Experiments in Mindful Living—Scrapping my “To Do” List

For most of my professional life, I lived by my ‘to do’ list.”  For more than 30 years, I compulsively kept a dated “to do” list, first in my Stephen Covey-style day planner and then on line using Google reminders.  Each day’s schedule of activities was accompanied by a list of things I needed to accomplish that day.  When someone asked me to take on a future project, I recorded it on the list for a day some weeks or months hence, just as I recorded appointments. For years, my compulsive system of the dated “to do” list worked.  It kept me focused and productive. 


Until it didn’t.

In the last few years, my “to do” list began to overwhelm me.  For one thing, my system encouraged me to overcommit and to say “yes” to too many obligations. “Can you review this manuscript in the next six weeks,” an editor would write. I’d look at my to do list and see plenty of blank space on days four weeks or five weeks hence, so I’d reply, “Sure.  I’m happy to do that.” I’d enter the commitment on my list and move the editor’s email to a file folder in my email system, then shift my attention back to today’s tasks.  All the while, I’d forget that the daily tasks that would consume the vast majority of my time five weeks hence—the grading, the meetings, the routine administrative reporting, the class preparation—were not yet recorded on said to-do list. The manuscript review was invisible to me, safely scheduled for five weeks hence. Meanwhile, another request would come in for something six weeks hence and something else for seven weeks ahead.  And I’d consult my list and say, “Sure, I’m happy to do that.”

Then real life would intervene.  The book review that was the big item on next week’s list would get bumped into the following week by a more urgent task at home or at work. Getting the book review finished on time would require pushing that letter of recommendation ahead on the list.  The letter of recommendation would then bump the grant proposal into the week when the manuscript review was due.  I was perpetually overcommitted.

Last fall, I decided to discard my carefully scheduled “to do” list which assigned tasks to particular days. Following the lead of a couple of colleagues, I purchased a steno pad and started keeping a running  list of things I needed to do—on paper, no less.

Still I found myself overcommitted.  Still I was saying “yes” to more tasks than I could possibly complete—at least with my sanity intact. 

Then gradually, unconsciously at first, I stopped keeping a list. I’d bury the list on my desk and forget to pack it in my briefcase at the end of the day on Friday.  Without my list, I was forced to decide how to spend my time from memory.  And I’d complete the most essential tasks over the weekend—grading a stack of exams or editing an article.  Sometimes I wouldn’t unearth the “to do” list until Tuesday or Wednesday; other times, I’d forget to update the list.

And a funny thing happened: nothing big fell through the cracks. When I’d retrieve the list, I’d find that I’d managed to accomplish most of the things on the list already, and sometimes, things on the list would have become unnecessary—someone else might have handled them or some administrator changed his mind about needing a report.  Without that damned list haunting me, I also worked less on weekends. My husband would say, “Do you want to go to a movie,” and instead of saying, “I have four things on my list that must be accomplished this weekend,” I’d say, “Sure, and let’s have lunch out.” Best of all, my mind felt freer.

The most remarkable result of “forgetting” my “to do” list was that I became more mindful about the tasks I agreed to take on.  Without the list in front of me, I was far more likely to remember that I had two large projects due in the next six weeks and to say “no.”  I found myself frequently saying, “Oh, dear, I’m afraid I’m overcommitted, and I can’t take that on right now.”  Instead of using the “to do” list as the reminder, I left physical reminders of the commitments on my desk at home and at work.  Seeing a 400 page manuscript awaiting review on my desk was powerful incentive to say “no” to another manuscript review. 

Occasionally I do jot a reminder to myself on a sticky note.  At the end of the day, I might remember that I need to pay a bill, write a thank you note, or send a client a receipt, so I scribble those items down and paste the list to my computer screen. But no longer do I keep a list with dozens of tasks. 

I often suggest that my coaching clients keep a “to do” list if they are struggling to be more organized, so this blog post might seem to contradict my professional advice.  And who knows:  next year, I may go back to keeping my dated “to do” list.  But for right now—at this moment in my life—scrapping my “to do” list has helped me live a little more mindfully and liberated me from the tyranny of an endless list of commitments.