Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Full disclosure: I have an unfortunate tendency to feel burdened by a sense of responsibility and obligation. This starts from a good place—specifically, from my desire to be someone that people can count on, both to get things done and to offer support—but, like most things, it becomes problematic when taken to an extreme. I’ve found that if I inadvertently throw in a dash of perfectionism, I arrive at the ideal recipe for bitterness and resentment rather than productivity and compassion, wholly inconsistent with my goal and hardly the way to win friends and influence people. Sigh.
I know that I’ve crossed over into unhealthy territory when the running commentary in my head shifts into judgment-laden overdrive… Why am I the one who has to do everything? Why can’t <fill in the blank> pull their weight? It must be nice to be <fill in the blank again> and just do whatever the <fill in the exclamation/expletive of choice> you want with no regard for your impact on other people…You get the idea.
I find that I use the words “have to” alarmingly often as I approach this danger zone. I have to reply to this email… I have to vacuum the floor… I have to go to this concert… I have to… I have to… I have to. (Brady Bunch fans may recognize this as a grown-up version of “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”) In these moments, it feels like the massive to-do list that’s weighing me down has emanated from somewhere completely outside of me, as if some all-knowing and incredibly harsh taskmaster is taking great pleasure in piling it on, just to see how much I can take before I crumble.
To be honest, the sense that my to-do list was created on high and imposed on me isn’t limited to occasional periods of intense stress or emotion. It’s remarkable how routinely I fall into that mode without even realizing it. In fact, I suspect that being ruled by a to-do list that represents a strange amalgamation of societal expectations, the wishes of others, and countless other outside influences is much more the norm than the exception for me. Thankfully, I’ve stumbled upon some simple strategies that have helped me deal with almost any to-do list, especially those that seem to have fallen from the sky.
The first step—as always—is to notice what’s happening. We can’t get anywhere without awareness. In my case, I listen for the have to chorus. This is easier said than done because as I mentioned above, I’ve spent a lifetime mindlessly honing the have to habit. Luckily, I’m getting better at catching myself in the act, and when I do, I initiate step two: question (aka, get curious or simply “ask”). In particular, I ask myself whether have to is really the right characterization for each item on my lengthy to-do list.
I’ll illustrate using the tasks listed above, starting with “I have to reply to this email.” The question I pose is: Do I really have to reply to that email? Often the initial answer is yes, so I dig a little deeper. Really? What will happen if I don’t reply? If I ultimately decide that I’m willing to risk whatever downsides I’ve identified, it’s off the list. (Yay!) If, on the other hand, I determine that I truly do need to respond, then I can ask myself additional questions like:
When does it need to happen? (The voice inside my head often tries to convince me that I need to respond to every email immediately, so I need to push back.)
Does it need to be a long, carefully crafted response? (If so, I may want to consider touching base with the sender in person or by phone instead.)
How can I make this task as easy as possible?
With a little creative tweaking, these questions can apply to virtually any item on your to-do list. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. You can use any questions that suit your style and your particular tasks. The questions themselves aren’t what matters here. What’s important is that you’re beginning to approach and refine your to-do list with intention. That’s the third and final step: hone.
Let’s keep going. What about the next item on my have-to-do list? Do I really have to vacuum the floor? In my opinion, the answer to almost any have to question related to household chores is no. Possible exceptions include washing things that you’re completely out of (like clothes or dishes) and eliminating dangers (like broken glass). But in most cases, we don’t have to do housework. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want it done, but that’s a critical distinction. Replacing I have to with I want almost effortlessly shifts control from the cruel taskmaster back to the true owner of the to-do list… you (or me). Again, we can probe a bit… Do I want the floor vacuumed badly enough that I’ll do it myself? Is there a way to enlist help? Perhaps we will decide that a clean floor just isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things. The ultimate decision is secondary. The key is that we are again making an intentional decision rather than simply letting something outside us dictate. In doing so, we reclaim a sense of agency over at least a small fraction of the to-do list. Research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who originated the concept of “flow”) and others suggests that we experience greater engagement and increased positive emotions when our activities are under our control, so it’s no wonder this seemingly minor adjustment improves our motivation and outlook.
What about the third item on the list? The concert. Do I have to go? Probably not. Do I want to go? Maybe? If not, let’s get this off the list ASAP, even if it means delicately backing out of a prior commitment. I know that can be tough and is sometimes not worth the fallout. I also know that there are simply too many opportunities and too little available time and energy to waste them attending optional events that don’t interest us. I encourage everyone (myself included) to think long and hard before committing to things that seem fun in theory but will almost certainly result in a mild sense of dread later. If I do actually want to go to the concert, then I can play around with another small shift in language, this time from I have to to I get to. (Thanks to creativity coach Jill Badonsky* for reminding me recently of this awesome strategy.) Why not give it a quick try yourself now? Simply take any task on your current to-do list and see how different it feels to say “I get to _____” rather than “I have to ________.” For me, one elicits resentment, pressure, and a sense of heaviness or weight, while the other cultivates feelings of openness, energy, and freedom. Wow.
So, to sum up, our three-step strategy for taming any to-do-list tantrum is:
Notice when you’re approaching the danger zone by beginning to identify your personal red flags
Ask yourself if you really have to do each of the tasks on your list, probing further if needed
Hone your to-do list, harnessing the power of carefully selected language like “get to.”
It’s no coincidence that these steps can be captured by the acronym NAH, as in “Do I have to do that thing on my to-do list? NAH!” I’m in favor of anything we can do to keep the big N-O top of mind. Overachieving readers have probably already realized that we can make this strategy even better by getting curious about tasks before they land on our to-do list. I love this idea, and while I’m not completely there yet myself, I’m working on it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that although the idea is simple, pausing to ask whether something is worthy of our to-do list is actually pretty radical. It’s certainly counter-cultural. Many of us have been conditioned to act as conduits rather than as present, mindful, and active co-creators of our agendas. Just imagine what the world would be like if we were all guided by personally crafted get-to-do lists that fully reflect our own values, priorities, and interests? Even small steps in that direction feel like a great use of precious to-do-list space to me.
And speaking of to-do list space, thanks for making the time! I hope that you found at least one small takeaway that will help to lighten your load during this extraordinarily busy season. I'll see you in a couple weeks!
Take good care until then,
* Jill has a “dysfunctional family holiday survival guide” that I find hilarious. Maybe you want to check it out?