Don’t Trust Your To-Do List
(It’s Crap)

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One of my productivity secrets is obsessive singular focus. Give me a task, and I’ll put my head down and get ‘er done. Ryan likes to joke that the last time we moved, he left for work from one apartment, came home to a different one, and the location was the only thing different. I’m that good.

Once there is a goal in front of me, I throw everything at said goal to achieve it. That time we planned our wedding? Most big rocks were complete in 24 hours. Site redesign? Give me a weekend. Total career change? I need a month, max.

One after another, I devote my energies to each goal like a monogamous relationship. And for awhile, it works. Until it doesn’t. This magical productivity train (choo! choo!) stops when obsessive singular focus requires you to ignore everything else that’s important. And because you lose sight, you get overwhelmed. The productivity train slows, then stops.

Last Friday, the train didn’t slow or stop, it derailed. I had been working on merging our financial accounts for about a week. What shouldn’t have been too arduous a process was made more difficult by multiple attempts (like, a thousand calls) to verify my identity with our new bank. I finally got the accounts open Friday afternoon and Ryan said he would change his bills to our new joint accounts on Sunday.

Ahem.

SUNDAY? TWO DAYS AWAY?

Not only had I spent many logistical hours getting our accounts in place, but I had spent many more hours creating new budgets for our joint finances, and most importantly, I was READY. TO. BE. DONE. To cross this task, its sub-tasks, the whole freakin’ thing, off my list.

When Ryan went to pick us up dinner, I called my mom. “Can you believe it? He wants to do it on Sunday!”

“Well, it doesn’t all have to be done right now, does it?” she said.

My mom, ever-the-mediator. I took a breath.

No, it didn’t have to be done then and there. Not at all. In fact, there would be no dire consequences if Ryan changed the accounts on Sunday instead of Friday.

I took another breath. And really, if I had permission to not do things right away, just because it was on my list, maybe I could enjoy our Friday night, and Saturday, and Saturday night.

One more breath. Yes, of course, Sunday was fine.

We live in an achievement-oriented culture, where we add things to our to-do list, even when they’re already done, just to cross it off. The art of getting things done is more important than what we’re doing. Compile the weekly report. Done. Grocery shopping. Done. Write. Done. Exercise. Done. Meditate. Four out of five ain’t bad. But just because we measure by the numbers doesn’t mean we’re complete.

Climbing can be exhausting and I’ve tried to opt out. Not out of hard work, mind you. We glibly talk about first-world problems, but when your food and shelter needs are met, and you get down to the horrifying work of being a decent human being, sitting with your mind day-in and day-out, there are no easy problems. When you’ve stripped the titles and money and accolades, it can be more than difficult to just “be you.”

Not convinced? Witness the existential crises the most privileged among us face: the have-it-all graduates of the Ivy League. In a bracing essay for The New Republic, former Yale Professor and author William Deresiewicz argues “our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

So we fill our time. With weekly reports. Daily lists. Merging financial accounts. We make things that don’t need to be priorities super important. So we feel important. So that we have meaning. So that we feel we’re on this Earth for some sort of reason.

Me too. I’m super competitive, despite never getting above fifth place on track or speech team in high school (FLUKES, I tell you). I’m good at what I do. I was groomed for the new American Dream where your email open rate counts for more than the type of car in your driveway. I love seeing numbers going up-and-to-the-right whether it’s revenue or minutes per run. Tracking. Self-quantification. Besting my personal best.

And me too. I’m hard on myself. Way too hard. It’s okay not to do it all. It’s okay not to have it all. I have to remind myself.

Obsessive singular focus is a magic potion. But it can be poison. It depends on the task at hand. But here’s a tip: Don’t trust your to-do list. It’s crap.

If you want to work on what matters, new spots are now open for the next round of Accountability Friend, wherein you invest in whatever your heart desires, and I become your accountability friend for two weeks. Click here to take control of your time, and take responsiblity for your life.