Do to do lists make you happy or nervous

06 Jul 2016

Do lists make you happy or stressful?

I have always been someone who starts the day with a list of to dos. I cannot imagine going through my day without one. Long back, I read Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and discovered the Time Management Matrix format. In this format Covey shared a powerful way to plan one’s time by placing one’s work into one of four buckets: what was urgent, what was important, what was urgent but not important, and what was neither urgent nor important. It was clear: one had to take care of what was urgent, work at addressing what was important in a proactive fashion, delegate what was urgent but not important and ignore what was neither important nor urgent.

This really worked for me. I mostly met my deadlines. I always had enough time for reviews. I was prepared and clear.

Today, in one of my coaching sessions with a new client, she told me she compartmentalizes and works her day based on a list of priorities. I thought, Wow, another one like me.

List-makers are very happy to meet other list-makers. We think of each other as systematic and reliable. Of course, sometimes we do obsess over our lists. But we like to think this obsession is a harmless side effect to endure in exchange for the power of lists to keep us anchored.

If you don’t keep lists and you’re raising your eyebrows at this fetish, then I am not here to convert you. But I do want to take a moment to tell you how it helps. And then you can decide for yourself if lists are your thing or not!

There are several advantages to making a good list:

1. The brain is like a sea of one million things. A list forces the brain to distil all of that into a few things. Now that you have something tangible to look at, you can actually think more clearly!

2. In making a list, you inevitably end up writing down the most important things. Looking at those things from time to time – sometimes flagged off in red – keeps you focused on the things you need to do in order to achieve your goals and feel sane.

3. Some people think lists narrow our world. Well if narrowing my world means I keep up my discipline until I strike things off of my list, then I am happy to put on blinkers for a while!

4. When you put things down in a list, your mind starts to see connections between seemingly unrelated things. You can bunch similar items into a separate cluster and tackle that with a different approach.

5. A list also exposes things that may be urgent but not important for you as a manager and hence pushes you to

6. You can also assess the workload and know if you’re doing too much or too little.

7. If something is on your list for too long, you know you’re being unproductive. Lists expose your weaknesses.

8. Knowing to do for the next 8 hours with the help of a list helps you manage stress.

9. There is no greater satisfaction than when you strike off three items from a list. This is a way of taking time to pat yourself on the back – always a good way to get more motivated.

But it’s not all great, you know. Lists, if not done right, can create chaos:

1. If you obsess about following the list, you can become rigid, controlling and stress yourself and others out

2. Some people make lists to assuage their anxiety and then do nothing. Lists are not strategies. They only show your priorities. You still need to craft a strategy to make the needle move. An item in the list can create a false sense of security that ‘something’ is happening while in reality, nothing may be happening.

Some useful tips:

1. Try and create clusters for your lists. Each cluster should follow a key theme in your goal list. For example, a friend I know lists down everything at work into three buckets – business, value creation, and people. This enables him to invest adequate time in each cluster.

2. At any given point, there really shouldn’t be more than around 8 things on your list – assuming on an average, each task takes about an hour.

3. Make a list but prioritize the items in the list, otherwise you may successful follow a list but tackle priority 5 first instead of priority 1.

Here are some lists my clients maintain and that have really helped them:

1. What did I do yesterday? Identify the 3 things you did yesterday that you feel will contribute to the achievement of your goals. If you found them, you know you are moving forward – however small your progress seems to you. If you didn’t find them, you know yesterday was not a very good day so today will need to be more focused.

2. Gratitude list: Make a list of what is going well in your life. Look at it from time to time. Add to it. This gives you a sense of the big picture. It’ll stop you from idly complaining.

3. The goal list: This is your most important list. Write down three core goals for the year. Then write down tactics under those goals that’ll help the achievement of the goal. Visit this list every week. People who have goal lists and review them every week have significantly lesser stress and confusion than people who don’t.

4. The bucket list: Want to publish a novel? Want to see Istanbul? Make a bucket list. As you get them done, you feel your life has meaning.

What has been your experience with the lists? Do they empower you or limit you? Are there any interesting lists you tend to keep? We’d love to know!

About the Author:

Sandhya Reddy is a leadership & transformation coach based in Bangalore, India. She is the Founder and Principal Coach at Chapter Two Coaching, a coaching consultancy that enables everyone from CEOs to work-from-home parents to achieve their goals by replacing self-imposed limitations with enabling stories.

Many of us in our thirties experience a disquieting realization: what brought us to middle-management may not take us to senior-management. This is true. To chart a new career path, one needs to think and do things differently. This is where Sandhya can help. She is a coach. Life coaching, executive coaching, business coaching, personality development, leadership coaching… they are all part of her forte. Her Executive coaching programs helps tomorrow’s leaders set new goals, make new plans to achieve those goals, get that elusive promotion through a blend of knowledge, action and image-building, enhance influence among the leadership team, be more productive, get more out of one’s team, and be known in the company as an indispensable performer and future leader.



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