To do or not to do

Rosanna Machado | June 23, 2020

A couple of days before a big event, I am forced to review my to do list and make a conscious decision about what is achievable in the time frame. It inevitably leads to a culling – those extra special touches that I had wanted to do over and above the brief to add something to the event. The perfectionist in me used to struggle with this but over the years, I have learnt to let go and realise that I have a finite deadline and need to focus on the positive.

A lot of us can feel overwhelmed by our to do lists with a constant sense of being out of control. What can we do to improve the process?

  • Understand the bigger picture of your list – have some goals for the week or months ahead. I find it helpful to identify the top five things I have to get done in the week
  • Build some flexibility into your schedule. There will be unexpected things to deal with so come up with a list that will allow you time and space to deal with those unplanned interactions
  • Get other stuff out of your head – Dave Allen, in his book ‘Getting Thing Done’ calls this his someday/maybe list. By capturing it somewhere, it frees your brain space and you can choose to review it every six months and may well find that some things will naturally fall off the list (I’m still not a darts champion)
  • Review your bigger goals and identify the tangible next step that you can achieve in the next week or two. The goals will start to feel more manageable
  • Include time for yourself within your list – I find incorporating this with work tasks means I can look at the week holistically rather than trying to shoehorn self-care around work commitments
  • Have some review points or deadlines – if something constantly gets transferred on my to do list for months on end, I ask myself how important is it? And if it is important, what’s stopping me from doing it?
  • Have a clear prioritisation for your list and beware of completion bias where we tend to turn to easy tasks when we are stressed for the satisfaction of ticking things of the list (I know I do this!)
  • Let go of the impossible – understand which parts of the process are within your control and which parts are out of your control
  • Look at ways to be more efficient by using pockets of time throughout the day. Dave Allen suggests grouping lists by activities e.g. phone calls, then if you are early for a meeting, you can make a few calls by skipping through that list and your brain is in one mode rather than multitasking
  • Be conscious of how you spend your leisure time. We can easily spend time on social media without realising two hours have passed and we haven’t touched the hobby we wanted to start
  • Structure your lists in a way that works for you – mind mapping, linear lists, bullet journals, electronic lists – our brains process things in different ways
  • Learn to say no – it is not possible to do everything and we have to make choices and/or have conversations with people about what is achievable
  • Accept the fluidity of life – we may never get that completion that we crave as life is constantly changing.


We rarely get to the end of our lists but by giving them some clear focus, being conscious about how you spend your time, learning to say no and by letting go of things, we can strive for a better balance.