4 Steps to Conquering Your To-Do List and Beating Stress

“Sometimes our stop-doing list needs to be bigger than our to-do list.” ~ Patti Digh

How long is your to-do list?

Don’t have a written one laying around somewhere?

If not, it’s probably banging around in your head. Take a moment, grab a piece of paper, and write down all those things you need to get done. It’s likely when you do, you’ll have two long lists—one for work and the other for home or “life.”

How many of those items do you get done in a given day?

If you’re like most people, you may get a few items off your list, but still leave undone the most important one or two things on that list.

You simultaneously get a hit of dopamine from the sense of accomplishment while at the same time giving yourself a dose of cortisol because you know you’ve put off the most important, but perhaps the most demanding or difficult task for another day.

And besides, no matter how much you get done, there’s always items left on the list or new items quickly rush in to repopulate the list. This causes a sense of unlimited frustration and dis-ease. You always feel behind and burdened by all that’s left undone.

There’s this constant low-level sense of dissatisfaction that causes us to feel unaccomplished, unfocused, and confused. We want more but we don’t know why we want more. We just know from our culture that more is better because our society is built on this bedrock principle.

But what “works” for the stock market and corporate culture is often toxic to our souls because it creates a situation where we’re constantly stressed. We’re slowly killing ourselves by our relentless drive for more.

How can we fight this? Let’s go back and examine the myth underlying your to-do list.

The “I can do it all” myth

There’s one myth floating around that drives our stress more that any other. Let’s call it the “I can do anything” myth.

Driven by the technological and scientific breakthroughs of the last few decades or so, this myth also shows up in the phrase “I can be anything.”

The problem with this philosophy is that it bumps up against the reality of time, thus creating stress. Here’s a mathematical representation of the source of most of our stress:

Unlimited possibilities + limited time = Unlimited stress

Because the amount of hours in a day is fixed, the amount of stress we experience is directly proportional to our expectations of what we can accomplish in a given hour, a given day, or a given lifetime.

Reducing your possibilities

In order to reduce your stress, you must be will to reduce your possibilities. It sounds almost sacrilegious to say this in our culture of “more” but if you’re willing to explore this idea, here are 4 steps to consider:

1. Acknowledge your limitations

This seems obvious but base on our actions, most of us seem to be completely unaware of the fact that we have limitations. Our two primary limits are our time and our energy. So take a good look at your to-do lists and say “I will likely not complete everything I need to get done today…and that’s OK!”

You’re not changing anything, you’re just acknowledging the reality that there will always be things left undone.

2. Prioritize your values and goals

Examine each item on your list and ask yourself these two questions:

What are you trying to accomplish? (Goals)
Why? (Values)

Do these responses match your most important goals and values? If not, do these items need to be on your list?

3. Expect to make trade-offs every day

Once you’ve accepted your limitations and figured out your most important values, you’re ready to accept the reality that you make trade-offs every day. The difference here is that you’ll begin do so intentionally rather than haphazardly.

Making intentional trade-offs gives you a much better chance of making decisions in keeping with your highest values, thus reducing stress caused by inner conflict.

4. Practice extreme Pareto

In the book The ONE Thing, authors Gary Keller and Jay Papasan push the Pareto rule to its limit in order to virtually eliminate to-do lists. The Pareto rule is the simple but powerful idea that “the majority of what you want will come from the minority of what you do.” Also known as the 80/20 rule, the principle is that 20 percent of your activities produce 80 percent of your results.

So how does extreme Pareto work? Take a look at your to-do list. Identify the 20 percent of what you do that drive most of your results. Take the new list and identify the 20 percent of that list that produce most of the results. Keep going with this process until you end up with one item on your list. Going through this process will force you to practice the three previous steps above.

Make peace with the undone

Most of us spend our days trying to eliminate the undone even though we know deep down that this is impossible to do.

There will be things left undone every day right up to our last day on earth. It’s not about whether or not you will leave things undone. The real question is “Will you leave the right things undone?”

Reduce your stress today by making peace with the undone and letting go of all that is trivial.

That way you can focus on the things that truly count.

On the Smallness of Your Life: A Simple Way to End Suffering

“A true genius admits that he/she knows nothing” ~ Albert Einstein.

Let’s face it.

We all want to be big.

And I’m not just talking about the obvious ways we manifest this desire: bigger car, bigger house, bigger job.

Because underlying the obvious ways we want to be big are the non-obvious drivers of these desires: more respect, more recognition, a greater sense of self-worth.

Why are we so obsessed with wanting to be big? We’re terrified of being humiliated, which is basically when we’re made to feel small.

If you think you’re exempt from these desires, think again. Think about the ways you suffer when you feel you’ve been treated unjustly, talked down to, or ignored. Think about your choices about how you dress, the car you drive, the neighborhood you live in. Understand that most of these choices are driven by your fears about how others might perceive you.

We all have an intense desire to live lives that matter. This is the heart of our desire to be big.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be big. It’s just that most of us are motivated by our fear of humiliation instead of manifesting a reality that already is.

We don’t need to make ourselves big. We don’t need to bring others down in the process. We don’t need to try to control every aspect of our lives.

We just need to be authentic and see clearly who we are in relation to reality.

Want to be big? Embrace the smallness of your life

I just returned from a week-long vacation with my wife in Oregon. We spent the majority of our time on hiking trails in Mount Hood National Forest. This place truly felt like an enchanted forest: majestic trees rising hundreds of feet into the air, breathtaking waterfalls just as tall, and green moss that covered the trees and forest floor.

Multnomah Falls

Multnomah Falls

In a place like this, it’s nearly impossible to be preoccupied with your daily concerns, fears, and worries. In these woods time stands still as a sense of awe envelops you. Our petty concerns that drive our lives are exposed for what they truly are—illusions.

The moment of truth for me came when I laid my eyes on Mount Hood for the first time. This time of the year, you can only get glimpses of the mountain as it’s usually hiding behind clouds. But one day, the clouds parted and the mountain revealed itself.

Mount Hood

Mount Hood

In that moment, I fully embraced the smallness of my life. In embracing my smallness my suffering became just as small and I became as big as that mountain.

Who do you think you are?

In the story of Job in the Bible, Job challenges God to provide evidence of his wrongdoing that justified his suffering. God responds:

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me if you know so much.
Who determined its dimensions and stretched out the surveying line?
What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7)

God’s basic response to Job’s challenge is “Who do you think you are?”

As I was experiencing the beauty of the Northwest, this question was on my mind. And this is the question you should ask yourself when you feel like life is treating you unfairly, when you feel humiliated, and when you feel like you’re not in control of your life.

Ask yourself this question everyday. It will be key to ending your suffering.

Wisdom From Two Important Mothers in my Life

My wife Laura and our daughter Imogen

On this Mother’s Day, I want to take an opportunity to share some wisdom I learned from two important mothers in my life.

My Mom

The first is my own mom. Her example and love have taught me much about sacrifice and selfless giving to another. She made sure me and my three siblings were well fed, clothed, educated, and mannered. She taught us moral and spiritual values. And if all that weren’t enough, she spent time with us and loved us.

I would not be who I am today without my mother. Here are three pieces of wisdom she taught me:

1. Don’t go with the flow

I always remember her telling me to be suspicious of the path everyone else is taking. It was my first lesson in critical thinking. I took that lesson to heart early on. It didn’t make me the most popular guy in school but it did keep me from going down some potentially dangerous paths. I am most grateful.

2. Tend to your spiritual life

Mom made sure we were at Mass every Sunday, whether we wanted to go or not. But she went further. Mom encouraged me to develop my own prayer life and my personal relationship with Christ. Her own faith was, and still is a powerful example.

Developing my interior life has given me strength to face the tough times with grace and to know that I am loved, even when I mess up.

3. Develop your unique gifts

Mom made sure we learned the things we needed to know. She followed up on my homework assignments to make sure they were done. She made sure I went above and beyond what was expected of my teachers.

She also gave me freedom to develop my own gifts. When mom noticed that I gravitated to piano after taking clarinet lessons for a few years, she promptly found me a piano teacher and got me a little keyboard. When she saw that my interest was more serious than the little keyboard could handle, she bought a brand new upright piano! Even at fourteen or fifteen I knew that this was a big sacrifice she was making for me. I will never forget it.

My Wife

The other important mother in my life is my wife, Laura. She is an amazing mother to our children and she inspires me to be the best father I can be. Laura was interviewed and featured on Design Mom. Here is a touching excerpt of what she shared (check out the link to read the whole interview and to get a tour of our home):

When we’re wrapped up in parenting and trying to get through the next moment, it’s so easy to forget that the broken, failing person that one feels like at times is not the person your child sees. On nights when I’m laying in bed staring at the ceiling and telling Cylon how it feels like I did a terrible job that day, my kids aren’t laying in their beds thinking about what a horrible mom I was. Every day we have to trust that grace is going to give us a chance to do it again and fix the rough edges.

I know that I have shared these feelings as a dad. It’s one of the hardest parts about raising kids. Here are two takeaways for me:

1. Be kind to yourself

When I fall short, it is amazing how I can quickly jump to the conclusion that I am the worst person in the world. This may be true in my own world but often it is not true for others.

2. Don’t give up

Life is messy. We are not perfect. Every day is a new chance to try again. Sometimes we have to try many times before we get it. Don’t let that fact discourage you, just keep trying.

Love and Sacrifice

From both these mothers, I learned that love requires incredible sacrifice. In the blog interview. Laura’s response to this question “What has surprised you the most about being a mom?” was this:

The thing that surprised me is that part no one can explain – the selflessness and personal growth parenting requires. My kids make life so much richer because they are a constant reminder of all that is going on in the world outside my own head. Teaching them and learning from them is so hard, but so good.

When we love, we are freed from the prison of our own world. This is why we need each other.

To my mother and my wife, thank you for loving me unconditionally.

I love you.