How we approach the tasks of our day can have a big influence on how much stress or satisfaction we derive from them, and ultimately what results we achieve. This is especially important when we’re in a low mood and feeling stressed, anxious or depressed.
Let’s compare two approaches to the tasks you want to accomplish in a given day.
The To-Do List Approach:
This is the traditional approach where you have one or more big To-Do lists. You put items on the list and then check them off each time you complete one.
The problem is this type of To-Do list can produce stress (see below). Stress causes poor decision making, lowers productivity and can lead to procrastination. And of course, the less productive you are, the more stress you may feel - a bad cycle.
Here are some of the specific issues with traditional To-Do lists:
They can feel never ending and give insufficient acknowledgement of accomplishments. If there are 50 things on your list and you complete one, your thoughts may be focused on the 49 remaining items, and not on the celebration of the task you just completed.
Having this To-Do list nearby can distract you from focusing on a single task. It’s easy to think, “I wonder how many more things I need to get done today. Let me look at my list again.” Each time you look at your list it results in distraction and more decision fatigue since your brain has to again analyze all the items and make comparative decisions. In addition, you’ll repeatedly be reminded of those unpleasant tasks lurking on your list.
To-Do lists don't account well for time. The result is there’s a big gap between the items on your list and the reality of a finite amount of time each day. When you don’t account for time you can end up being too hard on yourself for not finishing a task, even though it was unrealistic that you would do so right from the start of the day.
To-Do lists doesn’t force you to make choices upfront about priorities given the finite amount of time each day.
To-Do lists don't give you an accurate view of how you spend the time of your days. Such a view can help with work/life balance and accessing overall priorities.
To-Do lists invariably don't emphasize or even acknowledge the importance of items like self-care and activities to recharge your energy.
Finally, To-Do lists can make you more reactive. You get into the habit of frequently scanning your list, feeling the resulting stress, and then reactively picking the next thing to work on.
The result of such To-Do lists is we get stressed, our brains tire from decision fatigue, and we’re less and less effective as the day goes on.
In this method you start your day by identifying the main tasks on which you’d like to spend time that day. Your brain is rested and you can see the forest instead of just the trees. This is the one time of the day you may refer to your To-Do list to identify tasks you want to incorporate in your day. Then you put that list away, out or sight.
Next you arrange today's desired tasks on your calendar accounting for how long each one will take. (This can be an electronic or paper calendar.) Right away you'll likely start to have a more realistic view of what you can actually do in one day. Also, try to leave at least 5 minutes per hour for a simple break to clear your head and recharge before taking on the next task.
When you sequence your day's tasks you can account for when things might be due or when your energy may be best to do certain tasks. Once you have your calendar in place you can simply start to do one item at a time.
Here are the benefits of this calendar-based approach:
It reduces multitasking since you know what you want to focus on for each block of time. Using a scheduled block of time for individual tasks is a good attention building practice. If your mind starts to drift to other tasks like checking email, simply say to yourself something like, “I notice I’m thinking about checking my email; that’s ok; it’s just a thought.” Take a deep breath, then bring your attention back to the task at hand. This awareness and return-to-focus cycle is much like the practice of mindfulness.
You can let go of your worries about if you’re spending your time in the best way. You already made these decisions in a thoughtful way to start your day when your brain was most fresh.
It keeps the big picture in mind. When you make a thoughtful plan in the morning you’re able to do so through a lens of your day as a whole, and not through a reactive lens of staring at your To-Do list at 2pm while feeling stressed.
It lets you celebrate frequently. At the end of each block of time you’re able to acknowledge the effort you just put in on a given task, and how you tried to do so in a mindful way. You're able to celebrate your effort versus just if an entire task was completed or not.
You’ve accounted for the realities of time. You're able to see how some tasks simply take more time than others. You don’t beat yourself up for not finishing a task that was simply not possible to finish on a given day. You can put in a block of time for tomorrow to continue working on that task.
You’ve focused on progress, not perfection. Progress is spending a block of time on a task. Perfection is worrying about it being done and crossing it off.
You’ve reduced decision fatigue. Your plan for the day is made in the morning when your brain is most rested and you are able to select tasks in a holistic manner vs reactively during the day. You don’t have to burn additional decision energy during the day on what task to do next.
So, tomorrow morning take a few minutes at the start (or tonight if it puts your mind more at ease) and plan out your day. Then execute your day knowing that you have a plan and that the best results come from working on a single task at a time. At the end of the day take a few minutes to acknowledge how you spent your day and give yourself credit for that effort.