Halt Your Never-Ending To-Do List

I often feel the need to “clear the decks” before allowing myself to write or draw. The guilt of having undone items on my to-do list weighs heavily on my mind. It distracts my focus and instead of creating, I dive back into the list and start checking things off.

By the end of the week, there are still items on my list and still nothing done creatively. Does this happen to you?

The things we need to do come at us like a never-ending conveyor belt of tasks. The truth is, as I tic off items from the list, more bubble up to the surface. Thus the list lengthens, or I start a new one. And there are always things I never got to.

Long ago, I attended a productivity seminar on how to organize our priorities into A, B and C. The A priorities get done first. Then B and finally C. My own art and writing were often relegated to C. You can imagine how often I got around to these. I seldom even made it to the B priorities. 

I know what you’re thinking… Why not just make art and writing A priorities? It goes back to the Rocks in a Jar parable. You know the one. I’ve even done this for my sixth grade class. You have a single jar to represent the tasks you can accomplish. Then there are some big rocks, small rocks and sand. The challenge is to fit everything into the jar. The “trick” of course is to put the big rocks in first, then the small rocks and finally the sand. The moral of this parable is to tackle your biggest problems or tasks first. Save the minor details to the spare bits of time in your day. This simply is a more poetic way to label those A, B and C priorities. 

But the Rocks in a Jar is rigged. 

This demonstration only works because we bring just a few rocks that we know will fit into the jar. In the book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkenman talks about the flaws in this kind of thinking:

“The real problem of time management today, though, isn’t that we’re bad at prioritizing the big rocks. It’s that there are too many rocks — many most of them are never making it anywhere near that jar.”

We can’t simply eliminate the important needs of our life. The things we need to do demand attention and push out the activities we yearn to do. 

The solution to this conundrum is to shift our mindset. We need to accept that we won’t get everything done. We can never clear the decks. Instead, we need to carve out time for what makes life worthy.

The allure of productivity apps and systems is they promise a guilt-free existence. They tell us we can get everything done without having to choose. But we simply can’t do this. The shift needed is we need to choose. This or that. We will accept that by doing something we want (like playing guitar, drawing, writing) we will actively NOT do something else. We will need to leave many of the big rocks out of the jar.

There is only one of you and one life. If you chase after the items on your to-do list, you risk running on a productivity treadmill. We can waste years this way, constantly postponing the things we want. 

Consciously missing out on certain tasks or even important opportunities is what life is about. I need to choose to write, knowing that I am giving up time I could be doing something else. Except it’s that very act of sacrifice that makes the act so important. 

If you want to start that novel, learn to draw, play an instrument, then you need to leave some other big ticket to-do items off your plate. 

Only with sacrifice do we truly live.

Tim Kane

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