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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Get On Top Of Your To-Do List

Every Wednesday I post tips for adulthood. I got a status update from a friend on Facebook last night that read something like this: “The...

Every Wednesday I post tips for adulthood.

I got a status update from a friend on Facebook last night that read something like this: “The ironing pile just never goes away! I’ve tried not ironing…but I hate wrinkly clothes. And the pile just keeps growing!”

I know. I know. Your first thought is “Don’t iron!” but it’s clearly important to her. (She confessed later on that she even irons her kids’ undershirts…Wow!) And let’s face it. Taking four people’s clothes to a dry cleaner is both absurdly expensive…and just plain absurd. So instead, my friend irons – and irons – but the pile just keeps growing.

We all have our ironing piles. For some, it’s our email inbox. (Guilty!) For others, it’s the endless pile of bills to pay. And at this time of year, the number of piles just continues to mount: holiday presents…holiday cards…holiday recipes. Calgon, take me away!

As I learned two weeks ago while taking a self-imposed vacation, you never completely eradicate your to-do list. But here are some tips to help reduce your “laundry”:

1. Take control of one thing. As my life coach loves to remind me: “Stress occurs when you feel out of control.” There are lots of things in life that we don’t control:  an ill relative…how many friends your kid has in school. But there are some things we do control and our stress is greatly reduced when we seize one of those and manage it. I recently realized that I was really stressed out because I hadn’t yet purchased holiday gifts for the kids. So one night – even though the holidays were more than a month away – I sat down for 30 minutes, went through my mental list of what they wanted/needed/I could afford – and ordered a bunch of stuff on Amazon. I immediately felt calmer.

2. Divide your to-do list in half. I read about this tactic while sitting in a doctor’s office one day. (Yes, on occasion, those brochures are useful!) The idea is to separate your to-do list into long-term and short-term items. Each day, you tick off one item from the short-term list (see #1). Each week, you take a concrete step towards something on the long-term list. So even if your long-term list contains such seemingly amorphous tasks as “figure out your religion” (mine does!), you can still phone one synagogue and arrange to attend a bagel brunch. Done.

3. Take something off your plate. I once attended a productivity seminar that was run by a ridiculously enthusiastic management consultant. What I remember most from that experience – other than the skip in his stride – was his mantra to “Get it off your plate.” He maintained that the trick to a productive life lay in figuring out where to “send” something once it landed in your inbox. In my case, I like to think of this as finding a home for the things on your to-do list. It could be a physical home – a space for those single earrings/errant socks/stray Pokeman cards. Or it could be a virtual home. (My husband has a file called “history” where he stores all emails relating to landmark personal/family/professional events.) Whatever the strategy, when there is less clutter in and around your to-do list, you’ll feel more relaxed.

4. Eliminate the shoulds. I’ve posted before that many of the things populating our to-do lists are things we really don’t want to be doing, but feel we ought to be doing. And then we feel miserable that they don’t get done. So the trick here, my friends – (much easier to preach than to practice, I’ll grant you!) –  is to be honest with yourself about which items aren’t getting done because they are a “should.” Just the other day, an old friend confessed to me that she hadn’t yet sent out her – wait for it – holiday…cookies. What?? You send people cookies? I mean, what a lovely idea. And what a huge, annoying pain in the rear. “Do you like making cookies?” I asked her. She paused. “No. Not really,” she confessed. “But I like the idea of doing it.” Exhibit A.

5. Think in terms of weeks not days. This was one of the most helpful things my life coach ever suggested. She said that rather than trying to figure out which five things you can/will accomplish on any given day (and then despair when one or two fail to materialize), figure out what it is you’d like to have done by the end of the week. Then, if you miss the yoga class on Thursday morning because you have to attend a meeting, you can still reschedule it for Saturday and check that box. Try it!


I’ve gotten a lot of flack for my post on Politics Daily about why I don’t think the new mammogram guidelines are so bad. Have a look…

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  1. Cheryl November 27, 2009 at 4:41 pm #

    Wow – “stress occurs when you feel out of control” – I’ve never thought of stress that way but it is such a perfect description. I thought about that statement all day, went home and started filing/organizing a big mess that has been bothering me for literally years – and immediately felt better, even though I am not close to completing the task. Thank you so much for that important insight – I’m still thinking about it 2 days later and I’ve posted it on my bulletin board in my office.

  2. delialloyd November 27, 2009 at 9:25 pm #

    So glad you found it helpful, Cheryl. I’ve found it enormously helpful myself over the years! All best, Delia

  3. Vicki September 22, 2011 at 2:05 am #

    I just found this from one of your more recent posts – I love this! There are so many things I can’t control (namely, other people) that I find myself over controlling certain things (namely, the tidiness of our home and my baby’s nap schedule).

    I have found that I can’t remember things that I want to do now that I am mostly a stay at home mom. I found a small notebook and I have a different page for different to do lists (projects, things to buy, things to read, etc). Some are big (clean up and paint the basement) and some are small (buy socks for the baby, hem my jeans). But it is contained, which makes me feel better. Everything in its place.

    • delialloyd September 22, 2011 at 11:39 am #

      @vicki, oh I hear you, sister! I’m a list maniac. I like your idea of having a different page for each sub-head. Must consider that….thanks for weighing in!


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