The Tyranny of the To-Do List

The Tyranny of the To-Do List

I’m someone who needs to-do lists. If I try to carry around everything I need to do in my brain alone I forget things (including deadlines), and I feel a tremendous pressure to not forget things, which is a terrible one-two punch. I’m constantly searching my memory for things I know I’m not keeping track of, and when I do remember those things it’s usually somewhere inconvenient – the shower; in bed as I’m falling asleep; at the grocery store.

But to-do lists are a bear. If I keep an honest accounting of everything I should be doing, it’s more than I can possibly achieve in any single day, and if I accept that part I still feel overwhelmed when I finish work and there are inevitably still things on the list. I fret about those things. I frequently feel like I didn’t accomplish enough.

So I’ve started a new practice.

A photo of a notebook with a page with a to-do list on it, and a page of achievements
My notebook

I still make to-do lists, but on the facing page of my notebook, I also make an ‘Achievements’ list. Every time I do something, I not only cross it off my to-do list, but I write it down on my achievements list. I also write down everything else I do between times. We do a lot of things at work (or in our working hours) that we don’t give ourselves credit for, like impromptu meetings, or chasing someone down to give them a book we think they’d find useful, or sending a dozen administrative emails (and then some).

So, for example, you’ll see on my to-do list I wrote “Respond to journals 1 2 3.” I have three sets of journals I need to read and comment on, and I didn’t get that crossed off my list yesterday. But you can also see, under achievements, that I kept a tally of how many I did grade – 10 from one set, which is really satisfying.

If I went only by my to-do list, and the things crossed off, I’d feel a sense of baffled wonder (“How did I work all day and only get this much done?”) as well as a sense of dissatisfaction, because there were two big things left undone. But when I look at my achievements list I get a sense of accomplishment, of hours well-spent, of satisfaction, and even a little bit of pride.

So if you’re someone who finds that to-do lists are a little tyrannical, try keeping an achievements list, too. See if it lifts your spirits the way it does mine!

3 thoughts on “The Tyranny of the To-Do List

  1. I’ve been doing this since I read Cate’s piece earlier this year.
    I have tweaked it to call the right-hand page “Accomplished.” I can’t say why that word works better for me than “Achievements.” And I don’t think the wording would matter to all.

    Not every day, but I also sometimes add an “appreciation for myself” and where I am “grateful to/for someone/something else.”
    The first can be silly or small—I really like that I have found pens that work for me–or bigger–So glad I took time to listen to someone with a health challenge at school.

    The second is not simply to practice gratitude, but to remind myself to notice I am not alone. So much of academia pushes the idea of the solitary person.

    So today, I am grateful to Cate for her smart ideas, her generosity in sharing them, and her practice of kindness to faculty as well as students.

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