Sanity Tip: Make a List of the Crap You’ll Never Do. Put lots of stuff on it.

I’ve been a big fan of lists for a long time now. I’ve got a “Top Priority” list, as well as a “Second Priority” and an “Important but for weekly review” one. I’ve also just a list I call “Every Day”, which is just simple stuff I want to remember to check on every day. And of course there’s my all important daily written list .

But my favorite list is this: “Would Be Nice Maybe Someday”

Some lists I use to organize my tasks
Some lists I use to organize my tasks

I think I got this list in one version or another from David Allen, and it’s essential to retaining any semblance of sanity. Here’s why: I suck at saying “no”. Every little thing that pops in my head deserves attention. Maybe at some deep level I’m scared of missing out, being imperfect in some way, or just plain old dying without accomplishing everything I want to. But regardless, the hard truth is that about 99 percent of the things that pop into my head … well they just won’t ever happen.

A few days ago I came upon an old “to-do” list I kept on my computer. As a conservative estimate my “Most Important” list had 75-100 things on it. Seriously? The point of a to-do list is to actually get things done, not just to feel confused and overwhelmed when you look at it.

So that’s the beauty of the “Someday” list…all of the crap that pops into your head – you can write it down, make a decision about it (in this case that you won’t do it), and let it go. As worthless as it might seem, for some of us this is an incredible tool. It lets us clear our heads, and that compulsive nagging part of our mind seems pleasantly tricked when we say “don’t worry I’ll check over this again in a year.”

 What goes on this list? I’m an over-commiter – I habitually overestimate what I can accomplish. So I rank things as “Do Tomorrow” that really ought to go in the “Review this Next Year” pile. This creates a ton of drag, because in a day or two I either a) rethink my way-too-long-to-do-list over again or b) get so overwhelmed with all the crap I have to do that I give up on staying organized altogether.

Now I realize a lot of my readers don’t have this issue, but if any of this rings a bell, you might try out making yourself a “Maybe Someday” list, and applying the following filters:

Things that DO NOT go on my“Maybe Someday” list:

  • Things that are crucial in moving me towards my one primary long-term goal.
  • Things that won’t be taken care of naturally in the process of working towards my goal.*
  • Commitments I’ve made in earnest.
  • Anything that needs to be confronted but that I’m simply avoiding.
  • Things that have unpleasant legal, health, or social implications I can’t accept.
  • Things essential to my long-term happiness.**
  • Anything that could be listed as a recreational reminder: books to read, movies to see, places to visit etc.

If it can’t reasonably fit into any of the above categories, chances are it could safely go on the “Would Be Nice Maybe Someday” list without too much danger. Don’t worry – you’ll still do other stuff. Believe it or not, when you get around to seeing a movie or reading a book, you’ll have a lot more peace of mind with only 5 or 6 things on your “Top Priority” list than a jumble of 100 or so items with no rhyme or reason.

So that’s that – try making a list of the things you’ll probably never do. Training myself to “not do stuff” is a tough task, but it means that I can focus on the things that matter. Even when what matters is just doing not-much-at-all.

*Sometimes this can be hard to gauge in retrospect. If you’re not sure, you can always put these items on a separate list. For example, in working with Austin Piano Festival, I often had 50+ small items I needed to remember to take care of. Most of these things ended up happening without needing a reminder, but keeping a side list of all of them that I could review gave me some peace of mind. The crucial thing is that I didn’t simply write out all thirty of them on my “Top Priority” list.

**This might include having an actual hobby and a life outside of your work. Something I need a constant reminder of.


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