Today is a great day to quit your to-do list.
We love an overflowing to-do list. It makes us feel empowered every time we tick an item off. Whether it’s a detailed list on your notes app or a tattered note stuck to your computer, it can make you feel like you’re owning the day.
We’ve been fed the myth that “crossing things off a list” will help our feelings of overwhelm. But the truth is, to-do lists are a notorious catch all for both meaningless and meaningful tasks — taking us away from what’s truly fulfilling.
Stop the to-do list treadmill
Anthropologist James Suzman has spent the last 30 years living with the Ju/’hoansi people of southern Africa — one of the world’s last true hunter-gatherer societies. By modern standards, the Ju/’hoansi live in poverty. Yet, they spend just 15 hours a week meeting their basic needs and believe they’re affluent.
As Suzman tells The New York Times’ Ezra Klein, unlike the Ju/’hoansi, we’re “trapped in this cycle of pursuing more and greater wealth, greater anything…. our aspirations continue to grow endlessly. And we’re caught in this kind of treadmill in which we never stop and actually enjoy the rewards of what we have won.”
We’re so conditioned to keep pushing and achieving that we’ve become human doings, not human beings. And our inability to just “be” is leading to burnout. As Dennis Stolle, senior director of applied psychology at the American Psychological Association explains, burnout “is typically characterized by three symptoms: emotional exhaustion, negativity and the feeling that no matter how hard you try you cannot be effective at your job.”
I’ve been there.
At the beginning of the pandemic, my boundaries dissolved. I took calls, meetings, and sent emails at every hour of the day. Then I was hospitalized for Covid-19. Even though I wasn’t technically burned out, being sidelined for a few weeks gave me plenty of time for soul-searching. I knew something had to give.
First came the to-do list breakup. Then I redoubled my efforts to automate repetitive, manual tasks — which also led to my upcoming book, Automate Your Busywork. For years, automation has freed me to focus on what matters, and we’ve equipped Jotform users to do the same. Change begins when you realize that not only is your to-do list unrealistic; you shouldn’t be doing most of those tasks at all.
Prioritize what matters most
University of Salford professor Andy Miah tells The Guardian that to-do lists are “almost like wish lists — little love letters to ourselves about things we ought to be doing.” I think Miah nails it. There’s no way to complete all the tasks we list, but, flush with outsized optimism, we diligently document each item.
Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin is another cognition expert who suggests a decidedly low-tech approach to list-making: get 5×3-inch index cards and write one task on each card. Then you can physically shuffle and reprioritize them. The cards also become a physical manifestation of your tasks; a towering stack is clearly problematic. If you try this approach, aim to keep cutting until you have just 1–2 cards per day. These are your wildebeests. Use your time, energy, and brainpower to hunt them down.
If you miss the feeling of emptying your mind with a list, try morning pages instead. Before you start your work day, grab some paper or open a blank document. Write until you fill three stream-of-consciousness pages. Complain, strategize, worry, and write whatever is rattling around your brain. Anything goes. Just keep your fingers moving and don’t hit “delete.” When you’re done, save anything you want to remember and shred or trash the rest. Writing these daily pages can boost your creativity without overloading your brain.
Automate the rest
I’ve glossed over an essential truth: sometimes all those tasks do need attention. Someone has to send the invoice, file the expense reports, and review the spreadsheets — and if you don’t have a team or an assistant, that work falls on you. Whittling 26 items down to two isn’t easy. This is where automation comes in.
Developers have created thousands of free and low-cost tools that enable non-coders to automate their manual workflows. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an employee, a startup founder, or a solopreneur, you can build simple automations to tackle the work that drains your time and focus.
Automation also evolves so quickly that yesterday’s technical challenge is today’s standard product feature. Do a web search to see how others have automated your task, and check out review sites like G2.com to find reputable automation and AI tools.
Finally, remember that you don’t have to be doing all the time. “Humans have a striking ability to immerse themselves in their own thinking,” says Aya Hatano of Japan’s Kyoto University. “Our research suggests that individuals have difficulty appreciating just how engaging thinking can be.”
Set your big targets for the day, but don’t forget to simply think and be. Letting your mind wander can improve creativity and problem-solving. It also feels good. Cut your to-do list loose, automate those tedious tasks, and take some time to get lost in your own thinking — wherever it may lead.