Where Logic Meets Love

Help! I'm Drowning in My To-Do List

Sunday, January 15, 2012

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Help! I'm Drowning in My To-Do List | Faith Permeating Life

You're probably thinking this post is going to be me complaining about how long my to-do list is.

But it's not. Not really. It's about something deeper, something that God has nagging me about for a while now.

It's that I'm losing myself inside my to-do lists.

To give you some context: I'm the kind of person who constantly has things I need to do, should do, and want to do running through my head. And the more that I pursue new goals and projects, the more mountains of need-should-wants pop up everywhere I turn.

The to-do list is just a tool that keeps me from going crazy. Often once I've written everything down that I need-should-want to do, I see there's not as much as I thought there was when it was in my head stressing me out.

At work, I live off my to-do list. If something's not on there, it doesn't get done. At the beginning of the day, I copy down any remaining items from the previous day's list and then work through them methodically, adding new things as they come up. It keeps me focused and productive and feeling like I've accomplished a lot, and rarely do I have more than a few things left at the end of the day; it's not unusual for me to actually finish the last item before I leave for the day.

The problem is that I've been trying to apply this same structure to life at home. But I'm at work for 8 hours straight every day, 5 days a week. Of course it's not hard to get through everything. And my boss only gives me as much work as I can reasonably get done -- sometimes, not enough. Plus, once they're assigned to me, they're all things I need to get done, just with different priority levels and deadlines.

At home, I don't just have one category (need to do). I have things I need to do because they have a deadline (pay our insurance bill, mail this book someone ordered from us on Half.com), things I should do even though they don't have a deadline (exercise, plan meals), and things I just want to do (comment on blogs, design my new blog business cards).

But the categories aren't even that clear. I need to clean out the rats' cage eventually, and I should do it today, but I don't have to. I was supposed to knit my mother-in-law a hat for Christmas, so I felt guilty about not having finished it, even though really I don't think she would have cared that much if I never gave it to her. I told Mike I'd post some more books on Half.com, and I want to clear out the space and make the money, but it's not exactly pressing that I do it today or even this week. And on and on.

My weekends, which should be time for me to rest and recharge before going back to work, have instead become marathon sessions of tackling my to-do items.

As I've set more goals for myself this past year and tried to focus on the things I really wanted to be doing with my life, I've found that the pace of adding things to do has outstripped my ability to get them done.

I tried doing 'Becca's approach of trying to accomplish three things a day, but my backlog kept getting longer and longer, and I needed to write down everything regardless so it wouldn't stress me out.

When I was in college, I taught myself not to procrastinate. If I had things to get done, I would tackle them immediately and work and work until they were done, and then I could go hang out with friends or whatever. Big projects had to be done in pieces over time, of course, but if I had some little things I could knock out, I taught myself to get those done before doing anything else, anything fun. And because schoolwork comes in a finite amount and has clear deadlines, this system worked.

Now that I've discovered I have a bottomless to-do list, this habit is working against me.

One of the things I learned during my happiness project is that I've lost touch with knowing what I enjoy doing by myself. I enjoy spending time with other people, I enjoy playing games, I enjoy talking with Mike, and all of these things I will make time for without too much trouble. But because I taught myself to get anxious if I was doing something unproductive (e.g., playing a computer game) when I had things that needed to get done or should get done, it's like I've lost my ability to goof off. Everything has become a task. Even checking Facebook and Twitter is methodical.

And because there are always more things waiting on my need-to-do or should-do list, I haven't been forced to rediscover the things I find fun. The things I enjoy that make me who I am.

My to-do list has gone from providing me structure for my life to structuring my life for me.

Obviously I've accomplished a lot of stuff in the past year. I finally took programming classes, something I'd wanted to do for years. I've grown my blog, which I love. Mike and I are finally almost done with this art project we've been working on for about two years. I've made several prayer shawls (and a hat -- I stayed up last night to finish it!). I made a DVD compilation of interviews with my mom and her siblings and actually got it done in time for Christmas.

But I've also filed a bajillion papers, cleaned the rats' cage more times than I can count, washed their smelly bedding again and again, deposited Mike's paychecks twice a month, exercised twice a week, called up customer service of way more companies than I wished I ever had to talk to, transferred money between accounts, paid bills, gone grocery shopping, charged my cell phone, cleaned old food out of the fridge... the list goes on and on. (I'm flipping back through my to-do notebook.)

So the questions I have for myself (and for you) are this:
  • How do I spend more time doing the former activities -- things that move me toward my goals and create the life I want to have -- and less time doing the latter activities -- the repetitive but necessary activities of life?
  • How do I help myself feel accomplished when there are always more things to do? How do I look at my to-do list and see the things that are crossed off instead of all the things that aren't?
  • How do I rediscover and make time for things that are fun but completely unproductive, things that would be relaxing to me if I could rid myself of the anxiety of unfinished projects in the back of my mind?
  • How do I either learn to live with clutter without getting so anxious, or else build a better system so I'm not constantly doing maintenance-type activities (filing papers, clearing dishes) to keep it uncluttered?
  • How do I make Mike a partner in tackling the to-do's without getting irritated with him when he forgets or decides to prioritize fun things, like video games, ahead of them?

This is something I've been avoiding dealing with for a while because it was easy -- "Hey, look at me! Look at how productive I am! Look at how many things I checked off my list today! I'm awesome!" -- but it's genuinely taking a toll on me and making me into a checklist-driven machine who's losing her ability to relax and have fun. I told you that God tells me what I need to focus on. Several weeks ago in church I got a very clear image of myself climbing up an endless mountain. As if I've made my goal in life to get to the top of a mountain that has no top. And I don't want that. There's no way that I was put on this earth simply to check things off a never-ending to-do list.

It's entirely possible I am the only one with this problem -- I mean, everyone is always complaining about how they procrastinate, not the opposite, right? But if you have any thoughts at all, I'd appreciate the help.


  1. You and I are so similar. :) I was also raised with, and continued to reinforce in myself as an adult, a value for getting things done - and getting the "have to"s done before the "want to"s. I hate unfinished projects, to-do lists that aren't completely checked off, and procrastinating. I think being married to someone who is very good (sometimes too good ;) ) at putting his personal happiness before the to do list has helped me - sometimes I just look at him and think, "If he's okay taking a break right now, I should be, too." Of course this doesn't work all the time, because at least one of us has to get us moving at some point. :) But he's good at recognizing not only when he needs time for himself, but also when I need time for me, and he'll point it out to me - "You need a break. Why don't you read a book or go scrapbook? Have some hot chocolate?" etc. Could Mike help keep you accountable that way?

    Have you seen the 2012 Declutter and Organize Calendar? Google it. While it's not necessarily something you need, I like some of the tips at the beginning of the document. I also like the idea of just doing one small thing each day, and not beating yourself up if you don't get to it.

    I think having a system is key. There are some things (like direct deposit and auto bill pay) that make our lives much easier, and save us a lot of time. If your bank gives you the option of using those features, do it! Also, I think (like you said) distinguishing the have-to's from the should-do's and the want-to's is important, but also how often they need to be done. Maybe filing papers only needs to happen once a week, or maybe the financial stuff (bills, paychecks, checking account balances, etc) can be monthly. We have 2 litter boxes so that we only have to clean them half as often - because it's one of our least favorite activities, it was worth the extra $15.

    What about putting fun/relaxing things on your to-do lists, too?

    I feel like we should be emailing or talking on the phone about this instead. :) Rest assured, I completely understand!

  2. @MIssy
    Yay, Missy to the rescue! At least one person understands my weirdness :)

    I think you are right that Mike could help me make time for myself. The issue I'm struggling with is that I don't know what I would want to take a break to do. When people ask what I like to do in my spare time, I usually say, "Blogging, knitting, sweepstakes." But those have become ingrained in my routine--half an hour of sweeps each morning, blogging three times a week, knitting at prayer shawl ministry meetings--so while they're still enjoyable, they can also cause stress because I feel I have to get them done. That's why I made "don't make fun a chore" part of my happiness commandments and why I'm hesitant to add fun things to my to-do list, because that will inherently suck some of the fun out of them. I do still read a lot, but even that can end up becoming a task when I'm like, "Crap! I have to finish this book by Thursday because it's due back to the library!" And then I have to schedule it in, which for me ruins some of the fun of it.

    I looked up the Declutter and Organize Calendar and I think it would have been helpful maybe a year ago, but honestly, with a few exceptions (*ahem* Mike's desk), we've gotten our apartment very organized and decluttered. We don't own much that we don't use, and everything has a place. I guess it's just the constant putting-things-back-in-their-places that takes up my time. Or, also, we're good at identifying things that need to go elsewhere (Goodwill, my parents' house), it's just a task to take them there.

    We have direct deposit for my paycheck, but unfortunately it's not available at Mike's work, so we have to deposit paper checks. I have auto bill pay set up for student loans, Internet, cell phones, and our church, but the ones that have variable amounts every month--electric bill and Discover card--I have to log in and authorize the payment. I could set up auto bill pay for our rent, but I prefer to put it on the Discover card because we get $90+ in cash back each year from it.

    How often to file is something I've struggled with. I used to let papers pile up and then I would want to put off filing them even more because I knew it would take half an hour when I finally did it. And multiple people have encouraged me to learn to file things right away. The problem is I'm somewhere in between still, so I'll let papers pile up for a few days, which means every time I walk by them I'm like, "Shoot, I still have to file those." But I wonder if I had a designated day, like every Saturday I file papers, then they wouldn't pile up too much but I wouldn't feel nagged every time I walk past them. That's an idea :)

    Mostly I've been trying to cut down on the amount of paper that comes in, period, by getting us off a bunch of junk mail lists and signing up for paperless statements wherever possible. Unfortunately there will always be some things that we will get on paper.

    Thanks for your suggestions! It's given me more to think about and some motivation that I can make changes. And I'm always up for talking on the phone as well :)

  3. You ended your blog with this: It's entirely possible I am the only one with this problem--I mean, everyone is always complaining about how they procrastinate, not the opposite, right? (Do HTML tags work in comments?)

    I think I'm a little bit of both. I make to-do lists and am dying to get things crossed off or erased...OR I put the things off for a variety of reasons: no time, other things to do first, don't want to. This post of yours is very timely, as I was thinking of writing a post about how I'm trying to stay more organized and more on top of my to-do list, versus letting it spiral out of control. A lot of my thoughts that I've been wanting to put down also revolve around fun or relaxation. C keeps saying how we don't have much fun anymore, but work is a big chunk of our days, then there's house stuff to keep up with. Even before he said anything, I noticed that all I do is work, even when it's something quasi-enjoyable like owning a home (needing to keep up with certain things to make the house look presentable) or cooking (gotta clean up afterward!).

    I don't know if this is a married people thing, but I feel like many of my single friends have much more fun than the married ones. I'm not talking about anything crazy; I'm talking about not having to do chores and spending time after work engrossed in a book, a DVD or a hobby. Then again, a few of the marrieds don't have more "traditional" households, ie. they don't eat together, they don't really cook, etc. So they don't have to race home to cook and then spend time cleaning up. They grab whatever to eat, and then do whatever. I have to admit, I'm jealous, but both C & I do better with routine and structure.

    Like so many other things with life, I think the key here is finding balance. Which can be hard for more Type A people :)

    Re: the library book example--can you renew online to give yourself another week/s? (I know when they are new releases, that's usually forbidden) Then you wouldn't have to rush.

    I fear this comment has gotten really disjointed--hopefully it makes sense, ha!

  4. Hey hey, HTML does work in the comments! :)

  5. @Rabbit
    OK, glad I'm not the only one who feels like all I do is work... even if, like you said, some of it is work related to things I enjoy! (Like... replying to blog comments?) :)

    I do feel like I have more things to do now that I am married. I think part of it is just being an "adult"--having my own place, owning pets, having insurance, etc. But part of it is a control and simplicity thing. Like if I were living by myself, and I didn't clean the bathroom, it would not get cleaned, and I would probably not invite people over until I felt motivated to clean it. But now there's more factors in play, like Mike and I together decide we want to have people over, and then it's like, are you going to clean? Are you expecting me to clean? Who's going to have time and when? And somehow that makes it more stressful. I don't know. There's probably a lot of factors in play.

    Re: library books -- yes, I renew online all the time. Yet another common to-do item: renew library books. We can only renew once, though, so then when I get the second e-mail that they're due soon, if I'm still not done with it (either because it's long, I've been busy, or most likely, I checked out multiple books at once) then I have to find a time to return it or remember to ask Mike to return it.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  6. I tried to leave a comment yesterday and it is not here? :(

  7. @Cat
    Oh no! That's strange. I never got an e-mail and there's nothing in my spam folder. I don't know what happened. But I'd still love to hear your thoughts if you don't mind typing them up again!

  8. I'm still struggling with this, so these pieces of advice aren't the 'they solved my problems, here you go!' variety, but more of the 'these have made me slightly less stressed out - hope some of them help' type. :)

    - triage your 'to-do' lists. I've got a LOT of 'ooh, someday ___ would be cool' ideas, but they were looming over me when I had them on the 'main' long-term to do list. I've got things split up into short-term, long-term and wishlist right now, and it's helped to separate out things that *have* to get done from things that would be *nice* to get done. I look at long-term and wishlist every month, so they're not forgotten, but they're not as imposing, either.

    - have certain 'acceptable' amounts of clutter. It's more efficient for me to file once/month, so I've got this awesome box with a lid that I use to keep papers in between filing bouts.

    - track your time, so you can make decisions about tradeoffs. I tended to avoid cleaning the bathroom for a lot of reasons, but when I decided to take a 10-minutes-and-it's-good-enough approach (bastardizing FlyLady), it helped a lot, since I knew I wasn't 'losing' 1/2 an hour. Not everything has corners you can cut, but a lot of things do.

  9. @alice
    Thanks for your tips! I do actually have two different to-do lists: I have my notebook with the things to do in the next day/week, and then I have a to-do list on my Google account that lists all of the big projects I want to eventually accomplish. Things can only go on my "immediate" to-do list if they're relevant to the current "big project." That was a lesson that took me a while to learn, so it's a good reminder.

    I am working on being OK with a certain level of clutter. My main goals are that there is nothing physically in my way (like sometimes Mike will set up the rat's playpen between the coffee table and couch and leave it there, so I have to climb over things to reach the cabinet) and that it's a manageable enough level that I can get things picked up for company in a relatively short time. Having a specific deadline when things will be taken care of helps a lot; for example, our Christmas tree and box of ornaments is still sitting in the middle of the floor, but I know Mike is taking it back to my parents' house to store on Thursday, so it doesn't bother me at all. It's when I have no set deadline and seeing something reminds me I still need to take care of it that I get stressed out.

    Even though it stresses me out a bit to think about adding something else (e.g., 10 minutes a day of cleaning) to my daily to-do's, if I try it out and it leads to less general stress overall (because I'm not constantly going, "Ugh, shoot, I should really clean this") then I'm all for it. Probably the main hurdle I have to get over is the "equality" one--that I'm putting so much effort into keeping things clean and Mike isn't. Which is stupid if I'm only doing it for my own mental health, but it's a difficult hurdle.

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts. "Talking" through all these suggestions in comments has helped me to focus on what is most important to me and what solutions I think will be most effective. And I hope they're helpful to others reading this as well!

  10. @Jessica
    UGH YES, I feel like all I do is WORK. On something. My life is like one big to-do list, but I know that if I don't write down "make lunch after dinner" I will go off and watch TV or putz around online and then it'll be 9:30 and I'll be tired and there'll be no lunch. Then I'll either have to get up earlier the next morning OR rush to throw something together.

    I actually made to-do lists to use day to day with all of the recurring tasks on it. Not because I'm THAT forgetful, but just to give me some structure. I need to write a post on this and I'll include the form.

    When I lived on my own, I hardly cleaned, or only when people were coming over. I didn't mind my own mess, but oddly enough, living with someone else was/is different. I will say that it's been easier for me to be a slob with a husband than a roommate--I don't know if that's because there were more of us living in an apartment (between 4 and 6 depending), not to mention, a much smaller space, or I feel like "hey he's my husband, he loves me no matter if I leave my hair in the shower drain!" That's kinda sad, because I shouldn't take him for granted on that level, but OTOH, I'm trying to not be SO anal about neatness. I can't win! haha :D

    I also feel like if I don't keep up with things, EVERYTHING will fall apart. I've already had a few instances of that: not doing the dishes for a few days or letting the mail pile up leads to total disarray in the kitchen, then how does one cook or prep food?

    One good thing about to-do lists: they help me feel accomplished with things that will take time, like house projects. If I have a list of things I'd like to do to a room, I might not be able to afford new carpet right now, but I CAN afford some new pillows and that will make me feel better, like I'm doing SOMETHING.

  11. Oh, and I also do the triaged to-do lists. Today, this weekend, someday, in the next season (good for outside things), etc. That helps and makes me relax a bit.

  12. @Rabbit
    I love the idea of pre-made to-do lists with recurring items on them. Even though there are a million to-do list apps already, I've been wanting to learn to code one for a while so it would actually do what I wanted it to, including having certain things appear new every day and scheduling things to become to-do items on a future day. I should really just send the outline I made to my brother because he's way further along than I am on learning to code apps (no surprise, as his degree's computer engineering). There I go, adding another thing I should/want to do to my list...

    I agree that it's easier to maintain a clean room than to keep up good habits in a messy one. I've been trying really hard to catch myself when I do things like, "Oh, I'll just leave my dish on the counter, there's already a pile of stuff here anyway." Even if I don't have time to clean off the counter, I can at least avoid adding to it! But better not to let it get messy in the first place! (Not always a possible solution when living with someone else...)

    I do feel accomplished when looking back over my "big projects" list. I think it's harder to feel accomplished about things I have to do every day.

  13. I don't know how helpful this will be, but my boss brought to my attention this lady, FlyLady that has taught tons of tips that my boss has found very helpful (here's her website if you're interested: http://www.flylady.net/).

    I haven't checked it out that much but I feel like a few of her things will really help you. One thing that my boss told me that I really like was "Anyone can do anything for 15 minutes". This was so helpful in helping us to get our house unpacked. We would just focus for 15 minutes on getting as much unpacked and put away in those 15 minutes and we were amazed at how much we could get done.

    Hope some of this help :)

  14. @Brie
    Funny, I first heard about FlyLady from work too, at this work/life balance seminar type thing I went to. It looks like her site is much better designed now than when I first saw it--it used to have lots of bad clip art and dancing gifs and not much in the way of navigation.

    We've got a party coming up soon, which is the only time Mike gets super gung-ho about cleaning the whole apartment, so I think after that happens I will try to implement some regular maintenance cleaning to stay on top of things. I bet FlyLady's stuff could help with that. Thanks!

  15. What about making a list of "fun" things to do! And you have to do two off this list everyday. "Fun" could be things you haven't tried but want to, simple things like a cup of tea and a book. Whatever your list looks like remember it is never ending too.

  16. @Fastlane
    Thanks for the suggestion. As I said above, the problems I'm having are that 1) I don't really know what I find fun, and 2) I know that making fun things a required activity takes the enjoyment out of them for me, which is why one of my happiness commandments is "Don't make fun a chore." And doing something fun when I have other "important" things to do stresses me out a lot. So those are really the things I'm trying to work on.

  17. This describes me to a T. I'm going to bookmark this and come back to it frequently. I feel like there's never enough time to fit in stuff for work and stuff for the home/my husband, let alone have time for myself and the things I find fun. It's a constant struggle for me, but your thoughts and your questions will help a lot while I continue on this path!

  18. @Katie
    Glad you found this useful! It's something I'm still struggling with, so if you have any tips to add, please come back and share!

  19. This is so great! I know I'm nearly a month late of coming over to visit you, but oral surgery kicked my butt.

    The to-do-list is SO SO hard to accomplish. It's never done. It hurts to have a long one, but we can't resist adding more to it.

    So glad not to be alone, you!

  20. @Katie Colihan
    Making a list at the end of the day of things I've accompished has helped me because otherwise, like you said, I feel like I never "accomplish" my to-do list, and it makes me feel like a failure. So looking at the steps I did take helps somewhat.

    Thanks for coming over to comment, and hope you're feeling better now!

  21. I'm not sure if this would help but I've found one of the things you need to do is to "defragment" your mind kindof like when you used to defragment a hard drive on your computer. What I've started (or at least tried to do) is take off one day each month where I don't have anything planned. I wake up when I want to, maybe eat a little, watch a few videos online. Sometimes just walk for miles around the city with nothing planned.

    What mattered to me was I had nothing specifically planned; I just saved some time in my schedule for nothing and I just let my mind wander and do it's own thing. It's definitely hard to find that time, especially since you need at least a couple of hours to do it, but it's worth it.

  22. I also want to add that you're not alone. Life is all about finding that balance. Everything really is shades of grey and I thank you for this post specifically.


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