Usually when someone mentions the word ‘list’, I am the first to start waxing lyrical about how much I love a list: making the list, ticking things off the list, putting things on the list that I’ve already done just so I can have the fun of ticking them off…you get the picture.  But when I came back to school this January, I wasn’t feeling quite so positive about my to-do list. The things on it looked all too familiar and it seemed to be ever growing, in the wrong direction! It had become my to-do list of doom.

The power of the list

Writing a list, and checking things off it, has always been a good way for me to not just remember what I need to do, but to focus, and get things done.  The list takes things out of my head and once a task is on the list, I start taking concrete steps to get it done.

I make a fresh work to-do list every month, and it’s where the serious things go – the things I have to do.  The thing is, while it only takes seconds to put something on my list, it takes a whole lot longer to check it off.  My list was starting to gnaw at me, ‘Mark Y13 essays’ had been on there for just a bit too long…

Guilty conscience

My usual routine at the start of the month is to look back at my previous list, anything that’s not done gets transferred onto the new list and additional priorities are added.  When I did this in January I realised I didn’t actually have a monthly to-do list (unless I was three people none of whom needed sleep or enjoyed socialising), I had a wish list.  It was all the things that needed to be done, plus all of the things it would be nice to do as well as some interesting ideas I wanted to explore. Instead of helping me to focus and get things done, the list itself was stressing me out because even though I put things on it that didn’t need to do done with any real urgency, every time I looked at the list, I felt I had to do everything that was on it…now!

By making my list, writing down all of my tasks one after the other, I was putting my brain into a constant state of readiness, as if I had a permanent, never ending, urgent deadline to meet. It was time to revamp the list!

What do I really want?

My list building enthusiasm kicked off way back in the 1990s when I did a course that praised Stephen R Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  It was here that I was introduced to his strategy of differentiating between urgent (things with pressing deadlines) and important (things without immediate deadlines).  Back then, I used to make two lists, a daily urgent list and a monthly important list; over time it had become just one list. One really, really long list.

My first thought was to split my list in two.  But when I looked at my list, I realised that as comprehensive and wide ranging as my list was, I was actually being pretty selective about what I put on it.  Lots of things that are a really important part of my job never seem to make it to the list: ‘Mark Y13 essays’ was there, loud and proud, but ‘Plan Y13 lessons’ never made an appearance, nor did ‘Teach Y13 lesson’.  I realised I tend to put things I don’t enjoy so much on my list in order to make myself do them, and seeing as they are things I tend to put off or procrastinate over, even though I was getting lots of things done, my list told me a different story.  My list was no longer my friend.

Engaging positivity

American Professor of Psychology, Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden and build theory asserts that we can achieve more with positive emotions than we do with negative emotions.  Positive emotions give us energy and make us feel more motivated whereas negative thoughts and feelings tend to exhaust us.  By making a list which constantly reminded me of things I didn’t really want to do, I was depleting my will power. I needed to make my to-do list less of a punishment and more of a joy.

My solution?

My solution works because I’m in the fortunate position of having an office, and a whiteboard, all to myself.  I’ve given Toyota’s Kanban method a positive twist – I’m managing my priorities and I’m focusing on what makes me happy.  I write the things I’m going to do on a post-it note, which gets stuck into one of three columns on my whiteboard: ‘To Do’, ‘Doing’ and ‘Done’.  In the morning I move things from ‘To Do’ into ‘Doing’ to help me focus for the day and be specific about when I’m doing things, and at the end of the day, I move the note back to ‘To Do’ frown or over into ‘Done’ cool depending on how the day unfolded.  

Firstly, I have bright pink post-its, so that’s making me happy.  But I’ve also made sure to put things on a post-it and up on the board that would never have made my old list – things like ‘have lunch’, ‘drink coffee while it’s hot’, ‘pay someone a compliment’, etc.  As the end of January approaches, my ‘Done’ column is bringing me joy, I’m starting to feel like I can win the to-do list battle. But perhaps most importantly, I’m feeling a lot better. Now, I’m not just maniacally writing things down on a list, I’m remembering to take a moment every day to do something nice – for me or for someone else – and that is very worthwhile.  

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