People have been known to say, Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Or, There are seven days in the week and none of them are called Someday. Like all maxims, however, these are only partially — or situationally — true. Because there is a converse: Put off until tomorrow the thing you’re not supposed to do today. Life can’t all be done at once. Let’s blame the Industrial Revolution for making us feel like we’re always out of time, all the time, trailing around with a hunted, hollow feeling.
In recovery, they say, One day at a time. Now that is actually good advice. Forget about human-defined parameters, like the 7:07:07 AM on your Casio (ed. note: update to Apple watch?). There is no January in nature. The sun comes up and the sun goes down. That’s the simplest, most observable unit of time. How shall we spend it?
From a work perspective or creative perspective (or both), the to-do list is the key to unlocking the true potential of the day. Here are some suggestions for making yours as effective a tool as possible:
- Don’t put more on the to-do list than you can do. An overly long list becomes self-defeating and a setup for feeling bad about yourself. Instead of continually rolling items into the next day, let’s seek to understand the thing we’re putting on the list. How much is that going to take out of you? How much of this task do you want to accomplish? Obviously, I’m not going to write a whole book today, so what am I truly looking to accomplish? Am I going to transcribe three 40-minute chunks of interviews, and reflect on whether the material is better suited to the beginning, the middle or the end? Great, I have the time and bandwidth to do that.
- All work counts. Brainstorming, planning, or list-making are needed just as much to accomplish a task as what we commonly consider doing. Getting organized is a form of doing. In fact, sitting down and mapping out what’s ahead is often more valuable for understanding what you’re trying to do, ensuring you’re prepared to do it, and setting a process up to be as smooth as possible, than simply plunging in out of harried anxiety.
- Prioritize balance. Balance is not something we can wish into existence. Whether we’re talking about balancing work and family, balancing being sedentary and active, or balancing having friends vs. hearing yourself think, to live a balanced life you are ideally living a balanced day — or at least a balanced week. Accomplishing this requires matching your to-do list with your priorities: important work meetings, meditation sessions, creative writing hours, attending your kid’s dance performance… If you can’t find the time for it on your calendar, you are saying it doesn’t really matter to you.
- Conclude the day crisply. I have a journal where I write a 75-100 word entry at the end of each day. It could be about a win or a loss, a loose end, or something I realized…writing this entry is the most important thing about it. This act says “I’m done. This day started and this day is over.” Releasing your attachment to this day and its list prepares you to embrace tomorrow. We can’t just be attached, attached, attached. There has to be a letting go. Ritualizing that, honors the day and what it contained.
Today does not equal all time. And its essence might not be realized at all if you can’t resist the impulse to rush on to the next thing. If your to-do list has the proper heft, however, you won’t be worried about what you’re checking off and how quickly. Instead, you’ll be able to live inside the tasks and see them through the right way.