If you are like me, and a lot of other people as well, you probably rely on your to-do list to keep your life sane and orderly. Using the list to keep track of projects and daily issues is a way to stay in control of everything on your plate. And it feels great to cross an item off the list after it has been accomplished.
That is the up-side of a to-do list. The downside of maintaining that list is that it can begin to look eerily similar day after day, and week after week. The same items go on the list, the same items get crossed off, some of them never seem to get touched. Suddenly a month goes by, and then a year. At some point that to-do list changes from a tool for measuring progress and becomes a roadmap of routine.
Routine is not altogether a bad thing. Certain repetitive routines help us get through mundane tasks with minimal mental energy. Brushing your teeth, for example, takes no thought on your part, and is a necessary part of the day. It is a routine, and because it takes very little thought, it doesn’t tax your mental energy. Daily exercise habits and healthy eating patterns are other examples of good routines.
The danger of routine occurs when we no longer think about what we are doing throughout the day. Most of us have certain actions that expected of us on a daily basis. We perform the same functions at work, pick up the kids after school, get dinner on the table, find some way to relax for a while (hopefully) in the evening, then get ready to do it all again tomorrow. Whatever fills our days, chances are there is a lot of repetition required just to keep all the wheels turning. It’s not surprising that one day starts to look like the next, and slowly we lose energy and creativity. It is as if checking off the same items week after week is enough to give us a sense of satisfaction. After all, we are accomplishing something, right?
The other problem with to-do lists is that most are focused on short-term goals. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But when we fill our days with easily attainable goals, or items that seem important but in the long run are actually trivial, we crowd out any time for focusing on long-term goals and dreams. In a perverse sort of way, we can feel more satisfaction in cleaning up after dinner than spending an hour brainstorming ways to start a new project. It is more immediate and tangible, something to crossed off the list, at least for the night. It is almost impossible to successfully bring about long-term change or growth when we condition ourselves to only accept the satisfaction of short-term goals.
One way to break out the daily grind is to become aware of it. Try to recognize when you are running on autopilot. Routines are not always a bad thing, but they always become a better thing when they are done mindfully. Is there a different way to do something? Can it be done better or more efficiently? Does it have to be done at all? Sometimes we continue to do things because we are comfortable with them, but they no longer serve us and we just don’t notice it. If you awaken your mind to your actions, chances are that you will become more conscious of aspects in your life you tend to overlook or no longer need to hang onto.
Another way to overcome mind numbing effects of to-lists and routines is to carve out some time each week to focus on a long-term goal. Maybe it is a half an hour a day, or possibly just an hour a week. But if you live by a list, make sure that block of time is on the list. Design a plan to accomplish the goal, and determine what steps need are needed to get you there. Establish interim benchmarks to mark your progress so you can celebrate along the way. Also be ready to make alterations to the plan as you go along. After all, very few things in life happen exactly as we expect them to.
By making a conscious effort to find time to focus on a long-term goal rather than simply filling the days checking off short-term goals, you may find something interesting happens. So many people are frustrated at the end of the day because they aren’t sure where all the time went. Suddenly the day is over and they don’t feel as if they accomplished much, even though they did hit all the required routines. If you allow yourself to consciously address a dream or a goal that is going to take much longer than just an afternoon, a week, a month–or maybe even a year–to become a reality, you will give yourself the gift of long-term satisfaction. And that satisfaction is much deeper and richer than the type that comes from crossing the same item off the to-do list time and time again. It is the type of satisfaction that can give real meaning and joy to your life.
And that, in my opinion, is certainly something worth adding to your to-do list.