How I let go of my to-do list

Does your to-do list rule your day? Here’s how to ditch it for good – and still get everything done

Photograph of colourful balloons in the sky to illustrate the blog post "How I let go of my to-do list"

I was in two minds as to whether I should write this post, because I will probably end up sounding like a crazy lady. The system I’m about to reveal makes me sound like the psycho (and biologically miraculous) lovechild of Bree Van de Kamp and Martha Stewart. But the fact is I am not naturally domesticated or organised. I’m forgetful, easily distracted and rubbish at time management – which means that over the years I’ve had to develop foolproof systems for getting stuff done. Obviously the to-do list was my weapon of choice and for many years I was on a never-ending mission to get to the end of it. And so, inevitably, I lived in a constant state of frustration because it only seemed to get longer and longer.

In fact it was more than one list. There was a main list and then several satellite lists (all written on a sheet of narrow-ruled A4, and kept tucked inside my Filofax, because I am super-technical like that). I can’t remember exactly what the satellite lists were for, but I think one was a shopping list, one was “weekend jobs”, one was a list of what I considered my husband’s responsibilities, which he needed to be nagged gently reminded about… that sort of stuff. I’d refined the layout to such a degree that it looked soooo pretty and in a way it made me happy because EVERYTHING was there, on one piece of paper. All the things I could ever realistically dream of achieving in my near future neatly contained on a bit of A4 – it was comforting, somehow.

And yet my inability to get anywhere near the end of it made me increasingly stressed and miserable. I could never rest because there was always more stuff to do. And then, after going on maternity leave for the second time, it finally happened. My daughter went a long way overdue and I had a clear diary so – I guess it was the hormones – I powered through those final items.

I was COMPLETELY elated. But I also knew it wouldn’t last – especially with two children to look after. Unless… unless, there was a way to do things differently? In the end I came up with the following method. It’s not completely original by any means and I’m entirely aware that it does sound nuts. But I’ve never had to write another to-do list and sometimes – just occasionally – I find myself with nothing much to do.

OK, so here goes.

The first thing is that you have to write a list (ahem) of all your regular tasks, from tidying up the house to getting your eyes tested. If your life is anything like mine, it will mostly consist of household chores (yawn). It it also likely to be a work in progress for a while as you remember more things that need to be done (turning the mattress, anyone?). Next, divide each item between the following categories:

A. Daily
B. Weekly
C. Monthly
D. Every other month
E. Every four months
F. Every six months
G. Yearly

For instance:

C. Monthly
Clean oven
Wash hairbrushes
Clean windows and sills (inside)
Wipe down doors and woodwork
Download photos from camera
Check smoke/CO detector
Clean washing machine drawer
Clean car, inside and out
Wash mattress protectors
Wash pillow protectors
Back up computer

D. Every two months
Turn mattress and hoover both sides
Delimescale showerheads
Clean the tops of cupboards
Launder coats
Clean under/behind fridge

You’re probably already doing the daily and weekly jobs (lists A and B) in some kind of routine way. If not, I would definitely recommend doing the weekly stuff on the same day of the week, so it becomes automatic. For instance, I make a meal plan and grocery list on Monday, then do an online food shop on Tuesday. That way, we know roughly what we’re going to eat each week and we’ll have the necessary stuff in the fridge. This might sound totally obvious to the more organised among you, but it took us YEARS to start doing this and stop dashing to Tesco for a ready meal at 8.55pm every night…

So, you have your week roughly sketched out. Next, plot the letters C-G on a yearly chart, like so:

Jan Feb March April May June July Aug Sept Oct Nov Dec
C C C C C C C C C C C C
D D D D D D
E E E
F (hol) F
G

Now, referring back to your list, you can see what jobs you need to do every month, eg, in January you will need to do the jobs on lists C and D.

Divide each month into four week blocks and divide the tasks for each month between those weeks, mixing up quick tasks with more time-consuming ones. For example:

January Week 1 Clean oven
Wash hairbrushes
Wash mattress protectors
Wash pillow protectors
Week 2 Clean windows and sills (inside)
Turn mattress and hoover
Launder coats
Download photos from camera
Week 3 Wipe down doors and woodwork
Clean under/behind fridge
Delimescale showerheads
Back up computer
Week 4 Check smoke/CO detector
Clean washing machine drawer
Clean car
Clean the tops of cupboards

Work out a time during the week when you can get these tasks done, eg, Saturday morning. Or delegate some or all of them to a passing family member/cleaner.

Don’t think for a moment that I always do this stuff every week. I often skip things because I haven’t got time or just can’t be bothered. The great thing is that I know the task is scheduled again for two months down the line, or whenever, so I don’t have to feel guilty or stressed about it – I know it will get done at some point, even if things get totally gross before then…

So… now you have every day and week set out (FOR THE WHOLE YEAR!) with all your regular tasks divided between them. This is your framework upon which to organise life’s more interesting jobs – all the boring stuff is now taken care of (theoretically), so you can prioritise more important things.

Here’s how. Once a week (same time very week, obviously), sit down and look through your diary at what’s coming up in the weeks ahead. What do you need to do to get organised for these things? Buy a birthday present? Book a train ticket? Update your CV? Lock down some social plans? Next, run through all the important categories that make up your life (you might want to make a list of these, eg, work, family, school, kids’ extra-curricular activities, travel, health, etc) and work out if there’s anything you need to get sorted within those areas. And then… and this is the MOST IMPORTANT THING… Look through your diary/calendar and work out WHEN you can get these things done. DO NOT write a list of things to do. Instead, write each task on a specific day, or at the very least a specific week, making sure that you are realistic about what you can fit in and when. (If possible, try to keep a day completely free for fun stuff.) If you’re not sure that you CAN fit a task in… then ask yourself if you really need to do it. Can you cancel it? Swap things around? Or just, you know, not bother? The main thing is that you don’t write it down on a list to be done “sometime in the future”. THAT is what causes the stress – the build up of those jobs that realistically you don’t have time to do now and aren’t likely to have time for in the future, either.

Ta-dah – you no longer have a list of things to do. OK, so what you do have is a diary full of jobs and, yes, you will probably still be busy. But the point is that, once you get into the swing of things and sort out a rhythm that works for you, it should be relatively simple to get those things finished and then you can actually relax. Once the (hopefully quite small) list for the day is ticked off then you are DONE. There is no ongoing, never-ending, stress-inducing to-do list to worry about. At that moment in time, you have nothing more to do or even think about and you are free to read a book, obviously!

What do you think? Would you do this? Do you do something similar already? Or do you think this is the craziest thing you have ever heard?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *