If you’re like a lot of accountants and moms, you’ve probably got a running to-do list either nearby or easily reachable. You most likely have work things, family things, house things, and tons of other things on that to-do list.
Most accountants couldn’t even fathom not having a to-do list in order to get everything done, without having something fall through the cracks. Believe me, I get it – we have a lot to do and so how in the world are we supposed to keep track of everything if we don’t have a running to-do list?
Our lives and our children’s lives have more activities and things that need to be done than ever before. We’re being pulled in so many different directions, that we feel like the only way to possibly have any semblance of control is to have a to-do list.
Some of us, me included, will sometimes even use our to-do list as a badge of honor – do you see how many things I have on my to-do list? Do you see how busy I am? When my kids were younger, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but if I was feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, I would even leave my to-do list out on the counter sometimes at home as a way for everyone to see how busy mom is and how much she does for the family.
The funny thing is that I have even more to do now than I have ever had to do, but I’m also much more productive, more efficient, and not stressed, overwhelmed, or burned out. If I detailed all the things that I get done in a day, it would make your head spin, but I’m not saying this to brag – I’m saying it to explain that once I learned the problem with to-do lists, I saw a huge difference in how much I was able to get done and hopefully so will you.
That beloved to-do list of yours is actually not helping you in the way you think it is. That running list of items to get done is actually one of the biggest problems with getting more done in less time.
I know it sounds crazy, but I’m telling you that to-do lists are actually an issue when it comes to managing your time and managing your life. But don’t worry – I’m going to explain how to put your to-do list to better use so that you can feel much more organized, get more done, have more freedom, and have the balanced life you really want.
If you tend to depend on a to-do list in order to stay organized, stay tuned because I’m going to show you a better way. Once you begin to implement what I’m going to teach you, you’ll also begin to see the problem with to-do lists as well.
This week I’m going to discuss why to-do lists are an issue and what to do instead of keeping a running to-do list.
Why to-do lists are an issue
As I said before, as accountants we tend to love to-do lists, trying to keep track of the work we have to get done, always having some looming deadline hovering over us. The issue is that when you operate from a to-do list, it’s something that never ends – there’s always more things to add once something is crossed off.
The truth is that you are actually setting yourself up for overwhelm and less productivity and efficiency when you depend on to-do lists to manage your schedule and your time. You might believe it’s the only way to stay on top of things, but I promise you that you’re creating more of an issue than you realize.
Think about it – has a to-do list ever made you feel like you weren’t in a rush? Now of course a list doesn’t make you feel anything, but you will perceive it that way because you most likely have thoughts like:
OMG, I have so much to do
I’m never going to get this done
There’s so much on this list
Where am I going to find the time to get all this done?
If you’re anything like my accountant mom coaching clients, you’re probably feeling like you’re always putting out fires and that you’re always behind. But this is one of the issues with to-do lists – you are working on fitting what you have on the list into what’s going on in your life.
For example, let’s say you have 5 things that you want to get done on your to-do list for this week and you don’t have them on your calendar in specific time slots – you’ll then go about your life and do other things that people are asking you to do, trying to squeeze in whatever is on your to-do list, and trying to get it all done. Your boss will suddenly ask you to do some project, your spouse will ask you to return that package, or your son will need new baseball cleats, and the next thing you know, nothing on your original to-do list got done.
Unfortunately, this just leaves you thinking and feeling overwhelmed, rushed, and as if you are constantly putting out fires, instead of being in control of your time and your life. The truth is that when you’re working off a to-do list, things don’t get done efficiently, other things get in the way, you feel confused and scattered, and you wonder why you feel like you can never get ahead.
It’s important to understand this because, if for example, someone asks you to do something and you add it to your running to-do list, you are actually overwhelming your brain with not only more decisions to be made about the new thing you’ve just added, but also all the other things that were already on the list. This is why you feel so rushed and experience decision fatigue – running your life from a to-do list creates overwhelm and expends more energy than your brain will allow.
Even if you number the things on your to-do list, you are still setting your brain up for overwhelm because it doesn’t know when is the best time to do the item on the list or how much time it’s going to take. You are unconsciously setting yourself up for failure and in reality, wasting time in the process.
Do you know what DOESN’T help you get more done in less time? An overwhelmed brain. Your lower brain sees a long list of things to do and cannot delineate between something being simple versus complicated – it sees everything as urgent and overwhelming.
To your lower brain, the part of the brain that’s running your life 90% of the time, all items on a to-do list look the same because this part of the brain cannot do one very important thing – put things into context. It cannot make intelligent decisions about the items on your to-do list, and instead dramatically sees the items as one big problem that cannot be solved.
But don’t worry – if you’re a to-do list enthusiast, I can show you how to turn those to-do lists into a solution rather than a problem. Don’t be scared, but I’m going to show you why you should actually throw away your to-do lists and also what will help you get much more control of your time than keeping a running to-do list.
What to do instead of keeping a running to-do list
If you’re thinking “This sounds crazy. How am I supposed to function and get things done if I don’t have a to-do list?”, believe me, I get it. I was the queen of running to-do lists, always getting a sense of satisfaction as each item got crossed off, but I also was the queen of constantly running around, always stressed and overwhelmed, and feeling like I was never really getting ahead.
There were many times where I would add something to my to-do list and literally be brought to tears thinking there was no way I was going to get all of it done. The issue was that I didn’t understand what I’m going to share with you today – I didn’t understand that my to-do lists were actually working against me and that there was a much better way to get much more organized and to get more done in less time.
Of course I still use things like a grocery list or a shopping list, but to-do lists are no longer a part of my life in the way they previously were. I no longer use to-do lists the way most people do, and I literally have more to do than ever before in my life, but I’ve also never been more in control of my time, had more free time, or felt more peaceful and focused.
So here’s what I learned to do instead of keeping a running to-do list – you MUST calendar everything on the to-do list and then throw it away. Yes, you heard me – throw it away. You must write down every single thing that you have to do, want to do, and need to do, and then you have to schedule every single thing on your calendar and rip up that to-do list.
Again, your brain gets completely overwhelmed when you try to run your life from a running to-do list, but looking at one 24-hour day on a calendar at a time is not overwhelming. What I suggest is that you dump everything out of your brain and onto paper, put every item from what I call a “To-do list download” on your calendar in specific time blocks or time slots, and then throw away that to-do list because you no longer need it – everything has been calendared.
I personally do this on Sunday evenings, but you can do it any time that works for you. Just get everything out of your brain and onto paper, take each item and put it on your calendar, and throw away the to-do list once it’s done. But let me assure you that you’re not going to pack everything into one week on our calendar- it’s going to be spread out in a way that makes sense to you – but once you’ve put something on the calendar, you have to commit to doing it whenever you scheduled it.
Here’s why this works so well – when you were deciding where each item on the to-do list should go on the calendar and how much time you’re giving it, you were using the higher, executive functioning part of your brain. You were using the part of your brain that can make decisions, that can see things in the long-term, and that can put things into context, helping you to get much more organized and in control of your time.
So when I do this process every week, once I’ve put everything from the to-do list download onto my calendar wherever I decide (sometimes that means putting it on the calendar for 2 months from now), I then step back and take a look at just the upcoming week to make sure it makes sense, that I’m being kind to the future version of me that has to do the things I scheduled, and that it looks reasonable.
One of the biggest shifts that I made when I learned how to manage my time this way is to schedule the results I want with each block of time, not just the actions I’m going to take. If you’ve never done this before, let me explain – most of us plan our time on our calendar in action-focused ways, creating a lot of busyness in the process, but by focusing on the results you want instead, you’re actually making it possible to get more done in less time.
For example, when I schedule time for this podcast I break it down into the results I will have for the 3 parts of creating a finished podcast – the pre-work, the recording, and the post-recording work:
I first schedule hour increments, 4 days a week as follows – one hour to have the research done for the topic, one hour to have the notes for the introduction written, one hour to have the first section of the notes written, and one hour to have the remainder of the notes written.
For recording the podcast I schedule 1 hour to have the podcast recorded, giving myself extra time for starts and stops.
For the post-recording work I schedule 30 minutes to have the podcast edited and uploaded to the platform I use and I schedule 30 minutes to have the blog created and published in WordPress
Notice that everything I schedule is in the past tense, meaning a result is created with that block of time – it’s written, it’s recorded, it’s edited, it’s created, and it’s published. I determine how much time I’m giving myself to get a particular result and I make sure I get it done in that amount of time without negotiating or complaining. I just get to work and get it done.
I’m telling you this has been a game changer – scheduling results instead of actions has made such a big difference in my productivity and efficiency. There’s no mind drama or time drama because I’m deciding with my higher brain and I’m just following the plan as it’s laid out.
Since I learned how to manage my time by ripping up my to-do list I have been able to easily manage my full-time accounting job, every tax season deadline, my additional job as community manager at CPA MOMS, creating this podcast every week, coaching my clients, taking my advanced coaching certification program, writing a book for accountants on how to train their brains better, and everything else in my personal and professional life. Everything is planned out and there’s no rushing, overthinking, urgency, or pressure.
I produce results at such a high rate, very quickly, because I do NOT operate from a list of things to do, but instead from the calendar I created with my higher brain. I also rarely move something once it’s been put on the calendar because that’s usually just my lower, reactionary brain panicking that something won’t get done or that everything is urgent.
Before I forget, the most important time that needs to be scheduled first is your free time. That is non-negotiable. You must schedule your free time before anything else and after that I recommend that you schedule what you value, even if that sounds strange.
Here’s what I know for sure – if you don’t schedule what you value, other things will take precedence because your lower brain is always in reactionary mode. It’s always going to see things like the boss’ request for you to work late Friday night as more important than the plans you had with your family to have dinner together.
The key to managing your time and your life better is to make as many decisions in advance as you can. Just know that when it comes time to do the thing you have on our calendar, your lower, reactionary brain is going to want to do something else – you only need to manage this urge by allowing it to be there, but not giving into it.
As you’re considering what I’m teaching, you might be having a few objections, like how do I handle obstacles to scheduling my time, or how do I know how much time something is going to take, so let me address those briefly:
How to handle obstacles
If something comes up unexpectedly, then of course you can move things on your calendar but if you’re being honest, that doesn’t happen that often. Most obstacles are things that you already know about – a baby’s nap schedule, a boss that likes to shift gears, kids interrupting you, or clients that have changing demands.
These are the best kind of obstacles because you can plan for them ahead of time by turning each obstacle into a strategy. What do you anticipate getting in the way of you calendaring the way I’m sharing with you? Write it all down. Then write down some strategies to overcome those obstacles.
Most of my coaching clients want my ideas, but your brain is much better at coming up with your solutions. Ask your brain “What’s a possible strategy for this?” For example, you know things like the help that’s available to you, and if you have Friday afternoons typically free so that you can use that for overflow. Your brain knows how to turn your obstacles into strategies, so use it.
How to decide how much time something is going to take
The best way to find out how much time something is going to take is to guess the first time and adjust as you go. This calendering process, instead of using a to-do list, is a work in progress. You’re going to learn how much time things take as you go.
When I started the podcast 3 ½ years ago, I had no idea how long things would take. I scheduled blocks of time and learned what did and didn’t work. Just remember – if something takes longer than you scheduled, make sure you don’t beat yourself up. It doesn’t mean that you failed or that you’re bad at time management – it just means you’re learning a new skill.
If I don’t get the result done that I scheduled, in the time I scheduled, I will either move its completion to another day or I will do it during the time I set aside for overflow time. That’s typically 30 minutes to an hour set aside at the end of the work day to finish things that didn’t get done.
But a word of caution – how long something takes is determined by you, not by the thing. Get used to deciding in advance how long something will take and then focusing in order to make sure you get it done in that amount of time.
Things take as long as you decide they take, so be onto yourself when you say you’re confused. And start to be okay with B+ work. Striving for A+ is a total time waster. Here’s my secret – I don’t wait and see how long something is going to take; I decide in advance how long I’m going to take to do it. This way I have all the power.
I hope you now see the problem with to-do lists and that you are always in charge of your time when you use this method of planning and calendaring. I promise you that once you begin to implement this, you’re going to feel so much more energized, empowered, and in control of your time in ways that to-do lists cannot provide for you.
Most accountants couldn’t even fathom not having a to-do list in order to get everything done, without having something fall through the cracks.
When you’re working off a to-do list, things don’t get done efficiently, other things get in the way, you feel confused and scattered, and you wonder why you feel like you can never get ahead.
The truth is that you are actually setting yourself up for overwhelm and less productivity and efficiency when you depend on to-do lists to manage your schedule and your time.