How to tame the unruly beast that is the to-do list

How to tame the unruly beast that is the to-do list - www.alliepottswrites.comTo-do lists can be so cute when they are young. When they look at you with those big shiny eyes, begging for your attention, you can’t help taking them home. As you stroke its fur and listen to it emit those adorable sleepy sounds of contentment, you can’t help think of all the wonderful things the two of you will accomplish together.

Then one day when you aren’t paying it enough attention, it piddles on the floor or gnaws a hole in your favorite shoes. Your sleep gets interrupted by late night whimpers or whines demanding your immediate attention. It nips at your fingers with sharp baby teeth and scratches your legs with its razor-sharp claws.

But you let this behavior go. It’s a baby to-do list after all. Mishaps happen. It’s annoying, yes, but all part of the process. You tell yourself it’s no big deal.

The next thing you know, that baby is one hundred fifty pounds of pure muscle more capable of taking you on a walk than you are taking it. The floors are ruined as is the couch, the blinds, and the contents of your closet. You stop having anyone over, too embarrassed to let them see what your list has become. You dread leaving your home, worried about what mess it’ll make while you are gone. What if it gets out? Even worse, what if it finds another list out there and multiples?

It growls at your family. It snaps at your dreams and each day you do nothing your to-do list only grows larger, meaner, and more wild. It’s no longer annoying. It’s quality of life affecting.

You might be tempted to take the to-do list out to the woods and be done with it, but then you remember back to those eyes and the sweet little baby it once was, and you decide to give it one last chance, but deep down you know something has to change. That something is you.

It’s time to take control and tame that unruly beast.

Step 1: Put that list on a diet.

If you aren’t sure of your to-do list’s ideal weight, ask a trusted friend, but chances are you have been feeding it far more than is healthy. Start by cutting back on the filler treats that might make you temporarily feel good, but in truth don’t provide any nutritional value, like agreeing to judge a hot dog eating competition at the local state fair when you also have three missed deadlines already and no experience in the world of professional competitive eating.

Focus instead on limiting your list to three to five lean but high-quality meaty goals and keep your list active with plenty of exercise. Once your list is back in a manageable weight class, you can reintroduce the snacks provided they remain in moderation.

If you are not sure how to do this (it’s harder than it sounds), you may want to check out The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals (affiliate link). Yes, it is a business book, but I treat achieving my big goals as a business and so should you.

Step 2: Establish and Enforce Boundaries

Expect whining from your to-do list, especially in the beginning as it is used to getting its way, but remember its reign over your house is over. Spray bitter apple on things that shouldn’t be chewed. Invest in a fence or limit its range to only certain rooms. Purchase a timer or create a schedule. However you set your boundaries, make sure they work for you because once set, you’ll need to remain firm and let what doesn’t make the list go. As long as you don’t mind the language, I recommend reading The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (affiliate link)

Step 3: Enlist the help of a trainer

Your to-do list just knocked over Grandma Maude’s vase with its tail.  I get it. Adding more books to read to your list isn’t helping. You’ve maxed out on what you can do alone. If this is the case, I recommend finding an accountability partner. This can be a friend, spouse, colleague, or even a random person you’ve stalked built a relation with online (facebook groups related to your interests are a good place to start). The ‘who’ doesn’t matter. What they do, however, does. This person should be able to regularly help identify priorities and be trusted to hold the leash with a firm hand when your to-do list starts pulling away as it is apt to do.

Step 4: Reward your progress

How to tame your to-do list -
Asana Screen Shot

Positive reinforcement works wonders. Just as a dog can learn to associate the sound of a clicker or over-the-top expressions like “whose a good girl/boy? You are!” as praise, your list will respond to seeing tasks getting checked off. Treat each check mark like a big deal it is. If you prioritized your tasks properly, they will be. Don’t keep your accomplishments in your head. Write them down and display them for all your family to see.

Some people might be comfortable working from a scratch pad or a pile of post-it notes, but I prefer using an app like Evernote, Trello (affiliate link to tell them Allie sent you) or Asana. All have desktop and mobile versions as well as limited, but free-to-use plans. I also like these tools because it makes it easy for me to share my list with my accountability partners, set due date reminders, and upload files related to a task, so pulling it all together later is one task I don’t have to add to a list.

Step 5: Accept accidents will still happen

No matter how well-behaved your list becomes, its heart is still that of a wild beast. Accidents, like forgotten commitments and missed due dates will still happen. Don’t rub your list’s nose in it. Don’t dwell on the failure and whatever you do, if your goals are important enough, don’t ever give up.


25 thoughts on “How to tame the unruly beast that is the to-do list

  1. My husband and I were just talking this morning about Getting Things Done, one of those how-to books aimed at helping you stay organized. We both agreed that at the time it came out it helped us, but now, years later, we only abide by one or two of its principles. My point here is: that I adore books like the ones you reviewed here, but in the end it’s the bits and pieces of advice that I’ve hobbled together into my own plan that have tamed my To Do List.

    And now I’m off to look at The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck… although I may have nailed that idea already. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My hubby has been trying to get me to read one of those how to de-clutter your lives books next. I have to remind him we have small kids. Mastering the subtle art is much easier than attempting to wrest the kids’ stuff away.


  2. Hah! Mine is resembling nothing so much as Cerberus at the moment. Red glaring eyes, slavering corrosive saliva as it has me pinned to the floor, growling. I’m not sure “taming” is still in the picture… Then again, maybe it’s one of those “Hound of the Baskervilles” things?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I am trying to wrestle it into submission. But at the moment it’s so big I don’t have time to put it into the app thingies you and Sacha are pushing 😀 Another thing for the list!


  3. I needed this today, thanks. I started the year telling myself I was going to get better at making “manageable” goals–that I would pick the two most important things to do each day and anything beyond that that I managed to get to would be just good luck….but my to-do list today is a mile long.

    Anyway…thanks for the reminder. And as a side note, I like the looks of Asana. I’ll have to check it out.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I use Trello as a recipe book and love it. I tried to use it as a task manager, but it just didn’t work for me. Asana sounds great, though. I tend to like paper-pencil planning, but I think I’ll give it a try!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. The author makes some solid points and it’s written in a conservational style. Yeah, kindle was my friend for it too. Mommy? What’s that word spell? Is a question I did not need to hear.


  4. Ha! An amazing analogy and debates I’ve been having with myself it’s recognising what the snacks are that I struggle with, darned sweet tooth. Also what do you mean accountability partners (PLURAL) *hurtface*

    Liked by 1 person

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