“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)
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.