It is a common way people make to-do lists, and it is ridiculous. Let’s break it down:
- Check email.
- Do laundry.
- Learn Spanish.
Check Email: This is barely even a “to-do.” When was the last time you forgot to check email because it wasn’t on a list? If you’re going to list “check email,” you might as well list “take shower,” “stop at stop lights,” and “eat food to sustain life,” as list items as well.
Do Laundry: This is a real “to-do.” It’s something you probably wouldn’t get around to if it wasn’t listed. Without “do laundry” typed or scribbled or whiteboarded up somewhere, by the end of the month you’d be flipping t-shirts, using the thumb-rub method on pant stains, and seriously contemplating wearing that special pair of boxers from 1996 in the back of your underwear drawer that used to look sexy but now look like a war-torn Scottish kilt. Doing laundry is essential, just not terribly important.
Learn Spanish: This is the good stuff, the bucket lister. No one ever dies having regretted not doing enough laundry or checking all their email. If you want to go to bed knowing you’re a better person than when you woke up, this is the “to-do” that’ll make it happen. Unfortunately, it’s the one item on the list that rarely does happen.
These three items are so incredibly disparate, and yet so commonly lumped together as equals; which makes about as much sense as creating an upcoming expenses budget that reads: Ham, eggs, Porsche.
While your specific list isn’t exactly email, laundry, Spanish, there’s a good chance it fits the mold. How many items have you listed today? A handful of no-brainers? Perhaps eight real to-do’s, the ones that will give you a sense of accomplishment, even if they don’t better you as a person? And rattling around at the bottom— the dregs of your list—is your own personal version of Spanish. Maybe your Spanish is finishing a novel, or your Spanish is a bikini body for the summer, or your Spanish is French. Whatever it is, it’s hiding at the bottom. If you’re using Microsoft Excel, you may not even see it unless you scroll down. Spanish so regularly falls to the bottom for three reasons:
- Busy work is easier. When the life goal and the chore are right next to each other on the same plane of importance, you’ll pick the chore.
- Your will power is limited. The more busy work you do, the less likely you’ll be to take up those bigger projects.
- Major goals seldom show day-to-day results. Two hours of studying a foreign language won’t give you that buzz of accomplishment that you get from completely finishing a minor task. And in the case of many major goals like starting a business, the more work you do, the more work you realize is left to be done.
So, how do you solve this problem?
A simple reprioritization isn’t terribly useful. Consider the following:
- Learn Spanish
- Do laundry
- Check email
Now Spanish is top priority, but by the time you can speak it, your clothes will have grown their own ecosystems and your boss will wonder why you haven’t been responding to him for the last three months.
Of course, you can parse your life goals into bite sized achievable chunks, which is a smart idea. But this doesn’t always make those tasks easier, nor are all goals easily parse-able, especially if you’ve snuck something particularly obtuse into your life plan, like “work on marriage,” “find self,” or “seize every day.”
The typical, inadequate solution: Make two lists.
One is the stuff to do “today.” The other is a list of life goals, or resolutions. The problem with this solution is that the life goal list ends up at the bottom of a drawer under a stack of tax returns and C batteries. Or more likely it’s an Excel or Word file buried eighteen folders deep on your computer, and it hasn’t been updated since January. This is no good, because goals need to be a part of your day if you want to achieve them. Life goals should ever be in your periphery.
The better solution: Make a grid.
If you’re a user of Sandglaz or a frequenter of the blog, you’re probably familiar with the Eisenhower grid, aka the urgent important matrix. The concept is simple: Quadrisect your to-do’s.
As you make your list, quickly suss out the important from the unimportant and the urgent from the non-urgent.
You now have a place for all the nonsense, for the email checking, the dog walking, the kid picking upping from schooling. Shovel that into the immediate and unimportant (except for the kid, kid tasks generally trend toward urgent).
And you also have a place for your life affirming goals, for your Spanish. What might have been another list of New Year’s resolution is now an active and visually present part of your day-to-day.
Of course, the grid may not be for everyone. If your chores, tasks, and life goals mesh, if they are simple, make a simple list. If your life goal is fitness, your laundry is laundry, and your mindless task is tanning, then a repeatable cycle of gym, tan, laundry may just work for you. But for the world with jobs, with babies, with complex avocations, with dreams both pipe and practical, gridding out a to-do list can be a life saver.