If you’re like most people, your to-do list makes you feel overwhelmed and inadequate much of the time. I’m no different. One glance at all those unchecked items can send my heartbeat racing and stress sneaking down my spine.
Why? Probably because it’s physically impossible for most of us to actually do what we put on our to-do lists. We only have 24 hours, after all, during which we also need to sleep, go to the bathroom, shower, clean up dishes, and take the dog on an unplanned trip to the emergency vet.
I used to make extremely ambitious daily to-do lists, often numbering 20 items or more. I included everything: call the handyman, run 4 miles, brainstorm new business idea, research how to make granola bars from scratch, etc.
You might ask: If it’s impossible to do everything we put on these lists, why do we even make them? This is a good question. The answer is probably because we can’t stand to have all that random “stuff” floating around our brains. (If you want a good system for dealing with that stuff, I’d recommend reading David Allen’s classic Getting Things Done. You don’t have to adopt his entire system (called “GTD,” for short), but his methods are the cornerstone of the productivity systems I use and teach.)
We make lists because we’re stressed about forgetting stuff. Then we look at the lists and stress more because we realize that there is no way in heck we can do all the stuff we said we needed to do. And even if we do manage to do some of it, we feel like failures because we’ve only done 13 of the 18 things from Monday and now it’s Wednesday and we’ve added 10 more things. Ugh…
I say we give ourselves a break.
I propose an alternative way to looking at your daily to-do list:
Do ONE thing.
Yep, I said it. ONE. That’s it.
“Now, wait just a minute here,” I hear you saying. “ONE thing?! Just one? Why, I’ll never get anything done going at that snail’s pace!”
If you do just one thing, as long as it’s the thing you most want to do, your life will become a lot less stressful and more manageable.
You don’t even need to write it down. You already know what it is. Take a moment to close your eyes and just breathe. Relax. When you feel calm, ask yourself, “What’s the one thing do I most want to do today?” Continue to breathe and relax and wait for your one thing to show up. It will.
Then, do it. Whatever it is. Finish updating your website, exercise, contact a realtor about selling your home, schedule lunch with that potential client, play tag with your kids, whatever. The thing is, once you’ve done this one thing, you will feel accomplished. You have done something meaningful.
And really, what is the purpose of day-to-day existence if we don’t perform meaningful tasks?
Once you’ve accomplished your one thing, the rest of your to-dos seem less intimidating. After all, as you’ve already determined, they don’t really matter as much as what you’ve already done. You may do them, you may not. But they don’t bug you anymore and that’s fantastic.
I know this from personal experience.
A few years ago, I stumbled upon my “do one thing” philosophy because I was, as usual, stressing about my to-do list. I kept adding new items at an equal or greater speed with which I deleted the old ones. I felt anxious. So I sat down on my living room floor and led myself through the touchy-feely meditation exercise I just asked you to do.
What was my one thing that day? Figure out how to import my old blog into my new blog. I’d recently switched platforms and the technical gymnastics required to learn the new system were a huge source of stress. When I got up from the floor, did that ONE thing and felt such a huge sense of accomplishment that I actually did a dance at my kitchen table.
I then went on to do a few of the other things on my to-do list, but not all of them. I didn’t care. Doing my one thing put the most important task into the forefront of my mind and put those piddly little to-dos in their place. (If you’d like even more inspiration to do one thing, I recommend reading The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan.)
So I’m curious, what ONE thing will you do today? I’d love for you to email me personally at [email protected] and let me know!