day.

Sometimes I would get stuck in the middle of my day, not know what I should do next, and check my yellow digital note pad. My boyfriend would make fun of me, “Oh, wait, you gotta check: is this on the to do list?” before we’d go out. I’m glad I can laugh at myself, but sometimes I think I laughed too much without stopping to see that what he was saying was perhaps a legitimate observation.

Now it’s one thing if you can’t remember to grab milk at the store and you want to write it down. I think lists are great to help yourself stay organized and save yourself time and hassle. But it’s another thing altogether if you’re using your to do list as a travel guide through life because you can’t stand to allow anything unplanned happen in the moment.

I used to plague myself by feeding into the pervading sense of anxiety that said if I didn’t read the book or make the yoga class or do the laundry– even meditate– on that specific day as planned, my life would cease to exist in any meaningful way (now that’s true irony). It was definitely a neurosis– funny, for someone who always prided themselves on being laid back.

The other thing I noticed about the to do list was that they never, and I mean, never, in all my years of doing them, got shorter. As soon as I’d cross one thing off the list, two more would pop up. I had this continuous feeling of never staying on top of what I had to do. It was like my life was a treadmill of tasks, a never-ending game of Pacman. I wondered when in my life I would ever finally be allowed to just relax and enjoy it. And not have so many damn things to do!

The funny thing is, now I see it was me who wasn’t allowing myself to relax. It was there all along, if I was only willing to let go. When we think we want something so badly, be it relaxation, or peace, or happiness or love, it is only what we are withholding from ourselves.

If you think you need to lose ten pounds until you’re worthy of love, you’re the one who made that decision that you were un-lovable until then. If you want more peace in your life, choose peace over confrontation and let things go. If you want more happiness, you have to choose to be happy and not choose to see your life as a sweeping melodramatic saga of one fault after the next.

Stop adding things to your to do list that must be completed before you are happy, or worthy, or beautiful, or a success. If you are in the habit of withholding love from yourself based on the exterior being perfect, you are in the habit of withholding love from yourself indefinitely. Nothing will ever be good enough; there will always be something more to do and there will always be something worth calling a problem, if that’s what you’re determined to find.

I have stayed happy through a break up with someone I truly loved (and still do) and felt luckier and happier in my life than ever before. That was a decision I made. I made this choice because I accepted what life had presented to me, and didn’t fight it. I chose to see the beauty of the situation, of loving and loss and the fact that what appeared to be loss, wasn’t in fact that at all. It was the opening of space in my life for what needed to be. There have been some tears, and I let them come when they need, but there’s been very little sadness or depression because I surrendered and choose not to see myself as a victim, but to see life as a learning experience and to know that ultimately the best thing always happens. (Also because I learned the secret of funny Youtube videos to cheer you up in less than three minutes. I’m not joking.)

Making the decision about how you are going to view your life, and sticking to it, is the single best thing you can do if you want to be happy. If you want to see yourself as a beautiful tragedy whom life is out to get, you will. If you want to see yourself as an embodied spirit whose on a journey to grow and love, you will. Don’t ever let yourself believe the lies your mind, or anyone else, tells you. What does that have to do with to do lists?

Well, if you want to see yourself as someone whose life is on the brink of falling apart because you’re late for a doctor’s appointment or your car breaks down, that’s how your life will feel. If you’re one cancelled massage appointment away from misery, I’m truly sorry for you. Not because you won’t get a massage, but because you’re living your life a few degrees away from the point. I don’t mean that judgmentally, all I mean is… How’s that working out for you?

To do lists can give you a sense of control over your life, but it’s not over any of the truly important things. It’s over the kinds of things people claim “Type A Personality” over. The kinds of things that if you spend your entire life just trying to get over and on to the next ten things, your life won’t be fun and you won’t be happy.

So how did I break my shackles to the Notes app?

Well it was actually kind of by accident. It wasn’t that I set out to do away with the to do. It was just that when I finally prioritized my happiness, I started living in the moment. That made me realize that half the things I was writing down, were the kinds of things I would remember to do naturally anyway, and I didn’t need to check a screen to do it.

This also freed me up to do things purely on a whim, which I find is the absolute best way to live, and leaves space for the coolest things to happen. Another quarter of the things didn’t really need to get done at all. About a fifth of the things actually were important, but those I remembered to do without writing them down because I just acted on them as they came up. And the last five percent are the things I still write down.

Part of it was simplifying my schedule.

I mean, I still keep busy. I am never without someone to visit, something to do, a chore or a task that needs doing, or something to write about. I love my life and it is very full. But I’ve re-prioritized my time so that my schedule and my flexibility suit me and allow me to get the most done, while enjoying it as I go. So I think that has helped remove the constant need to feel in control.

Feeling this happy and free has caused me to be able to relinquish that death-grip I had on trying to control my life from every which way. If I lose something, stub my toe (hard), or something doesn’t go my way, I don’t get nearly as flustered as I used to. I know that part of this huge life change, is linked with letting go of my to do lists.

You might not believe this, but I have actually increased my productivity by getting rid of the to do. By going with the flow of life, I am no longer forcing my will upon everything in my path. It has in fact freed up my stress of needing things to go a certain way, and this has allowed me to move with the power of the moment. It’s like floating down a river instead of paddling upstream. I enjoy life, get more done, don’t waste time doing things that don’t need to be done but that I added to a list just to increase the concept of my daily achievement.

I’ve lost attachment to things going my own way all the time, to getting everything done in the day that I think I need to. And in doing so, I’ve realized I need a lot less to get by, both in terms of things going my way, and getting things done.

Turns out, I don’t really have to do anything in a day besides what I feel like doing, in order to have a good day. That sounds obvious, but almost no one follows it.

One somewhat surprising thing is that I don’t forget things I need to do. I thought that this might happen, but I think not writing every last thing down has only increased my ability to focus and remember what I need to do. Instead of consulting a screen or a sheet of paper, I let my instincts guide me into my next activity. If I’m not in the mood to do something, I don’t force it. I know that tomorrow, or next week, I will be in the mood, and that will be the perfect time to take action.

This isn’t just some superstitious bunk. This is tried and tested; I get the best results in my life when I’m not forcing things and doing them just because I said I would on some imaginary list of importance. When I listen to my inner guide and make my moves from within, my life goes better, and I don’t want for anything.

I am not against to do lists as a whole. But I am against their abuse (free the to do list!), and the way I suspect many other people abuse them– by attempting to control their lives to the most minute details that ultimately aren’t time-sensitive and perhaps don’t even need to be completed at all.

Getting rid of the to do may seem like a small thing. But it has changed the emphasis of my life from doing to being. It also sends a message of trust to the universe. I used to feel acute anxiety whenever I couldn’t accomplish everything on my list. Sometimes I would get so overwhelmed with all of the things on it, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I’d feel like a deer in the headlights. Now, I only do the thing I’m most in the mood for. Even if it’s a close call, there’s always one thing I would most like to be doing, and I do it. That’s how I flow through my day.

If you think this makes me sound like I never get anything done, or that I’m lazy, I’m actually only happy when I’m living with purpose. I don’t watch TV or movies, I rarely surf the internet. This isn’t like “I eat junk food whenever I feel like it”. This is like, I write when I’m inspired and I don’t force it when I don’t. I work out when I have the energy and if I need to nap instead, I do that. I do the dishes when I am in the mood instead of forcing myself to do them. Same with all other chores.

The idea is to still do everything in your life that you would like to, or need to do, but allow yourself the flexibility to do it on your own time. And to not micro-manage yourself with petty time constraints and tasks that perhaps can go un-done indefinitely (like buying that new outfit you just have to have).

I used to think that running out and buying things I thought I needed counted in some way as getting something done. I truly think deep down I was looking for a sense of accomplishment in my shopping trips. Something to cross off my list. Hint: not every single action you take is a step forward.

Breaking free of to do made me realize how very few of the things I was basing my life upon doing were actually important to my continued happiness and survival. Now, when I write down that I need to buy something, instead of running out and buying it and crossing it off my list with a sense of great achievement, I let it sit for a few days. I no longer take myself seriously when I assume I need to have something. Like they say to do with food cravings, I wait it out. More often than not, I realize I either don’t need it, I don’t need it right now, or if I am able to wait patiently, it comes to me in a much easier, usually less expensive and serendipitous way.

I realize this sounds like such a small change, but our lives are comprised of an ongoing series of these small actions. No change in your life is too small to net a positive effect. Especially those things you do over and over again.

The sooner you realize your life doesn’t start and stop with tasks, completions, and events, the sooner you will feel happy.

Your life is quietly waiting while you scurry around for meaningless goals. When will you finally live your life? When you get too old to work? That isn’t to say don’t get things done. It’s to say, don’t take action for the sake of movement. When you’re doing something, take the time to be present and enjoy it. Don’t look at life as a series of weighty chores that must get done– and then you can be happy. Instead, be happy while you’re washing the dishes, and let some things slide until you feel inspired to partake.

I used to always look forward to being an old lady with cute mono-chrome outfits and grandkids. I think perhaps I was subconsciously just looking forward to the days when I could live my life surrounded with love and relationships and not this futile movement to and fro that ultimately amounts to nothing.

In the end, we go back from whence we came and all the things in our lives dissolve upon the wave of our last breath. Live every summer as if it’s your first. Live every day as if it’s your last. And give up the goddamn to do lists. They’re not making you any happier and they’re sapping your creativity, as well as your ability to move freely through life. How can life ever be reduced to bullet points on paper? Don’t make that mistake.

To do lists are simply an emphasis on doing over being. The truth is, it doesn’t matter if I don’t do one more thing from my to do list for the rest of my life. My life cannot be brought down to a to do list (literally: thank god). To do lists are illusions of industry and control; neither of which exists in anything meaningful to our lives. If you are focused on doing for the sake of doing, you are missing out on true life. It’s available to us all, but only by choice.

You can’t be, do, touch, taste, hear, and see everything. Accept that. Now be happy with all that you are able to. Your life is always full, just waiting for you to realize it, if you can just be present. It may sound cliche or too simple to be of value, but being with your breath, with life as it is right now, is the only way you will ever be able to experience the truth that you have enough, you are enough, and your life just as it is right now, is enough.

So be happy. Just be.

No if, to’s or do’s about it.