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Dump Your To-Do List

May 7, 2020 | by Rabbi Philip Moskowitz

And record your daily successes on a “done list” instead.

I am finally dumping my to-do lists. Most mornings, I wake up with a litany of things I want to accomplish, and a to-do list has always been the simplest and most utilitarian way to remember what I need to do.

A friend told me that when Covid-19 started and his office was closed down, he had seen the potential for a tremendous opportunity. All of those things that he had always wanted to get to – the books he wanted to read, the shelves he wanted to clean out, the learning he wanted to accomplish – he would now finally have extra time for.

He quickly learned that life would most certainly not be slow and so much of his to-do list would remain unfulfilled. As many of us came to discover, lockdown makes so many of our day-to-day activities tedious and time consuming. Procuring groceries, something that used to take 15 minutes, has become a whole ordeal. Instead of a quick breakfast on the go and a sandwich for lunch, my friend and his wife now prepare three meals a day for an entire hungry family. And they're running a full-time homeschool and daycare center, managing countless Zooms, Google Classrooms, computer logins, and class schedules.

By the end of each day, they're completely wiped out and his to-do list remains largely unfulfilled.

His comments resonated with me, and we are far from alone. In a fantastic New York Times article titled, “Stop Trying to be Productive,” Taylor Lorenz quotes Chris Bailey, a productivity consultant, who says, “It’s tough enough to be productive in the best of times let alone when we’re in a global crisis. The idea that we have so much time available during the day now is fantastic, but these days it’s the opposite of a luxury. We’re home because we have to be home, and we have much less attention because we’re living through so much.” Lorenz goes on to quote several others who had high expectations of themselves and their potential achievements during this crisis before coming to accept, as one of them put it, “trying to be more okay with just being.”

To-do lists focus on what we haven't accomplished, instead of celebrating what we have accomplished.

I came to realize the inherent danger of to-do lists. By design, they focus on what we have not accomplished, instead of celebrating what we have accomplished. By constantly looking at our to-do lists and always focusing on what’s next, we skip right over our wins and fail to notice our progress. At the end of the day, you may very well end up feeling unproductive and overwhelmed by what you have not done, instead of proud of what you have.

Which is why I am temporarily ditching my “to-do” list and instead starting a daily “done” list. In The Progress Principle, psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer analyzed over 12,000 journal entries written by 238 company employees. They found that on days when employees felt productive and accomplished, they also reported positive emotions like joy and pride.

Instead of negative pressure creating better performance, they found that when employees felt progress and focused on their past achievements, they were also more inspired to continue their work with greater enthusiasm, productivity, creativity, and happiness.

As psychologist Karl Weick writes, “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” Or as our sages would say, “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, – one good deed brings about another good deed."

The Omer teaches us to celebrate our successes and use that positive energy and momentum to encourage us even more.

Focusing on our successes also instills resiliency and places any setbacks in context. Maybe there are one or two things I didn’t get done, but look at all of the things that I did accomplish. That alone can give you the boost you need to make a renewed attempt.

We also learn this from counting the Omer; we count the days up, not down. When we’re anticipating a big event, we usually count down with great excitement. But during the Omer, we count up towards Shavuot. And in doing so, we train ourselves to appreciate how far we’ve come and how much we’ve grown spiritually, rather than on what’s next and what we’ve yet to accomplish. The Omer teaches us that rather than focus on what’s missing, we need to celebrate our successes and use that positive energy and momentum to encourage us even more.

So set aside 5 minutes at the end of every day to write down your wins for the day and appreciate what you have accomplished successfully. They don’t even have to be huge accomplishments or impressive achievements. Every win counts.


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