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The Moving To-Do List

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We all have to-do lists. There are things we want to accomplish and things we think we need to accomplish, so we put it all in a list, and we get to work. At the end of the day, we look at the list, but there’s one item that didn’t get completed, so we move it forward to tomorrow’s list, but tomorrow, the same thing happens, and it keeps happening, until we finally realize that we have no real intention of getting that one thing done.

I call these items a “moving to-do list,” and I’m always on the lookout for them. They’re those things that follow me around for weeks or months on end, until I finally own up to it and say, “I’m never going to get to that. I might as well quit moving it forward.”

I’m not talking about those pesky to-dos that eventually really do have to get done. I have a couple of them on my list right now, things like fixing a mirror on my vanity or the trip lever on my bathtub. Eventually, if I keep ignoring those to-dos and moving them forward on my list instead of just doing them, the mirror on my antique vanity will break, and my bathtub won’t drain (not good). Hopefully, I’ll get to those things before that happens, but the point is, eventually, as annoying as they might be, we get to these kinds of things, because if we don’t, there are consequences.

What I’m talking about are those things that might not have obvious consequences if we fail to do them, or that have consequences we’re subconsciously willing to pay. These are things like:

  • Writing that book we’ve been meaning to write, or
  • Launching that new product or service. or
  • Making changes to our service offerings or websites so that we stop taking on certain types of clients.

These are those tasks that we’re avoiding for some reason, and we need to figure out why. A few of the possible reasons?

  1. Obligation. We keep saying to the people around us (business and accountability partners, customers and clients, family and friends) that we’re going to write that book. We say that it’s something we really want to do, or we say that it will bring in additional revenue for our businesses, but it turns out that we’re not really all that motivated to do it, yet we keep moving the task forward, because we’ve promised that that’s what we’re going to do.
  2. Guilt. We think it’s something we should do, maybe because everyone else manages to get it done or because it’s our “responsibility” to do it, but internally, we’re doing it for all the wrong reasons and don’t really want to do it, and we feel guilty because of that, so we just keep moving forward and saying that we’re going to get it done.
  3. Motivation (or lack of it). A lot of the tasks we take on are driven by financial motivations. Maybe we want to (or think we should) make more money, but in reality, we’re quite comfortable where we are, so even though we might think or say that we want to achieve greater financial success, the financial motivation alone is never going to be enough to make us do the task, but we keep moving it forward, because we think we should want more money.

At the end of the day, it comes down to acceptance. Acceptance of what we really want, of our own definition of success, and of who we really are (and who we’re not).

Once you accept all those things and are OK, saying, “You know what, I just don’t even really want that. It’s not who I am, it’s not what I want, and it’s not important for me to be happy,” give it up. Take it off the list and file it away as a “someday/maybe,” if you think it will ever come back on the radar or if you need that little bit of security, just in case you change your mind.

The bottom line is that a moving to-do list adds unnecessary stress and frustration and a feeling of failure, when really you’re just attempting to achieve something that you don’t even want or that’s some arbitrary achievement that won’t even matter to you if you do accomplish it. Let it go, and be OK with it. Free up that mind space for something that you actually do want and that you stand a chance of accomplishing, because you won’t get in your own way.

What needs to be taken off your moving to-do list?

Photo by Flickr user bark, licensed under CC 2.0

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11 Responses to “The Moving To-Do List”

  1. Ben Work

    I like the site bc it has all the GTD capabilities but also has a ‘priority’ system to help you figure out what is most important on your list. Another option is if a task can wait for later you can ‘just’ snooze’ it!

  2. We are human and we are tactical. Strategic thinking is foreign to us though we know we “should” get better at it. Shiny things distract us and often because they are the tasks we enjoy and often are best at accomplishing.

    The issue escalates when we measure ourselves against some fictitious bar we think we ‘ought’ to reach or that ‘others’ attain and they feel the same.

    The best way to get stuff done is first establish if it’s what you really want to do and whether it’s where your strengths reside.

    This is not to suggest we avoid tasks on the hopes someone else will do them but if we’re in a team environment, there may be a chance to meet with your team and decipher who is strong at what and perhaps better distribute the to-do lists.

    I may be good at creative and strategic thinking but not good at web design. You may enjoy writing but filling out reports drags down your day so you move that stuff to tomorrow.

    Look around, meet with each other and figure out ways to play to your strengths and that to-do list will magically be a bit more easy to chew.

  3. Another great article, Amber. I can definitely relate to the moving to-do list and every once and a while I take a hard look at the items on my list and purge the ones that either are not important anymore or move them to the someday pile. If they’re truly important to me, they’ll appear on my to-do list again.

  4. For implementing GTD you can use this web-based application:

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    Comes with a mobile version too, and with an Android app.

  5. Very insightful article! My Moving To-Do List grows longer every day and writing my book is at the very top. I have the book in me and I sometimes even dream of the chapters, but what keeps me from sitting down and actually getting to it, I don’t know. Could very well be lack of motivation, procrastination or plain old laziness. I will say, however, I’m not quite at the point of taking it off the list. I’m just not ready to give up on the dream.

  6. Thank you for this post. I definitely feel myself depicted: I am always carrying this kind of tasks week after week, dragging my productivity, until one day I take them to SD/M. And it feels so relieving! I think maybe we link this kind of giving up to a failure, as if everything initiated should be completed, even in our very movable days, when a project can become rapidly obsolete.

    • I know just what you mean. I feel that way a lot of times with books, like if I start one, I should finish it, but I’m slowly getting over it, because some (no, many) books are just crap and aren’t worth reading. It’s definitely a relief when we can just let ourselves off the hook for these kinds of things.