July 27, 2009

Trapped by an Endless List of Shoulds

The whole secret of life is to be interested in one thing profoundly and in a thousand things well. — Horace Walpole

What is essential for you this week?

I worked with someone recently who, like most of us, leads a busy life. Her to-do list ran several pages in her notebook. She spent a lot of time sorting, organizing, and maintaining that list.

She was held hostage by it.

“I’m just not managing my time very well,” she told me. “I sit on Sunday afternoons and put that list together with the best of intentions, but by the end of the week I’m tired and frustrated because I just couldn’t get everything done.”

I looked at her running to-do list. The items she’d completed had been crossed off, yet many items were left undone — some dated back as much as two months.

I asked her about the open items, and she sighed. “I know I should get to them and finish them off. They’re all things I should be doing, but I just can’t seem to get my act together and get them done.”

Her problem, of course, wasn’t time management. It’s probably clear to you that she had too many items on her to-do list. She believed each item had to get done. Yet what consequences had she or anyone else suffered because those other “must-do” items had gone undone?

There were no consequences at all. Why? Because they were not essential items. They were should-do’s. Should-do’s look essential, but they are nothing more than items that either don’t really need doing, or that can more appropriately be done by someone else.

We’ve all fallen into the “should-do” trap before. I used to keep my “should-do” list on index cards. One day I realized that I had stacks of index cards with things I believed at the time truly had to get done.

I was caught in should-do land.

Are you? If so, then do what I did. Eliminate your should-do’s!

Getting rid of should-do’s can be a tall order in this everything- is-urgent world of ours. We are programmed to get busy, stay busy, look busy, hustle hustle hustle. But the truth is that people who have the lives they truly desire abandon haste in favor of devoted focus on the essentials.

A “to-do” item is essential if it meets three criteria:

  1. It is aligned with your vision of the life you desire.
  2. You — and only you — can get it done.
  3. The consequences of leaving it undone will harm yourself or others.

Examine your to-do list with rigourous intention to apply these criteria. Identify and eliminate the “should-do’s,” then look at what’s left. Odds are that the resulting list will not only be far more manageable, but it will be “do-able.”

Try this process in your life for one week and watch what happens. You’ll be amazed at the results.

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