In 2003, I was just beginning a new career. I had lots of things to do every day. I was writing a few articles a day. I was daytrading. I was selling a business. I was thinking of other businesses to start. And my dad had a stroke and died.
Well, not so fast. The last time I had spoken to my dad I had hung up on him.
He called back but I wouldn’t pick up. He wrote every few months but I didn’t respond.
Then he had a stroke. Then he never spoke or moved again (he blinked) and then he died two years later. I would visit the hospital once a week and just sit there because I felt obligated to.
I would turn on CNBC and everything smelled bad.
Usually I was losing money and I’d feel sick in my stomach. Braindead dad in front of me who I hadn’t spoken to when I could’ve even though we had been close all my life. And I was losing money every second and maybe going broke. Again.
All of this is to say, I had so much to do I tried to keep a to-do list to manage it all.
To-do lists don’t work. To-do lists kill people. Will kill your babies. Will make you so stressed you die an early death.
I don’t live by goals. I don’t have the goal: do this by X date. I have a “theme” that I want to have high quality of life until the day I die. Themes and not goals.
To-do lists are very goal oriented. They are the exact opposite of achieving themes.
I’m going to be fast here. No fancy stories. Well, we’ll see. I’m just spewing now. Who knows what will come out when I rewrite this.
Here are the simple reasons why I NEVER do a to-do list:
A) STRESS. Every item on my list is something I haven’t done. For me (maybe not for you), the reason these items made the list is because I will feel stress until they are done. Like, “respond to Jimmy Tool’s email”.
Until the moment I hit “Send” on an email to Jimmy the Tool I will feel deep down, “I have to write an email to Jimmy the Tool” and a tinge of anxiety. Multiply that by 20 and that’s real stress.
B) IMPORTANCE. The reason I don’t do a to-do list is because I know if I stick to my general themes of the day (be creative, be healthy, less stress, do things I love) I will do the things that are important to me.
For instance, writing this post is important to me. Going to my kid’s plays are the WORST THING IN EXISTENCE (err, I mean, they are very important to me and I will be there).
Yesterday, Claudia and I uploaded a new book to Amazon, “The Choose Yourself Stories” a sequel to “Choose Yourself!”. There was no way I was going to forget that. I don’t need “To-do” lists for these things.
Atul Gawande wrote a book called “The Checkist Manifesto” how people who do important things should keep checklists.
He doesn’t call them a to-do list. Atul does surgery on people. He SAVES LIVES. I hope he keeps checklists. “Sew tracheotomy hole up after removing tube”, etc. That’s not a “to-do” item. That’s a “save a person’s life” item. I don’t need to keep checklists.
I know that if I live a healthy and creative life I will AUTOMAGICALLY always do the next thing that’s important to me.
Someone could say, “well what if you have a programmer job or some job that requires to-do lists.”
Well, I do feel I have a career like that. So try it. Create a theme of how you want to live your life. And then do the next thing that’s important to you. It might be to take a nap. But I doubt it will be to watch the Kardashians.
C) YOU DON’T KNOW. During the day I often end up doing things that are important that I would never have guessed were important to me. Like maybe getting a flower for Claudia. This would never appear on my to-do list but it might suddenly become important to me (if I accidentally spill coffee on her dress, for instance).
If I had a to-do list I might get even more stressed not getting to it. The to-do list becomes my master and I become the slave. One of my themes is less slavery in my life.
I’d rather do the things that I realize are important that moment rather than some random BS I wrote down over a cup of coffee at 6 in the morning.
D) DISAPPOINTMENT. You’re never going to do all the things on your to-do list.
Most people put too much down on the to-do list. I bet people only get 50% of the things done on their to-do list.
Not only that, people keep daily, weekly, yearly (New Year’s Resolutions) to-do lists.
That’s a lot of things to do! When do you relax and enjoy life? You’re going to die you know.
When you die are you going to say, “I forget to email Jimmy the Tool. Damn.” and then die?
Try this: make your usual to-do list and then don’t do anything on it. It’s like a to-don’t list.
Did the universe end? Now see how many of the things on your list you can delegate or just not do.
For instance, you can call Jimmy the Tool next week when things are a little less hectic. Or, heck, never call him again! Who cares about him.
“Things are never less hectic!” you might say. That’s because you have too many to-do lists. Please trust me and try this. Things will get less hectic.
I’m not saying do nothing. I’m saying if you make themes of your life, you will always do what is important to you, your family, your friends, and so on. Themes ripple out to the farthest shores. To-do lists keep you anchored to the ocean floor.
Also, your “to-don’t” lists will point you in directions where you can delegate instead of “do”.
Try making a “my themes” list.
I like to check the box on being creative every day. And on the daily practice I advocate in my books and blog: physical emotional mental spiritual health. That’s all. Those are my themes.
I have no idea what they will have me do today.
All that means (at a minimum) is that I like to sleep well, eat well, take a walk, be around people I enjoy, be creative every day, be grateful every day. Then I know if I do that today, life will be a little better tomorrow.
I saw a statistic yesterday. Pretend your life is measured at “1” today and you are going to improve 1% per day. Over 365 days that 1 turns into 38 (every day multiple your life by 1.01). In other words, you’ve improved your life by 3700%.
If you get 1% “worse” every day then 1 turns into 0.03. Which means your life got 97% worse.
Blah. I don’t know if those numbers mean anything. But I do know from experience that living by the themes above, those statistics have worked for me. Every six months my life is almost 100% different than it was six months earlier.
- Make a themes list. When you have themes, you build unbelievable intuition on what is the next thing you should be doing in your life. You’re no longer trapped by a long list of tiny inconsequential things you feel you HAVE to do.
- Make an “I Did” list. I already wrote about this on my email list that I send out.
I’m not trying to be a productivity expert here. I’m not very productive by traditional measures. I don’t respond to emails very well and I don’t use my phone or do things that people expect me to do.
But I just published a book yesterday. Claudia and I have another one coming out next month. And I have two radio shows going. And I wrote this post.
I love ever minute of it. Even though I have to go to my kid’s two performances today. I’ll play backgammon on the ipad in the back of the room when it’s not their turn to speak or sing. I don’t know if that makes me a good dad or bad dad.
My dad didn’t go to any of my performances. But we’d play ping pong every night. Or chess. And I suspect he sometimes would let me win when I would throw all the pieces on the floor in disgust. Or throw my paddle at him. Even when I was 35 years old.
Nobody has ever let me win again since that day I hung up on him. I miss him.