Does Your To-do List Inspire You?

We all have them: to-do lists. You might have them in your head, or on a page in your journal. Or you are using a fancy little app on your smartphone. Lists of things that need to be done: do groceries, fix the heater (or in the care of the DIY challenged like me, call the maintenance guy). Call your mom, sign up for the gym, plan out a project, set up a meeting, follow up on a lead.

The list goes on.

And it really does, doesn’t it? The list goes on and on and on and on. It sometimes feels like the fabled hydra; for each head you cut off, two will grow back. Finish a task on your list and two take its place.

Even if you are amongst the fabled few that ever complete everything on their list you know that this victory will be short-lived. Before long your list will start filling up again and you can start all over again.

And that’s actually OK. In fact, it’s a sign of life. How would you feel if you had nothing to do? Truly nothing. Try to imagine it…

[cue music]

If you were imagining total relaxation, perhaps even happiness, think again. Because that’s not what’s going to happen. I’m very sorry, but we’re simply not wired to have nothing to do, nothing to pursue. Humans are goal-oriented beings. Having nothing to do might feel great for a while but that feeling will wear off fast.

So we seem to be stuck. We need stuff to do and we need to actually get stuff done. But using a to-do list make us feel like we’re constantly battling a mythological monster set to drain us of our joy, our happiness and eventually a fulfilling life.

So what can you do?

You don’t have to get rid of your to-do list. You just need a different approach.

Have you ever wondered WHY you are doing the things you are doing?

I mean really asked yourself that exact question? More importantly, have you ever tried to come up with an answer? We all have moments where we throw up our hands in frustration and mutter (or scream) “I don’t know why I keep doing this”.

What if you did know? What if the reason you do something is compelling, inspiring or downright amazing? What if it is greater than yourself? What if, by doing what you do, you are growing as a person and contributing beyond yourself?

Does that sound good?

In his book Start with Why, Simon Sinek says “people don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it”.

And that includes you.

YOU don’t buy what you do but why you do it. If you don’t know why you are doing something, chances are excellent that you won’t enjoy it, let alone be inspired by it. And guess what? It makes actually doing it that much harder.

Procrastination suddenly seems like a long, warm bath.

But if you have to stop and think why you are doing what you are about to do for each and every item on your to-do list, you’ll never get anything done.

Lucky for us, most of the items on our to-do list can be grouped into logical areas. One group of items can be related to improving your health. Another to studying. Another to planning your vacation. And so on.

If you do this for your current to-do list, you will likely find that you have about a handful of areas, or maybe a dozen. That is a much more manageable number, isn’t it? You can definitely answer the question “why am I doing this?” for that number of areas.

And typically an area is fairly constant. It depends on how high-level you define it. “Improving my health” is obviously going to be around for a while. “Planning my vacation” could be around much less long. The point is, you do not have to repeat this exercise every day. You can do it once for each area and simply refer to it when you do anything on your list.

Now, there is a simple rule when it comes to answering the question “why am I doing this?” You need to be really convincing. Your reason why needs to be inspiring, it needs to drive you forward.

If your reason to work on your health is “because the doctor says so,” you aren’t going to be inspired. How about being able to spend time with your kids? How about still having the energy to surprise your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend at the end of a long day? How about being an example of what is possible? Find a reason, or preferably more than one that works for you.

The best reasons are those that are important to you.

With these reasons in place, anything you need to do within that area becomes part of something greater. Your to-do list will feel much less overwhelming and the mythological monster will turn out to be nothing more than a stuffed animal.

If you want to get started on this today, remember these 5 steps:

  1. Group your to-do list into logical areas.
  2. For each area, come up with an answer to the question “why am I doing this?” Get inspired.
  3. Whenever you start on doing something on your list, review your answer.
  4. Whenever a new item arrives, put it into the right area.
  5. If an item doesn’t fit anywhere, create a new area, with a new answer that inspires you.

You can use this in your weekly planning process. Simply pick the three areas you are going to focus on in any given week. Any to-do item in those three areas will have priority over any others. Then schedule time to work on those areas. Block out the time in your agenda. For the best result, schedule this time before anything else.