William James once wrote: “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.”
I couldn’t agree more. I thought I’d never finish this blog! I couldn’t resist a little humour… but there is admittedly some truth in it, too.
Why is it so fatiguing? Because each and every time we are reminded of something unfinished, it taxes our energy. And sadly, out of sight is not out of mind. As long as a task sits unfinished it remains a constant feed on our attention.
We all know that feeling of profound satisfaction when we finally tick the box. It’s like finishing a great book or crossing the finish line of a marathon. Brilliant, right?
So why aren’t we completing tasks all the time? Procrastination, keeping pace with life in the fast lane, the list is long and varied. Before we know it, our list has grown from molehill to mountain in no time.
The problems occur, however, when we still feel obligated to carry out all those things we said we would. We’d rather be guilted daily than admit defeat that we couldn’t (or didn’t) get it all done.
But think about it. Who wants to feel guilty and defeated all the time?
If your masses of unfinished to-do’s are taunting you like gremlins and depleting your energy, it’s time to take action.
Before you go assailing your task list like Don Quixote charging the windmills, here are 10 steps that will help you lessen the burden, saving you bags of time and energy from the start:
You’ll need: pencil and paper, a calculator, your diary …and a cuppa tea won’t hurt.
1. Corral your tasks – Don’t worry about category, order or size, just write down every task or to-do that comes to mind onto a single list.
2. Estimate the time – Beside each task, indicate in brackets how long you think it will take. Be realistic.
3. Reality check – Get your calculator and add it all up. How much time would you need? 14 hours? 6 days? 7 months?
4. Question the task – Why is it on your list at all? Will completing the task progress you towards a big life goal? Do you really have time to do it? Is the task still relevant? Would it impact you, or someone else, negatively if you gave it a miss?
5. Pare down – Delete everything you possibly can. What would happen if you let yourself off the hook and destroyed the list completely? Strike anything from the list that is not worth the time or effort for the end value.
6. Plan forward – Sometimes there are projects important enough to keep on the radar but not enough time to work on now. Select a reasonable date in the future and flag your diary to reassess such projects at that time.
7. Get help – Are you the only person who can action your to-do’s? Review your list for anything that can be farmed out, or that someone could help you with, even if it’s only a small part.
8. Good enough – If you dread anything on your list because you think it will be laborious or will have to be perfect, consider how you can complete a “good enough” version. Better to be finished with ‘good enough’, than endure the relentless suffering of no completion at all.
9. Make it happen – By now your leviathan of a list should be a veritable purring kitten. Time for the last and most crucial step. First prioritise. Then get the tasks off the list and into your diary. Fit them in like an appointment or part of a daily regimen, but get them scheduled. This will highly increase the likelihood of all tasks and to-do’s crossing the chasm to the land of the finished. The more you do, the more you’ll want to do.
10. Ongoing maintenance – For each new task or to-do that comes in, run it past the questions above as a filter for if / where they fit in your diary. Schedule a recurring time on the calendar for a thorough review to take stock, say every 3 months. Interests and circumstances change. You’ll want to be sure that every box you’re ticking is meaningful and progressing you in the right direction. Completing a task for the sake of it is empty activity.
Go for the finish line moment. Get it started. Get it done!