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If you saw my To-Do list right now, you’d cry.
No for real, my fiance refuses to even look at it.
There are about 87,000 things on it, because I just arrived in Canada (Happy Canada Day!) and we’re blending our two households and juggling childcare for five kids and both still running businesses.
But here’s the thing. Even though my To-Do list is long, I still get an immense sense of peace when I look at it. I feel calm and in control, even though I also wish there were 72 hours in each day. However, this was not always the case. My To-Do list used to make me want to bawl my eyes out.
That’s because for years, my To-Do list looked like this:
- birthday party
- consulting project?
I would look at it and immediately want to begin drinking. In Thailand. On a nudist beach.
Let’s deconstruct that list.
Okay, first I need to plan my daughter’s birthday party. Cake, food, balloons, when should we have it? I don’t know. Okay, paralyzed, move to the next item.
Taxes. Heart pounding, pile of receipts, oh god running out of time, SHIT. Okay, I’ll handle that when I’m braver and smarter. Next.
Childcare. Yes, I need childcare so I can work. Juggling 5 different sitters is a nightmare. But can I really put my baby into a place where she might cry and no one would pick her up and oh my heart is hurting at the very prospect and I’m a feminist but this sucks and– shit shit shit!!! I have to get SOMETHING done today! Okay, next.
Let’s see, I am waiting to see if this project has come through or not. In the meantime, I’m holding…all the weekends in June.
Which means– back to the top of my list– when should we have that birthday party? Some time at the end of June. But I can’t plan anything those weekends until I know about the consulting project.
AND NOW I MUST GO EAT ALL THE THINGS AND BITE MY FINGERNAILS DOWN TO RAW BLOODY STUMPS.
Here is something I did not learn until I was in my 30s:
A birthday party, taxes, and childcare are not To-Dos.
They’re not. They’re not action items. I mean honestly, how do you ‘do’ birthday? How does one ‘complete’ childcare?
Those things are PROJECTS made up of many many actions.
I know this seems basic, but understanding this one concept quite literally changed my life.
Your mind, it is a simple creature. It needs simple instructions.
When it tries to process cake and balloons and invitations AND put it all on hold because you can’t commit to a date yet, your little mind, it wants to kill itself.
We have to be kind to our minds. To-Do lists full of big, vague, undefined and therefore un-complete-able projects are MEAN. Just plain mean.
To fix this, you need to learn two crucial skills. They are simple. The hardest part will be remembering to do them.
1. Break things down into smaller tasks.
2. Get very clear on what physical action each task requires.
So for example, the birthday party requires these smaller steps:
- set a date
- tell people
- order a cake
- plan some food
- buy the food
- handsew garland bunting to strew delicately across the yard along with organic twinkle lights (just kidding!!!! That was a test to see if you were reading. Crepe paper, people. Crepe paper.)
- remind people
- put in earplugs
But really? Even this list is kind of terrible. How am I going to tell people? Email? Evite? Handmade letterpress with silk bows? Skywriting?
This brings us to the crucial second skill: attach a physical action to each item. Another way to think of it is that each item on your to-do list should begin with a VERB. Sometimes you can do, physically, with your body.
Here are some good ones:
- call X
- email X
- make a list
- buy X (tricky: online? drive there? trade for eggs? pick one.)
- write down a plan
- drive to X
- ask X about X
If you will get in the habit of breaking things into teeny tiny steps, and getting clear on the exact action you will take on each, life will get a lot less stressful.
That’s a bold claim, but I’ve watched hundreds of women master this and it quite literally transforms their lives.
We go into this topic in much more depth in The Queen Sweep Master Class, a program I’ll be running very soon (stay tuned!).
But I want to leave you with one final tip that could eliminate a huge disgusting hairball of stress from your life.
What about that last item, the potential project that was holding up everything else?
Create a separate mini-list for things you’re Waiting For.
This is a brilliant concept I learned from David Allen, author of Getting Things Done.
List the things you can’t take action on until something outside of your control happens– in this case, a phone call with a yes or no and, if I was lucky, a firm date.
But! Also!! You must declare a date by which you yourself are going to take action to nudge things forward. For example, if it was mid-March, and I wanted to plan the party for late June, I might decide that if I hadn’t heard back by April 16, I would make a follow-up phone call. But that if I hadn’t heard back definitely by May 1st, I’d just pick a date for the party, commit to it, and hope for the best.
This small tweak is actually a way to take back your power.
It’s a way of declaring to your own brain and to the universe that you have things you’re going to get done, and you’re not going to wait for the world to arrange itself perfectly.
I have a lot more to say about managing your time and how to keep track of it all, including exactly HOW to get it all down on paper so your brain can stop freaking you out, but start there.
Take your list, your dreaded loathed horrible to-do list, and break things down into concrete actions.
If the list is so long you want to visit me on my nudist beach in Thailand and steal my umbrella cocktail, take a few deep breaths and ask yourself,
“If I could only get ONE thing done today, what would I want it to be? What would give me the most relief or make me feel proud?”