Please stop making To-Do lists that don’t work

Updated to Productivity on December 27, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

There’s something seductive about making a list – especially at year end. Our Disney-like dream is that everything we list will – poof! – magically get done.

So, we pull up a chair, grab our favourite pen, and with firm chin (whatever that means), open our journal to map our future.

As we write our first commitment, we quietly smile and think “This will change everything.”

Meanwhile, a little voice mumbles: “Ah, ahem, excuse me…haven’t we been here before?”

“Yes, Yes” we reply with insistence, “this time everything will be DIFFERENT!”

I’m using coloured pens!

At year’s end (when I’m writing this), we really allow our fanciful self to speak up:

“Lose 40 lbs.” you write.

“Travel to Italy” you add, picking up speed

“And earn $100,000!” (why not, it will pay for your trip to Italy!)

“Ride my bike to work, go gluten-free, never eat another muffin and learn Spanish.”

Your list building has taken on a breathless momentum – it seems almost anything is possible: write a best-seller? meditate in a Tibetan monastery? go viral on YouTube?

Stop making lists

It’s not that I’m against lists—it’s kind of hard to go shopping without one.

I’ve made lists until the cows came home—and ignored just as many.

Lists are fine: you can make a list of things to get done this week with my Plan Like A Pilot system or to organize your planning. “Keeping promises is considered a measure of one’s worth” writes Melissa Ritter, Ph.D. in “we prize being ‘as good as our word.’”

That’s all good stuff.

I’ve made lists until the cows came home—and ignored just as many. It’s not about the list – it’s about me and my story.

Last week I was on the road all week with clients. It was a great week. And the week before was just as busy. I was intently working from a list. I had to. I had a week’s full of work to get done before I left town and I had to prepare to leave.

In those times, my list is my bible and the system works.

It’s when I make a list about the future the system fails.

In some twist of reality, I overestimate my abilities, over commit my time and ultimately fail to deliver. The results are disappointing and my ego takes a hit. Not good.

If you know what I’m talking about and you want to end the list-making fool’s game, here what I think are the 3 missing ingredients in your planning potpourri.

1. Get realistic

It’s great you want to lose 40lbs, but, to get there you first have to successfully lose 5lbs. I mean nobody went from living on the streets to earning $1M or from mail clerk to CEO without checking off a lot of steps in between. to do that you first have to lose 5lbs.

There is no shame in creating a more modest, realistic list – call it “interim”, or “Phase 1.” A big part of your success long-term will comes from conquering the small, non-heroic small steps a long the way. Start small.

2. Create a new story

Let’s face it: you can’t step forward if one foot is anchored to the past

Let’s face it: you can’t step forward if one foot is anchored to the past—you need to close old stories and create new ones.

The brilliant psychologist and Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl would ask his patients if they were to live this day over what would they do differently. That deceptively simple question forces us to look objectively on our choices – removed from the emotional attachment we might have to the outcomes. It can also lead to a new story.

My story used to be that busy equaled success. That bizarre formula drove my work ethic, but also burned me out. In my 30’s and 40’s, it became my badge of achievement. In my 50’s it was just damn irritatingly unsatisfying.

So I got equally busy with training, yoga, gym time, meditation and journalling. Now I was still busy but in other areas. My new story is that all of my success comes from thinking deeply about what matters and making smart decisions.

What story do you need to get more of what you want?

3. Take the first step

This is going to sound dumb (better me than you), but you have to take the first step. I wrote more about taking the first step in this popular post. Better yet, when you make your goals list, also add what the first step is.

It while 90% of New Year resolutions fail – they don’t take the first step. They don’t get the satisfaction that comes from momentum and they quit.

We see this all the time with saving money, losing weight, getting more sleep and reducing clutter. The solution is simple, take some small action.

Here are some examples in my life of big goals and tiny (and some not-so-tiny) first steps:

  • Remove clutter in my life – make my bed every morning.
  • Compete in endurance paddling races – get coaching once a week for a summer.
  • Write every morning for 2 hours – get up 30 minutes earlier, write for 30 minutes.
  • Own a rental house – first pay down my mortgage $10K per year.
  • Write a book – read one book a week for a year.

Look, we’re all going to write lists – lots of them. We might as well do it right.

If you want to be even more annoyed by my rants about getting stuff done, here’s more:

Younger Next Year
Make this your year to speak up
7 reasons why your plans for 2014 will fail (and what to do about it)
How drinking tea can make you rich (and build willpower)
10 books that will make you smarter, richer and more fun to be around
Procrastinating about New Year goals? Make Origami instead
Final Post: My 2017 wish for you