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The Weight of The Undone

January 18, 2011 — By Dr. Pete

Heavy BooksLike it or not, we live in a To-do list culture. Even our entertainment and "down" time taunts us with lists – your NetFlix queue needs organizing, your TiVo is running out of space, and those gift cards you got for your birthday last year are about to expire. We have entire television programs devoted to dissecting the lives of people who haven't cleaned their houses.

Somehow, it adds up.

I'm not suggesting that that unwatched episode of Two and a Half Men is ruining your life (you might be worse off actually watching it), but if you add up all of these tiny to-dos, they start to get pretty heavy. They're taking up space somewhere in the back of your brain, resurfacing at inconvenient times – usually, when you can't actually do anything about them.

Maybe some of this is just cultural, and maybe we have to get over it. There's something unhealthy about treating life like a to-do list. Most of us aren't going to quit cold turkey, though, and personally, you'll have to pry my multi-worksheet Excel To-do list out of my cold, dead fingers. So what's a hopeless neurotic to do?

Get it all on paper.

I stole this one from David Allen, and it's probably the most important thing I learned from Getting Things Done. When I say "all", I mean all of it. It sounds easy, until you start, and that list just keeps getting longer.

It's terrifying, and you'll feel like a failure, but look at it this way – if you don't get it on paper, it's still up there, floating around in your brain, and you'll still feel like a failure. Once it's out in the open, you can start dealing with it all.

Look backward.

This one's even tougher. Look back at what you said you wanted to accomplish in 2010, 2009, and 2008 (that's probably far enough – I don't want your head to explode). See any patterns? What's been sitting on the list for 3 years? Face up to it – if you keep promising yourself you'll do it over and over, it must be important. Recognizing you keep dropping the ball is tough, but that fumble was last season's mistake. The damage is done. It's time to decide how to move forward.

Here's an example: I have a pile of books I haven't gotten to. Actually, it's worse than that – I've started reading a bunch of them and then moved on. Now I don't remember anything about them and have to start over. This has been bothering me for 2+ years, so much so that I feel like I can't buy new books. So, I just don't do anything.

That may sound silly. Maybe you have 100 books you haven't read, and you don't care. Maybe you like having a shelf full of things to read. That's fine. This isn't about outside perception – it's about what matters to you. For some reason, this eats at me, and until I deal with it, it's going to keep chewing.

Pick just one thing.

Most of the time, we get in these situations because we try to take on everything at once. Every New Year, we make that grand list of the undones and pounce on it with motivational vengeance. Then, January 3rd comes. It's just too much, and some things take time. I can't cram 20 books into a weekend, no matter how much Red Bull I drink.

You're going to have to put some things off even longer. I know, it seems illogical, but the practical reality is that if you try to do everything, you won't do anything. That's why this stuff has taken you 3 years. So, pick one. What's been on that list forever? Make a plan and stick to it – that may mean months. If you can do that, and you finish, you'll start to realize the power of momentum.

Let some things go.

A couple of years ago, I bought a trilogy of some fantasy series at a used bookstore. It was cheap, and I wanted some fluff reading. After about 100 pages, I realized that calling these books "fluff" was an insult to clouds and bunnies. So, they sat, and every time I saw them I felt like I failed. I know it's stupid – these were purely for entertainment, and I was obsessing about not finishing. Still, we all do it.

So, I forgave myself. I didn't need to read these books, so I packed them up with the next box of books going to Goodwill, and I let them go. They don't bother me anymore. The point isn't to finish everything that you've ever started – the point is to finish what matters to you.