On To Do (and Today) lists

What generally happens when I make a To Do list…

I start out with the best of intentions, clean sheet of paper in hand, confident that it’s all going to be achievable this time. Oddly, as I write things down, I can notice the confidence diminishing ever so slightly. However, it’s OK, because I’m making a To Do list and To Do lists are the answer to everything, aren’t they?

Once I’ve written down all the things I can think of and sat and looked at my list for a while, trying not to feel alarmed, I decide to start ticking things off. Some easy jobs first — just to make inroads into it.

Yes! I’ve done three things. I’m on a roll! It doesn’t matter that those were three of the things that I would have done anyway and that I’m studiously avoiding the other things in the murky bottom bit of the list. No, I’ve done three things out of my 107 things to do and therefore I’m making progress.

Then the phone rings and someone asks if I’d mind doing something for them and of course I wouldn’t, so I say yes and then, once I’ve put the phone down, I add that thing to the list and it’s now 108 things, but that’s ok because I’ve done three and…

Maybe now is a good time for a cup of tea. However, whilst I’m making a cup of tea, I notice that I really need to descale the kettle, because I’m tired of having crunchy tea, so I add that to the list — and now it’s 109 things and I’m feeling a bit less deserving of a celebratory “I’ve done three things!” teabreak.

My To Do list is starting to feel a bit less like the answer to everything and a bit more like a reproachful, slightly neglected pet.

My actual (frequently reproachful though not-at-all-neglected) pets.

What I now tell myself to do instead…

Take an enormous piece of paper. Write everything on it. All of the things that are cluttering up your mind, waking you up at night and generally making life a bit un-fun. This is your To Do list.

Now get a little piece of paper and use this for your Today list. Read through your massive, enormous To Do list and choose a very small number of things. Maybe three. Maybe five. Only you can decide, but the rule is — you can only put things on your Today list that you are committing to do today.

So if you think it would be nice to get around to looking at that corner of the kitchen where everyone seems to deposit things no matter how many times you ask them not to, but know deep down that there isn’t a hope of you actually doing it, DON’T put that on the list.

If, by contrast, you’ve noticed that your house plants are looking horribly dehydrated and you think you could probably water them whilst waiting for the kettle to boil a bit later on, then DO put ‘water plants’ on the list.

It might seem as though you have ridiculously low expectations if you only put a very few things on the list and they’re pretty small ones at that, but here’s the thing…


Don’t analyse. Don’t judge. Don’t beat yourself up. Just DO THEM.

When new things come to your attention and you need to add them to your To Do list, go right ahead. Just don’t put them on your Today list — unless you are willing to absolutely promise yourself that they’re going to be done by the end of the day.

You’re not ever going to clear your To Do list completely — that’s not how To Do lists work. But if you get into the habit of checking your To Do list each day, choosing just a tiny number of things from it to put on your Today list and then actually doing them, you will always know what needs doing, you will be making a steady impact, and you can go to bed at night knowing that you’ve done what you said you were going to do — which is worth a lot.

To Do, Today or something else entirely – what works for you?