break free of your to do list (and what to do instead)Are you a “list person”?

Do you know a “list person”?

I’m a list person, and I used to live by lists. Used to.

I loved Epic Itemized To-Do Lists especially.

I got a thrill when I saw a long page full of activities and tasks that I planned to accomplish. I would sometimes categorize or color-code the items. I drew little boxes beside each one, to check off, or I would highlight or strike through tasks when I finished doing them.

I would write additional things that weren’t on the original list as I completed them, just to get that little tingly feeling when I could strike through the item right away.

At the end of a productive day, I could smile at my long list, my trophy, my badge of honor, and know I had done well.

But not every day was quite so productive.

And often, I was left frustrated at the end of the day, when I had to rewrite lots of tasks onto the next day’s list. Rollover to-dos are no fun.

In the summer of 2013, I asked my readers what sort of categories they like to organize their to-do list items into.

My friend Jasmine answered:

I don’t list. I just do work, like a boss! I hate lists and I’m much more visual, so I see what needs to be done, and do it!

Like. A. Boss. And I know she kicks butt on the daily. She’s not BSing.

And while she was doing work like a boss, how much time did I spend writing those lists, running back and forth to check items off or write down something I had just done, and rewriting rollover tasks? I can’t tell you how many total hours I spent doing that stuff over the years, but I do know it was time I could have used in other ways.

It would be reasonable to guess that during that list-intensive phase of my life, I could spend a total of 20 minutes on list-management each day. But if someone handed me an extra 20 minutes, what could I use it for?

Sure, lists have their place…

But for the daily(ish) stuff?

  • move laundry through
  • fold laundry
  • put laundry away
  • wipe down kitchen surfaces
  • wipe down bathroom surfaces
  • clean bathroom mirrors
  • swish toilet
  • clean smeared windows / sliding glass door
  • sweep and mop kitchen and dining room
  • make the beds
  • feed the dog
  • feed the dog again
  • empty the dishwasher
  • wash dishes
  • get dressed (seriously??)
  • read to the kids
  • feed the family
  • go grocery shopping
  • floss my teeth
  • and so forth

Seriously? Seriously?? If we’re honest with ourselves, NONE of this junk needs to be on a Epic Itemized To-Do List anywhere, ever. Why are we wasting time writing them down, rewriting them neatly (if you’re a “list person” you know you’ve done it too), consulting the list between tasks to check them off and to decide what to do next, and so on?

AND if the list is on our phone, it’s just another excuse to keep the phone in our pockets instead of in the bedroom / on the speaker playing music / whatever. Which means it’s that much more tempting to send a quick text, peek at our facebook notifications, reply to a tweet, or WHATEVER.

Just, no.

This doesn’t mean we have to swear off lists all together.

Lists really can be helpful for:

  • Remembering things that aren’t as obvious, that we might forget to do without the reminder (but if it will take less than 5 minutes to do the task, we should just do it when we notice it).
  • Things that require some planning and materials-gathering, like many home-improvement projects.
  • Braindumps. If our mind is so full it’s swimming and racing and we can’t focus in order to get anything done (or to sleep), dumping everything onto a list can help us move on.
  • Breaking a longer-term project down into an ordered list of steps, so that we can make sure to stay on track.

But sometimes, lists can get in the way.

We  need to check our motives and goals when we write a list, and make sure we’re using them for the right reasons. If we’re using it to feel more productive, but it’s just full of those daily(ish) types of items I mentioned above, we should back slowly away from the notepad.

Make an effort to focus more. And kick your house’s butt. Like a boss.

What do I use instead of those epic to-do lists? I use a combination of three items:do more and stress less with 3 alternatives to your to do list

  1. My calendar – I write down appointments, deadlines, meetings, classes, school holidays, and other things that happen on a specific day or time.This is NOT the place for lists of tasks.
  2. A weekly checklist for work – If you homeschool, you might have a weekly checklist for homeschooling so that subject areas stay balanced. You might like to keep a cleaning checklist if that’s a top priority for you. Or you could have a weekly checklist for developing a new skill you’re working on learning.For my work stuff, there are a certain few items that must get done every week in order for things to keep moving forward. So I have one checklist that is the same every week, and I look at it when I’m planning my PrioriTasks each day.
  3. PrioriTasks – This is what I call the mini-list of just the few most important items (Priority Tasks) that must be completed today. I try to write this out the night before, so that in the morning I can hit the ground running.In order to determine which tasks should be on this mini-list, I look at my calendar and weekly checklist, and determine what the most important “next steps” are.

How does this look in action?

I’m finishing this post, which I started last week, on a Monday. Normally my Monday PrioriTasks would include tasks from my weekly checklist like getting my blog post ready to publish Tuesday, beginning to write an episode of HHRadio – Pep Talks and Tips for my Hardcore Homemaking community, and working on outlines for a few more blog posts, HHRadio, and the course I’m working on for Hardcore Homemaking.

But I checked my calendar and this week I have guest posts due for two sites. So, I’m getting this blog post ready to publish Tuesday and writing the first draft of one of the guest posts today, as my two PrioriTasks for the day. That isn’t all I hope or plan to accomplish, but if those are the only two things I get done for work, that will be just fine.

My home PrioriTasks work the same way. Since I don’t have a weekly checklist, I just choose whatever important chore needs to be done. Today, it’s finishing the laundry I started last night and putting it away. I also look at my calendar and add things related to that. We are having friends over for dinner tomorrow, so today I need to plan and shop for that meal.

Two work items, two home items. All of them actually need to get done today (well, laundry is lowest on the list since nothing bad will happen if it doesn’t get finished) around scheduled items like taking my kids to school and ballet. And I will do all of them, barring some unforeseen and unlikely event.

  • No rollover tasks necessary.
  • No stress about having too much on my plate.
  • No wasting time writing down tasks, rewriting them, crossing them off, and adding new tasks to cross off.

Are you angry?

Are you screaming at me through your computer or phone screen, “YOU WILL NEVER TAKE AWAY MY LISTS!” That’s okay.

And seriously, I still love lists. And I’m still a “list person” just like you are.

But I’m no longer a fan of the Epic Itemized To-Do List. I’ve become much more productive (and positive) since I’ve stopped using them. And I think you will be too. But you won’t know until you try it.

So I’m going to challenge you, even if you love lists, to put away the notepad today.

15 minutes is all it takes to get started decluttering, organizing, and homemakingAccomplish stuff. Do important things.

Keep up with your house, your kids, yourself, your life.

And at the end of today, go ahead and get your fix. Write an epic list. But instead of writing to-dos, take 15 minutes to write your “done list,” of all the things you DID today.

Know that even without an Epic Itemized To-Do List, you can still kick butt. Like a boss.

Know that you’ll still remember to feed the dog, wipe the counter, and wash the dinner dishes.

Know that what you’ve accomplished still matters, and you’ve made a difference in your world even without highlighting, striking through, or checking off items on a list.

And maybe with that knowledge, you’ll join me and throw away the Epic Itemized To-Do List for good.


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  1. I don’t do epic to do lists either. I try to write time specific things to do in my planner (on the day itself) then non-time specific things at the bottom of the page. I try to limit it to around 3 things besides the usual daily tasks. That’s about all that I’ll have time & energy to do!

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