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Your To-Do List: A Gentler Approach

Break free of the tyranny of your daily To-Do list with a whole person approach.

Over the years I’ve tried to ascribe to various systems of prioritization, structure and consistency that will force me to work on the most important things first. I’ve seen first-hand that people or projects with extremely well-defined goals can benefit from a hyper-structured method of prioritization and achievement. These systems and practices have critical value in moving individuals and teams to achieve and exceed their goals – and project managers have been some of my favorite people in the corporate world.

All of those systems generate some sort of task list – or To-Do list. Which is great. Who doesn’t love checking off tasks for the day?

But when it comes to the level of the individual – the whole person – lists are a bit tricky. With so many things demanding our attention, lists can become a way to triage the day – mitigate chaos – but not necessarily a tool that can help us reflect on – and act on – what’s most meaningful and important.  

Until recently, I broadly organized my daily To-Do lists into two sections: Work and Home. In that order. It was an effective way to remind myself of things that were most important or urgent that day. And to keep on track in those periods of distraction, lull or low motivation. Don’t know what to do next? What’s on the list?

But, the problem with that is we often default to what’s easiest or urgent, rather than what’s most impactful or important. The list becomes simultaneously a tyrant and an enabler. Demanding we get the most urgent (time sensitive or boss-demanding) things done and luring us into a false sense of accomplishment when we cross “Get dressed” off the list.*

We all want our lists to have some degree of flexibility, but we also want them to help us to stay accountable on track with the things that are most important to our success and happiness.

So here’s a gentler approach to list making that will keep you focused on your whole person, and will keep you energized, focused, and accelerate your ability to achieve those goals and dreams that you’ve been pushing to the bottom of the list for far too long.

I now organize my list into five categories: Center, Nourish, Learn, Maintain, Grow.

(*  I don’t mean to diminish the act of getting dressed. There are days when this item is a major accomplishment. See also: “Maintain.”)

Center

Coming back to yourself, slowing down, breathing, calming the monkey mind, being present. In a world of competing priorities, constant stimulation, always-on, information overload, this foundational practice is vital to our ability to function, to think critically, and to make informed and emotionally grounded decisions. List items in this category include mindfulness and meditation, journaling, reflection, gratitude practice.

I have only two conditions for taking on new clients: 1. that they are willing to change; and 2. that they commit to at least 10 minutes a day of centering in whatever form that takes for them mindfulness, gratitude, prayer.

It’s that important.

Nourish

As we dash around in our day, it is all too common that we’re not thinking about what’s going into our bodies. We reach for convenience foods, energy bars, snacks and candy in the office. Mindless eating is bad for your health and your energy levels. Likewise, the first thing to get neglected in a demanding day is often exercise. 

Focusing on nourishing your body with healthy choices is a gentler more intentional way of approaching your daily bodily needs. And adding them to the list ensures they get the attention they deserve. List items in this category include your daily exercise or movement,  planning/preparing meals and actually how and when you’re going to take care of these.  Examples: Invite Joe to eat lunch outside. Switch off the phone and computer and listen to music for 15 minutes while eating. Walk around the building twice before team meeting.

Learn

The pace of change is accelerating, and we’re constantly trying to keep up with new developments, technologies and ideas. You can’t make an impact in the world if you don’t keep learning. So learning is an imperative to success at any age, any stage, any level.

But be intentional about what you’re learning. Yes – you need to keep up and stay fresh, but there are so many things out there – it’s literally impossible to know it all. So you need to pick your spots. What’s the most critical to your career? Focus on that for 15 minutes a day. Put it on your list.

 Want bonus points? Choose a topic outside of your day-to-day responsibilities. Cross disciplinary learning is a way to aerate your mind and see things from a different perspective. Learn a new instrument. Study a new language. Listen to podcasts about interesting things you don’t get to engage with in your day-to-day experience. Read a classic book. Read a self help book. Watch that cult classic movie you’re afraid to admit you’ve never seen. Feed your brain to make connections.

Maintain

This is where all the non-productive, but fundamentally necessary things go. The truth is, maintaining is critical to creating space for the other categories on this list. Having neat, organized living and working spaces and easy-to-find clean clothes is essential for making time and space for creative, productive, ass-kicking endeavors. Take the time and be intentional about maintaining your space, your finances, your health.

And let’s be honest; somedays maintaining is the most important things we can do. Making the bed, brushing our teeth and getting dressed can be the first major accomplishment of the day in circumstances of crisis, extreme stress, or exhaustion.

But putting these daily chores under the category of maintenance allows a certain degree of self-awareness and honesty. At the end of the day, if these are checked and the others aren’t it’s an indication that we’re treading water. Which is okay somedays – other days it’s not.

Grow

This is where tasks that contribute to your big goals go. This is where your “Be a Better [fill in the blank]” items belong. You need to be intentional and thoughtful about what your goals actually are for this category. Often these items have their own project plan.

If your goal is to get a promotion or make a move to another company, the networking, informational meetings, resume work, interviews, phone calls and other activities are all part of your day. The tasks associated with achieving your big, hairy, audacious goals are not separate or somehow disembodied from the other categories in your life. So in the interest of serving your “whole person” seeing these tasks lined up with the other categories is helpful.

If your goal is to achieve a better balance of time to spend more time with your family and still be a great leader at work – make it explicit. Define that goal, decide what strategies you’re going to deploy to achieve it – then hold yourself accountable by moving the tasks to your daily, comprehensive, whole-person To-Do list.  

This article first appeared on jenthurman.com/blog

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