Thursday, September 24, 2015

Tackling My To-Do List

I have always been a maker of to-do lists.  Ever since childhood, I enjoyed making to-do lists and checking of completed tasks.  But somewhere between residency and motherhood, my to-do lists got out of control. 

As an intern, I had a clipboard with a to-do list that a) ridiculously long and b) my life (i.e. if I lost the list, my life as an intern might end). 

Motherhood (which began when I was a third year resident) brought a whole new set of to-dos.  My home to-do list started to rival my work to-do list.  In the ten years I’ve been a working mother, my to-do list has become a monster that I lives a life of its own and now controls me more than me controlling it.

Some bad things were happening.  First, I would look at my list and feel a sense of panic.  Second, I felt totally unaccomplished because I could never actually get through my list or even make a dent in it. Third, I was always late because I was always trying to eek one more task into my day.

A few months ago, I decided to reevaluate my to-do list process.  I had read lots of productivity books (in fact, I’m a bit of a productivity book junkie). I had tried making a four-quartered square to prioritize tasks. I had tried to dedicate time to finish tasks at the end of the week.  But nothing was working. 

Here’s what I did.  I made a list of the domains of my work and life and created one monthly goal in each domain.  For example, I have an ongoing list of things I have to work on in my apartment. Instead of keeping an enormous anxiety-provoking list of a million tasks, I pick a room of the month and focus on it. 

My work involves a lot of writing, teaching, and administrative tasks.  In each of these domains I created one monthly, practical goal.  In the writing domain, my goal is to prepare a final version of a research paper and to start a draft of a new manuscript.  Nothing more, nothing less. 

After I set monthly goals, I create daily to-do lists that contained about five to six tasks.  These tasks work off the monthly goals (e.g. finish my MIM post) and a few other things that are more routine (e.g. clean my office desk) or just come up (e.g. buy last minute party favors for my son’s birthday).

The shorter list is a huge change from my previous lists. It takes a lot of effort to keep it short. With the barrage of emails every day, it’s very tempting to add one more task. But the vast majority of these tasks don’t need to be done today and instead can be done in a few days when I have an emptier list with more room.  The key habit it to write down the task on another day’s list so that I don’t stress out about forgetting it.

My to-do list experiment has been really insightful.  A few expected things that came up:
  1. My stress level dropped.
  2.  I feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.
  3. I’m much more connected with my kids and husband (i.e. when I get home and I am not trying to get 80 more things done and actually focus on my family).
  4.  I’m on time (ok, not always but more frequently).
These were all things that I expected and was pleasantly surprised that they came true but something unexpected came up.

I became much more productive.  I did not expect this.  I thought that with a shorter list, I would get less done. What I found was that with a shorter list, I actually got more done.  I especially got things done that I had been dreading or putting off for months. 

In the course of three months of my experiment I finished three manuscripts, started drafts on three more, wrote five blog posts, and cleaned out my kitchen cabinets (this task had been on my to-do list for two years). I also watched several movies with my family and did not pull out my laptop to-do work during them (this is unheard of for me).  

As mothers in medicine, we are expected to-do an almost superhuman number of things in our lives.  Ladies – let’s take back our sanity and tackle our to-do lists!


  1. Can you be a little more specific? How many domains do you have in total? It sounds like it more than just "Home" and "Work". Do you actually get through the whole "daily to-do list"? (Therefore, it should be realistic for what is possible to get done in a day.) Also, do you use an app to keep track of the lists? Or good old-fashioned paper?

  2. Hi neuro - Great questions! My daily list is a mix of home and work tasks and as I said in the post, I limit that list to very few items. For example, today's list includes editing a perspective piece I am writing, three errands for home/kids, and finishing charts from my patient day. I sounds like a really short list but these things take time (especially writing). I generally get through my list by the end of the day which is really satisfying.

    I use Evernote - an online list maker - and keep lists for future days so when a task comes up I can put it on a future day. My biggest challenge is the temptation to do something right away and lose focus of my tasks for the day. That's a habit I'm trying to break.

  3. I love Evernote (clipped this blog post to Evernote so I won't lose it ;-) ), helps me organize my daily/monthly/ongoing vs personal/work to do lists.


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