The Tyranny of the To Do List – and the Antidote

Things To DoWhile I was doing something else all day yesterday, a client emailed me in a panic. Her email was entitled “intense need for help!” Since I didn’t get to her email until close of play I was exhausted by the time I read it and, if I hadn’t been already, I certainly would have been after I’d read it.

You know you get those sorts of emails sometimes where you can feel the emotion in the words and even between the words? This was one of those.

My correspondent successfully communicated her rising panic that there was so much going on in her head and in her life, how was she going to order it all? I have no doubt this was exacerbated by my client being a single parent of a tiny person, getting less tiny and more demanding (and, no doubt, even more lovely) by the day.

She’d rootled around in her mental rolodex and thought “Who do I know who can help me steer a clear path through all this emotional noise and confusion?” and my name had come to the top of her list. Normally I’d be flattered. Last night I just acknowledged receipt and explained I was too spent to give it a good reading and come up with some survival recommendations until today. She was cool with that. She knows me.

In the clear light of day things looked better to both of us, as they so often do.

I re-read the panicky email and was able to put into words the few thoughts which had been germinating overnight. I came up with some practical ideas and some esoteric ones, all designed to soothe the savage breast.

I reminded my client about the distinction between urgent and important on a To Do List and how the urgent, the fire-fighting, can rob you (if left unchecked) of the ability to get done the stuff which is important and really makes a difference to the quality of your life. My pal had things on her list which fell into both categories and I suggested she start by re-writing the list, if she could bear to, dividing it into two halves.

There are urgent things which generally and genuinely need doing because penalties will ensue if you don’t get them taken care of but there were important things on the list too, like the busting of tolerations. You know the sort of thing… DIY which would make life more comfortable and just plain nicer for everyone. Those tasks being done would bring a certain sort of satisfaction and calm because you’ve taken care of your world and those you love and those sorts of tasks stay done, whereas the urgent tend to re-visit us over and over.

There was some discussion about the best way to manage a To Do List – colour-coded Microsoft Outlook Calendar (which I favour) or a real-world diary (which I suspect my client does) or a simple timetable like we used to draw up at school using coloured-y pens. Anything works so long as you create a system which is meaningful to you and has a degree of external results-orientated accountability. She wants me to coach her through it. Yup, that’ll do it too.

And then I went a bit counter-intuitive. I said I had noticed a growing dissatisfaction with ticking things off my own To Do List just for the sake of it. I don’t want to arrive at the end of my life as a person who is a competent ticker-off of items on such a list. I intend to have thoroughly and fully enjoyed a wonderful life and encouraged my clients to do the same. So I also gave her permission to get outdoors and enjoy nature with her daughter and make time to go and see a new arty film which is also on that long list of hers. Sometimes we just need someone else’s permission to have fun.

And then I went madder still. When I was reading the list and feeling the exhausting feelings, a sense arose in my body which led to this thought “I wonder if she’s meditating?” I have known all my adult life that meditation would help me, would be the answer and is the magical secret. And yet I resisted it for most of those years until the day came when I was ready to start to create a meaningful daily habit.

And guess what? It only helps. The busier you are the more you need calm. Oh b****y hell! Life and all these conundrums. How are we supposed to make sense of it all? It’s counter-intuitive. The more that needs doing, the more time you have to take off in peaceful contemplation in order to be fit to complete the longest of long task lists.

Gandhi said it best when he said: “I have such a lot to accomplish today I’m going to have to meditate for twice as long.” Or, as I like to put it, “Do Less. Achieve More.”

I’ve have been poking round and exploring this topic of less is more for ten years now. It’s time for me to have the courage of my own convictions and start fully living it and helping my clients to do the same.


Here’s the antidote to the tyranny of the To Do List, it’s a deliciously slow transformative conversation with me – book one and then go on to book a series of ten and get the cost of that first one refunded. Take some time for you and to work out what’s really important in your life, not just on your tyrannical list. That stuff’ll always be there.

Your Biz Your Way

If you have enjoyed reading my words here, you might also enjoy my book - Your Biz Your Way: Learning to Trust Yourself. Relax! You've Got This. Find out how to buy the book here Read My Book