Holly Richardson: Make some not-to-do and stop-doing lists

(Photo Courtesy Holly Richardson)

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, authors Burmeiser and Tierney note that the average person has 150 different tasks on their to-do list. I immediately went to my to-do list and numbered them: only 133 top-line tasks (plus 85 second-tier tasks). Phew. I’m not even average!

It did make me wonder why we do things like that to ourselves.

So are to-do lists good or bad? Do they help or hurt? The answer is yes.

On the good side, to-do lists can help us keep track of what needs to be done (obviously) and each time we can check an item off the list, we get a little hit of dopamine, the feel-good hormone. We can use to-do lists to prioritize our tasks and think about dropping the ones that are at the bottom of the list. Plus, we know that writing goals down and especially writing down the small steps that lead to achieving that goal makes us more likely to be successful.

On the not-so-good side, there are some schools of thought that we should do a brain dump and get everything out on paper - or digitally - and then we can free up our brains to focus on actually getting tasks done. But when your list is 150 items long, what are the chances those tasks will actually get done? Stress, overwhelm and the need to get off the hamster wheel can be the result.

Clearly, I am a list maker, but lately, the list has been intimidating. I check off too little. I feel like I can never close the loop on that to-do list. So few things get checked off, and for every item that gets checked off, it seems like there are two more to take its place.

And I don’t even put things like “do laundry” on there, because that is a truly never-ending task. I have heard there are people who actually get their laundry all the way done. I have no idea what that might be like.

When I did a Google search for “overwhelming to-do lists,” the six sponsored results at the top of the page were for some sort of system to be able to do more. That may not, in fact, be the goal. Along with a number of articles about dealing with overwhelming, never-ending to-do lists, I also found the notion of the “not-to-do” list, or a “stop-doing” list. It’s not a new idea but it was new to me. What a concept!

Jim Collins, of “Good to Great” fame, wrote an article for USA Today 15 years ago about creating a stop-doing list. He said his friend and former teacher told him he was a busy but undisciplined person and challenged him to the 20-10 assignment. It goes like this: Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?

This is a particularly busy time of year for me and many of the families I know. We are trying to squeeze the last bits of summer vacation out of the next 10 days, but there are also all the events (including shopping) around back-to-school time, anticipating the coming change in the weather and staying on top of the garden that was semi-neglected all summer all while breathing air you can taste.

Author Greg McKeown’s writes: “Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”

Maybe I will put re-reading his book “Essentialism” at the top of the to-do list and drop sock matching from my list.

(Photo Courtesy Holly Richardson)

In spite of her complaining, Holly Richardson, a regular Salt Lake Tribune contributor, is excited to have some new items on her to-do lists, like “get a PhD from the University of Utah.” She starts in just over a week.