(Metaphorically) Set Your To-do List on Fire

I have a recurring dream. In it, we all set our to-do lists on fire and frolic in the Zilker Park grass instead. We talk about all of the wonderful life experiences we have had thus far. We slowly drink iced tea and ponder how the wildflowers became so persistent in their growth. We give ourselves permission to swim in Barton Springs and to hug puppies. We hike the Greenbelt and revel in the fall weather. Later, we eat at one of the new Austin restaurants that are always popping up. We do not talk about what we accomplished that day, and we do not hive five one another for completing more tasks than we thought mortally possible. Instead, we talk about our deep, soulful wishes. We close the evening by playing music and dancing under the stars, reveling in our freedom. Our to-do lists have gone up in smoke, and there is no turning back.

Okay, how many of you completely missed the beautiful imagery of frolicking and dancing, because you were hyperventilating at the thought of your to-do list crumbling to ashes?

Take heart. Having worked with perfectionists for a few years, I recognize the beauty and the curse of the to-do list. The beauty is that it keeps you organized. It is a way to prioritize and manage your workload. It is a concrete way to measure your productivity. You get to triumphantly mark off your accomplishments. Getting through it can be a slight (major?) adrenaline rush. People high five you for completing your to-do list. All of those things are great. (Yay!)  

The challenge is when your to-do list becomes an overwhelming, life-squashing, fun-killing mechanism for your inner perfectionist critic to beat you down with. If you consistently think, "I can't go to ____________, or I can't do ___________. I stall have things on my to-do list. I always complete the day's list. I must complete the day's list. It's what I do. I FINISH MY TO-DO LIST NO MATTER WHAT," then you might want to rethink your relationship with your to-do list. It could be tipping into unhelpful territory. (Boo!) 

If and when you are ready, here are some helpful questions to ask yourself in order to help you tame your to-do list (or set it on fire, whichever you prefer). Use your responses as a guide to shift your relationship with your daily tasks:

  • Can a human realistically complete everything on your list and take care of themselves at the same time? Is there anything on this list that could wait until tomorrow? Next week?
  • Where is the pressure coming from to complete everything on your list NOW? What would you like to change about that? What feels possible to change?
  • What will happen to you physically, emotionally, socially, financially, and spiritually if you do not finish everything on your list today? Is this picture accurate?
  • What is one joyful thing that you could do with your day if you re-prioritized your tasks?
  • Have you ever had a day when you abandoned your to-do list and chose to frolic instead? What did you need in order to get into that head space? How could you get back there?
  • What meaning have you associated with completing the items on your list? Do you want to keep feeding that story? What is one thing that you could do in order to step away from that myth?
  • What do you need to start doing in order to make it possible to tame your to-do list? What do you need to stop doing? What is necessary for those to happen?
  • What can you tell yourself in order to soothe the to-do list monster when it raises its ugly head?
  • If you feel comfortable involving others in the process, how could the people in your life help you? How could you ask them for support?
  • What sorts of reminders could you keep around in order to support yourself in this change? A quote? A song? A drawing? A scent?

I will close with a therapisty piece of advice if you choose to accept this quest: Remember that changing your relationship with your to-do list is a process. Some days are going to go more smoothly than others. Some tools will be more helpful than others. The important thing is that you recognize the issue and are trying to live differently. 

If you want extra support around this, set up a therapy consultation session with me