Taming the Tyranny of the To Do List

How to soften (and strengthen) your To Do List

dealing with overwhelm & doing too much, with self compassionMy sister gave me the sweetest “To Do List” pad. It has an image of a woman meditating on it. It gives me the illusion of always being mindful, no matter what I have to do. The more I looked at it though, the more I realized it was mis-named. It says “To Do List” in big letters at the top. It should say “To Be List”…

Here’s a photo of my ideal To Do List. Look at all of that open space, sense of peace, and freedom to breathe…

If you are a busy professional, or parent, or just someone with lots of responsibilities on your plate, or if you care about keeping track of what you need to do, or trying to be organized, or just getting things done, then you probably have kept a To Do list or two. You probably live by your list(s). I know I do.

But you might also be overwhelmed by your lists, or be beholden to them. You might not remember anything if it weren’t for your lists. You might feel confined by their length, their deadlines, their interminability, the way they measure you, never seem to get completed, and then leave you feeling incomplete.

Of course, there are many good things that can come from making or utilizing a To Do List. We might rely on our lists as an extension of ourselves.

Our To Do Lists: 

  • Keep us organized
  • Point us in a direction; act as a guide to what direction we want to go.
  • Remind us of what we have yet to do
  • Keep us accountable
  • Can indicate our wishes, dreams, desires for self
  • Make concrete the ways we show our love for family and people we care about
  • Are a way of marking our ideas – getting them down, making them tangible
  • Help us to not forget. Help us to remember.
  • Help us move forward with our plans
  • Can be a source of creativity
  • Can remind us of all the good in the world we want to do
  • Let us see how much we’ve accomplished
  • Give us a sense and feeling of being productive
  • Break larger tasks down to manageable smaller doable items
  • Let us know we are alive and still have things to do
  • Give us a sense of being in control in our world
  • We feel good when we check off our list

But sometimes our lists get out of balance and become overbearing and restrictive, even tyrannical. We end up having negative limiting beliefs about ourselves when we can’t get through our To Do Lists. We inadvertently let our lists control or define us. We become slaves to the Master List. We forego our pleasures and simple joys, in order to deal with the list. We prioritize having to DO, rather than BEing who we are and trusting we will be loved for that.

Some people feel demoralized when they look at their list and feel there is so much to do. And that they’ll never get it all done.

At these times, our lists:

  • Let us bargain with time and imagine it is endlessly available to us
  • Let us see how busy we are
  • Represent our wish to be immortal or our defense against mortality, limits, endings, disappointments
  • Let us believe we have ultimate control of our lives and what happens to us, if only we can tackle that list
  • Remind us of all the unimportant things we have to do
  • Become a way to measure our value or worth by what we accomplish – or don’t
  • Overwhelm us with demands on our time, energy, focus
  • Can give us a sense of failure and powerlessness just by their presence
  • Become our task master rather than a tool in service of
  • Never end til we die
  • Are always hanging over our head
  • Represent the “shoulds” in our lives that we can be lead to feel shame or inadequacy about when we can’t fulfill them
  • Sometimes drive us rather than letting us drive our own lives
  • Distract us from what it feels like to be present in the moment by always putting us in the future of “To Do”
  • Become ways to procrastinate and never live in the moment because we are always creating lists and planning for perfection
  • Become a marker of our worthiness or sense of value, or more often, a sense of lacking
  • Let us hold on to that idea that one day, when everything on our list is done, we’ll finally be enough, whole, worthy
  • And far too infrequently we create “To Be” lists…

If your To Do List has gotten unwieldy, or you’re feeling more shame and overwhelm about it, you can shift your relationship to your List, to one of kindness, support, mindfulness.

What to do about your To Do List:


  • Have compassion for yourself living under the tyranny of a To Do List
  • Take a few deep breaths before each task
  • Create a To Be list, or a Joy list, or a Gratitude list, or a Personal Resource list, or a Daily Personal Bucket list, or a Passion list of things you love but may have put aside or neglected
  • Have gratitude to have a full life that allows you to make a list
  • Have gratitude for each item on your list – try to find the hidden gifts of having things to do
  • Prioritize your list with items that give you space, and quiet moments to check in with yourself – Moments where you can BE rather than Do
  • Cushion or book-end each item on your To Do List with three long deep breaths
  • Consider each item on your list to see if it matches your values or intentions
  • DO more of those items that are aligned with meaning in your life
  • Become aware of your body and emotions when you know you still have things to complete on your To Do List
  • When you check off your list, savor the good feeling (or whatever feeling is there) for a few seconds longer
  • Don’t let your To Do List be the boss of you, or define you, or be a source of self-punishment

Like Sylvia Boorstein says, “Don’t just Do something, Sit there.”!

I’d love to hear from you…By reading this post, did you discover anything new about how you use your To Do lists? Is your relationship with them kind, values-driven, thoughtful of you; or in the service of criticism, demand and harshness? Respond to this post and share your ideas.

If you or someone you love is challenged by a critical relationship you have with your lists (or yourself) and would like to feel better, please contact me for a therapy appointment.

For more ideas on how to bring more calm and less worry into your life, click here for a free email course on Mindfulness.

Listening with Heart
Cindi Rivera, MFT
Marriage, Family Therapist
[email protected]
(510) 482-4445

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