How to Walk Away from Your To-Do List

Sometimes we think that being busy is a badge of honor - that being busy makes us look successful when we don't always feel like we are. That the more stressed we are, the more valid we are because hey, we're working hard, right? But it's easy to forget that work is cyclical and that your last note for the week isn't your last note ever, and that our to-do list doesn't have to loom large in our minds. 

I see this as layered. One layer is systems-related, and the other is emotional. Let’s start with systems- if you have a solid strategy for bills, you know it will get taken care of, so you don’t have to think about it. When it arises, it’s a quick “Oh yeah, that gets handled Tuesdays” or whatever system should relieve it. It’s easy to obsess about referrals if you’re not yet to a place where you can count on them. You can’t control the referrals, but you can control what you do to bring in referrals. If you have a system for that, you can start relying on that system. Instead of your to-do list saying "get full,"  it can say "reach out to three potential referral resources every week." A client’s progress isn’t your responsibility, and your rumination isn’t likely to hasten it. If you feel you could be doing more impactful work with them, joining a consultation group or seeking regular supervision can also take some pressure off. You can think about the client then remind yourself that you have trusted colleagues to discuss it next Thursday. 

The vast majority of the struggle is emotional, though. What's that about?

First, see if the obsession with getting things done is genuinely just rabid interest or if it’s strategic avoidance of some life thing you don’t want to feel. Really search. In the past, I thought it was the thrill of all the business stuff, but as soon as I got still, I got walloped with unresolved grief, and I realized work was protecting me from that. I tested it; I’m not the exception to the rule around ignored feelings disappearing. You’re probably not either. 

If you’re not someone who often gets these rushes of inspiration, and it makes sense given your priorities, indulge it. Ride the wave and enjoy the work. Then when you’re feeling less motivated, there’s no pressure to force as much. Get to know your ebbs and flows until you can trust that they balance out. 

If you’re someone like me who generally stays motivated and needs to reign it in, fill your life with more fun. Blah blah blah, I know. But seriously. If you have a hobby or an interest that is even slightly more interesting to you than your work, then you can more easily switch your inappropriately timed work thoughts to your interest thought. I’m learning to play the piano right now. I suck at it and am learning to keep doing something I suck at instead of abandoning it for the work stuff I like to solve. In the past, I’d imagine rearranging furniture and decor in rooms I knew well. These are probably not your go-to’s, but you can find what interests you and see if that works. We also had to institute a no-work-talk-at-home limit for a while because every conversation I started with my partner was business-related. Not talking about it helped me think of it less. I also spend less time talking business with my business-geek friends and more time talking about life to help reinforce this. When we were talking business all the time, it fed the fire. Now we have better friendships, and if I need help to flesh something out, I can go to them and vice versa. But it’s not the only reason we talk, and I have more balance as a result. And I have a weekly mastermind I’m a part of that helps me when my mind wants to hold on to work thoughts. 

Don't let your to-do list in the driver's seat. Implement some systems then be still. Let the work thoughts come up, see if the systems help. And get to the underneath stuff so you can work during work hours and then walk away.