I’m pretty skillful at creating really useful and organized to-do lists. It’s the crossing off part that causes me problems.
It’s easy to cross items off of lists where you’re going to do the activity anyway—though you can’t always plan for how it’s going to work out. For example, it’s simple to plan to spend 15 minutes checking your email, and another ten catching up on Facebook, and then it’s no problem to cross them both off your to-do list. Email. Facebook. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
But you know, I just couldn’t plan for how pissed off I got at the Facebook comment by that Trump supporter who I offended. I made a perfectly innocent comment about Trump taking his friend Putin’s dirty money to the laundry room at Trump Tower—a joke. Now, I have to show up on Friday night for a duel to the death with muskets.
Maybe I could just disappear. Does anyone know… Is there a Witness Protection Program for Facebook comments?
In any case, if I survive, I really do have to quit Facebook. It’s on my list—for Saturday morning.
This Is Your Brain on To-Do Lists
Your brain on to-do lists is different than your brain on habits. The effort that you expend working through a to-do list costs brain energy that you get to keep if you’re simply going through a bunch of habitual routines that require no thought. And according to a significant body of scientific research, brain energy is a limited resource.
Scientists are great at being masters of the obvious, eh?
You use up some of that brain power when you create your to-do lists. If you resist, dread, or dislike following your list, your resistance costs more of your mental energy. Using your to-do list to accomplish simple tasks uses up even more of your mental focus. When you’ve finished using the list, and there are items left over, deciding what to do about the leftovers consumes even more energy.
Just reading your list can be exhausting. So if you need to take a break, for God’s sake, keep that break off the damn list! Or you’ll just need to take another one!
You can’t avoid using to-do lists altogether because of how useful they are. But for many people, there’s a way to avoid using them for most of what you need to accomplish on most days. Almost everything we do most days could actually be transformed into a habit. Things that show up on your to-do lists with great regularity should never even be on one.
Your to-do lists, and all of the brain energy that they require, should be reserved for tasks that are truly unique—like figuring out where to buy a musket.
This Is Your Brain on Habits
Good habits are a strange topic to ponder and then write about. Mostly because if you have to think about them, they’re not habits, are they? Good habits are regular actions that we approve of, actions that happen on autopilot—without even thinking about them.
That is, we would approve of them if we noticed them.
When you’re engaged in a habitual routine, you use very little brain energy deciding what to do first, second, third, and last. You’ll feel strange if you try to skip a deeply entrenched habit, because breaking the habit just feels uncomfortable and weird—which uses up a lot of brain energy. So if you can design a regular routine that deals with all of your most important regular priorities, you’ll have a lot more brain energy left over for things that excite, inspire, and challenge you.
Exciting, inspiring, and challenging? God that would be scary! I think I’ll leave now.
But if you’re brave and will risk having an interesting life, take your most recent to-do list—the one for today or tomorrow—and try to identify things that you regularly intend to do. Ask yourself whether one or two of them are better suited to being automatic routines.
If you can succeed, you’ll be able to spend more of your time the way you actually want to: like watching kitten videos on the internet—or yelling profanities at politicians on TV.
Alternatively, you’ll have a lot more time to torture yourself into thinking creatively and strategically about your important plans, daydreams, emotional needs, hopes, and opportunities.
You might think that it’s a little simplistic to say that if you move everything on your to-do list over to your list of regular habits and routines, you’ll stop using up mental energy wastefully.
And it is simplistic. But there’s nothing wrong with simplistic if it’s true.
This Is Your Brain on Crap You Hate Doing
The biggest problem with this entire topic is that we’re often just trying to force ourselves to do crap that we hate. Many of us use to-do lists and other “productivity tools” because we have crap to do that we’re actually intending to do when hell freezes over. So we put it on a to-do list—and then we lie to ourselves, pretending that we have just made some progress.
If we keep doing this, pretty soon, we have a really great list that we can attach to the fridge with a magnet, so that every time we go into the kitchen, we can flip the bird at it.
To-do lists full of things that you hate will burn up a ton of mental energy, whether they accomplish anything or not. Doing things that you love, on the other hand, will boost your mental energy, and that will enable you to do other things. When you get right down to it, our ability to accomplish what we want to accomplish comes down to how we budget our mental energy—with or without to-do lists. If we stop wasting our mental energy on the wrong things, we’d have a lot more left over for creative projects and working toward our goals.
But what if you’re committed to something but keep finding yourself blocked? What if you really and truly want to do something and hate it or fear it simultaneously?
This blog is not going to provide you with therapy. But I’ve written a free online app that is like a therapy session. It will help you figure why you’re in such deep conflict. It’s called: In a Journal, Complete your Relationships with People or Concerns.
Like any therapy session, this app will take you at least 30 or 45 minutes. If you run screaming from the room while doing the app, your time outside the room screaming will simply be added to the session.
If you’re really determined to do something that you hate, and you don’t have the patience to sort things out with this useful online app, you’ll have to settle for a more traditional approach: talking to a friend or a minister, going to therapy, or if all else fails, getting drunk.
How to Be a Lazy Workaholic
So what have we learned?
Step 1: As much as possible, choose your main goals from things that you love, even if you’ve never admitted them to yourself before. At the end of a busy, productive day, you should feel tired, but not resentful and exhausted. How about tired and thrilled?
Just make sure that what your heart truly desires doesn’t have a violently jealous lover.
Step 2: What are two or three easy, uncomplicated things that you could do every day as a habit that will move you toward your goals? These should be habits that are so easy you can do them daily, no matter what else comes up. They should also be enjoyable.
Then figure out how to make them into habits. (Future Blogs with Jokes will help you with this step.) After they have become established habits, you can repeat this step and create more habits that support your goals. You can repeat this as often as you want, and you’ll move faster and faster each time, as you build greater and greater momentum.
Be sure to quit before you just can’t stand yourself anymore.
Step 3: Use to-do lists and other tools like them sparingly. To-do lists are just too useful to avoid in every situation. Sometimes we’re so busy we need a list to avoid forgetting to pick up milk on the way home—or whatever else we’re likely to forget. Just don’t use to-do lists for things that you hate.
I suppose you could make an exception if you hate milk.
Step 4: If you can’t avoid putting things that you hate on a to-do list, then don’t put them on your regular to-do list. Keep your regular list as a memory aid and a way to keep everything organized in your mind.
For things that you hate, make a separate list. Then make a point of losing it.
Step 5: Always keep in mind that your mental energy for accomplishing your real goals is a limited resource. As much as possible, refuse to do things that will diminish your supply.
Your supply of mental energy is your most valuable savings account. Don’t spend it foolishly.
(If you didn’t like this blog, don’t you dare share it!
(I write these humorous blogs to call attention to our Joyful Wisdom Groups, which meet weekly by Skype. We become family to one another through meditation, deep sharing about the weekly programs, and heart-based activities. These small groups are free, but most people want to support our work with donations.
(In this blog and others that I’m envisioning for this series, I’m going to teach you how to change your habits. The previous Blog with Jokes about habits talked about changing your blood chemistry through rewards that you control. Future blogs will talk about how to create routines, what triggers your habits and aligning your energy with new habits using esoteric processes. We’ll also talk about breaking bad habits—a harder process, especially for addictions.)