“When Your To-Do Lists Loom Like Unyielding Mountains”

Every day, I find myself staring at a giant mountain of things I need to do. Oddly, only some of what’s on the so-called mountain is real, important, and valuable. Most of it is a lot of airy nothing, the result of funky thinking on my part.

Before I start my climb up the mountain, I stand at the base and squint up to the tippy top. If I can just make it up there by the end of the day, I’ll win. I say this every day, but I’ve almost never gotten to the top of that mountain. I’ve rarely won.

Why? Is it because I’m an amateur mountain climber? Are we talking El Capitan here? What’s the deal?

The deal is that my to-do lists — whether for today, this year, or my life — don’t always reflect what I can do or what I want to do. I would need five of me to clear off my typical daily to-do list. My to-do list for life reads more like what five different versions of me want for my life, not just the single living, breathing me.

Why My To-Do Lists Go Awry

Sometimes, I lack clarity on what I truly need or want to do — the world, after all, is a big mountain of endless options. Other times, I’m cognitively inflexible and can’t switch gears when life asks me to, so I miss out on the optimal trail. I’m left with a lengthier trek and a bigger mountain. Still other times it’s perfectionism that comes through, enabling my mountain to grow. Finally, my old friend Time Blindness comes for a visit (actually, she lives with me permanently, because that’s ADHD) and suddenly my current task stretches like the Appalachian Mountain range.

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It’s all so much fun.

Just kidding. It’s cold on my mountain, and lonely, especially when the trek involves fretting, scrambling, forgetting, rushing, and rarely arriving at satisfaction.

How to Shrink To-Do Mountains

So, what are my options? Am I destined to be stuck climbing interminable mountains forever?

I am not. I have the option to be a curator of my time, effort, and intentions.

[Read: The Power of a Well-Crafted To-Do List]

You’re thinking, “That’s easier said than done!”

Trust me, I get you. But I’ve found that noticing what’s going on in me in the moment is the first step to whittling down my mountain to the approachable, achievable, well-suited hill that makes my life happier and calmer.

Each day, when I wake up to face what appears to be Mt. Behemoth, I kick it with my toe to see if it’s real. I ask myself, “Steph, how much of what you insist you need to do today genuinely needs to be done?”

This is when the mountain raises a suspicious eyebrow because it knows that this question could lead to its shrinking. It’s a big clue that I’m at the juncture of owning my decisions or giving that power away. We each hold our position, but only one of us can be in charge. Who will it be? Me, or this mountain of tasks, goals, and dreams that nobody, even in an alternate universe, could ever accomplish in a reasonable amount of time?

“Since I’m writing a story with a happy ending here, it’s going to be me. But, full disclosure, the mountain sometimes gets the best of me. However, I’ve gotten so much better over time at calling the shots.”

The first trick is to say, “This thing doesn’t need to get done today.” The second trick is to believe this deep to your core. When you reach advanced-level mountain shrinking, you’ll learn that some tasks can simply be chucked off the mountain.

This is because there are channels of prioritization. One channel is for things that need to get done — the when, where, and how. The other channel is for things that need to get punted from our self-expectation mountain. When these channels become murky, climbing our mountain is no walk in the park.

But what is a lovely walk in the park? It’s the serenity that comes when I narrow down my daily priorities to a list that my earlier self would have laughed at. “Are you kidding? That’s a tiny list!” she’d have said. Old me would have fretted through her day and sulked at only being able to cross off, say, three things. Present me, though, feels empowered for crossing off the same number of items.

What I’ve noticed about adjusting to tinier, more doable plans is that as I accomplish what I set out to do and rack up the wins, I’ve grown a palpable confidence that says, “You can realize your dreams.” It’s hill-sized goals that lead us to mountains of accomplishment and happiness.

To-Do Lists Overwhelm: Next Steps

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