For many of us, checking boxes on a to-do list is a never ending cycle, the key way we measure our productivity and self-worth. And we're constantly adding new things before we've checked off the old.
Photo: Tim Gouw on Unsplash
Think about it: When was the last time you stopped to really savour a work victory or life accomplishment? Rather than acknowledging what you've accomplished, you're always thinking about what's next. What else could you be doing?
That mentality can cause a whole bunch of problems in our lives. "This is, quite frankly, a crappy way to live your life," writes Jocelyn K. Glei, a writer and host of the Hurry Slowly podcast. "Because adopting a 'what else?' mindset is a recipe for making yourself feel like nothing is ever enough."
How does this happen? You're likely familiar. Glei writes that it's "emblematic of a toxic state of mind that's starting to become quite commonplace" thanks to the proliferation of technology and social media that makes it so easy to compare yourself to anyone and everyone. Facebook, Instagram, Tinder and thousands of other websites give us insight into other peoples' lives and a steady stream of information and content that makes asking "what else" second nature.
You could witness the most precious moment of someone's life, or read a news story about a horrifying and terribly sad event, or complete one of the most impressive accomplishments of your creative career… And somehow it's never enough.
To get yourself out of that mindset, Glei recommends the following.
Make Realistic To-Do Lists
Not aspirational ones. Glei has an in-depth article of things to consider when you're making yours, but start with "zooming out" from your day-to-day to look at why you need to do those daily tasks and what they contribute to your larger goals.
Another tip: Make two to-do lists. One can be a "brain dump" list that holds everything you need to accomplish in the next month, and the other one can be your daily list, that's much more manageable. Try to order tasks based on the amount of energy they require. "Based on the circadian rhythms that we all follow as human beings, most people are at their cognitive peak between about 9am-12pm," she writes. "So your order of operations matters."
Put the task that requires the most energy and focus at the top of your list and make them as specific as possible. For example, instead of putting simply "Write afternoon article" on my list, I'd break it down further into: get idea approved, write intro, find photo, etc.
Schedule "White Space" in Your Calendar
In design, white space is used intentionally between elements to add balance and organisation. Glei recommends applying that concept to your daily life.
"We need white space in our daily lives just as much as we need it in our designs because the concept carries over," writes Glei. "If our lives are over-cluttered and over-booked, we can't focus properly on anything. What's more, this way of working actually shrinks our ability to think creatively."
Here are some examples of white space you could add to your life to refocus:
- Letting your mind wander
- Going for a walk
- Working out
Think about scheduling some time to just do nothing and enjoy the white space.
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Create a "Stop Doing" List
Based on this post by Jim Collins, Glei recommends creating a "stop doing" list to complement your "to do" list. Writes Collins:
Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $US20 ($25) million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?
That assignment became a turning point in my life, and the "stop doing" list became an enduring cornerstone of my annual New Year resolutions — a mechanism for disciplined thought about how to allocate the most precious of all resources: time.
So, when trying to focus, ask yourself: What can you stop doing while working? Checking your email every five minutes? Scheduling meetings in the morning or eating at your desk , like Glei? There are likely a few habits you can break.
Reflect on What You've Already Achieved
Glei cites a study from the Harvard Business School that posits reflecting on your accomplishments can actually be more helpful to your productivity and work than constantly doing more and new tasks. And if you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. How much do we really accomplish when we're focused on busywork?
This happens because it allows us to increase our belief in our own capacity, and increases our understanding of the task at hand. We learn about ourselves and our work, and like any other lesson, it only sticks if we take time to study and think about it. This self-reflection isn't intuitive; it needs to be scheduled into our lives.
"We have to celebrate, appreciate and analyse our past performances, so that we can synthesise what we've learned and apply that knowledge to take it up a notch next time," writes Glei.
So, focus less on "what else" and give yourself a break. Celebrate what you've already accomplished and how far you've come. You deserve it.