Ah, that sweet sigh of relief after you cross off an item on a to-do list.
Most of us make to-do lists. It’s an age-old belief that it reduces procrastination. For the most part, it does. It helps us remember what has to be done. This could be due to the Zeigarnik Effect, which is our brain’s method of making room for unfinished tasks. Ticking off tasks on our list also brings us a sense of accomplishment. It reduces anxiety and it provides a structured plan for you to work.
Yet, ironically it also brings with it the baggage of anxiety. When the list is seemingly endless, it becomes disorganised and chaotic. You feel disconnected with work, and you don’t know where to begin.
Instead of reducing anxiety, your to-do list is just escalating your stress. A bit counter-productive, isn’t it?
And that’s why, you need to tweak your to-do list. When it comes down to your to-do list, you need to see why you are doing it, says Audrey Hametner, a Dubai-based professor, wellness expert who also specialises in career and confidence training for youth. “What motivates people to get something done is to identify what’s in it for them. Whether it is personal, or professional, the first thing a person needs to think about is, ‘what are you going to get out of it?’”
People are all motivated by ‘what’s in it for me’, she elaborates. Even the smallest item on your list, becomes less of a burden. It becomes more interesting.
A change in perception
Switch the narrative.
Think of something that you have to do, but really don’t want to do. Try changing the words in your narrative before you even put it on a to-do list. Instead of ‘I have to’ and ‘I should’, change the words to ‘I want to’, advises Jihene El Abed Gati, an executive and leadership coach from XpandCoach, based in Dubai.
As we remove the weight of external constraints, that resistance to act loosens up because we feel a sense of control and total accountability, she further adds. Whenever you feel resistance to an action in your to do list, check if you are “should-ing” yourself. How can you switch your perspective? Ask ‘what’s in it for me?’ ‘Why would I want this’?
Hametner illustrates with examples. You groan at the thought of going to the gym. It’s a chore. Flip the narrative. Tell yourself that you’ll be fit and healthy. You’ll achieve the target weight you’ve been angling for a while. You’re answering the question, why you should go to the gym and work out.
Whenever you feel resistance to an action in your to do list, check if you are “should-ing” yourself. How can you switch your perspective? Ask ‘what’s in it for me?’ ‘Why would I want this’?
Another example, is to think of the workplace. If you detest what you are doing, you’ll believe that you are getting nothing out of it. “If you don’t do it well, you won’t be there for too long, will you? But if you do your job well and show good work, you have chances of a promotion at your performance review. You can ask for an interesting project, and show examples of what you have done. It’s just about how you look at the task at hand,” says Hametner. This positive change in perception is motivating and boosts confidence. Your self-worth increases and your daily tasks, both personal and professional don’t seem like an endless chore.
That motivation needs to come from within, rather than someone like a manager dangling constantly a carrot in front of you. “The best motivation is intrinsic motivation. You need to motivate yourself. It doesn’t matter what the job is. It matters how the person views it and how they can bring value to the task,” she adds. In essence, talk yourself down. Give yourself a positive pep-talk.
Another thing to consider, before you begin your list, spend time finding out what our life purpose is, advises Anita Raina, life coach, therapist and founder of the wellness company Atmaanaan. "What are we passionate about? What do we enjoy doing? What is the legacy we want to leave behind? Once we have spent time doing that, there is clarity and we are aligned with our goals. We will be intrinsically motivated to do what must be done."
Intrinsic motivation is when you complete a task for personal satisfaction or fulfillment rather than for some external reward like money, explains Raina. “Money will follow. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external validations, punishment, or rewards,” she says.
Once you have set your goals for the important areas of your life, now you are ready to schedule this in your calendar, she further adds. Now when you set your to-do list, you know why you are doing it, you are self motivated, you are have fun doing it. "There is clarity, you are more productive and calm. It's no longer a chore that you have to somehow finish," says Raina.
When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external validations, punishment, or rewards
The ‘why’ in the do-list
We have a better chance of paying attention to our to-do list if we see a question attached to the task. Understand why you are doing something.
Putting the ‘why’ in your to-do list helps you understand the purpose, goal behind each task, explains Nazia Khan, a certified life coach and wellness expert based in Dubai. You can determine which tasks are the most important or urgent, and which ones can be done later.
Understanding the purpose or goal behind each task allows you to determine which tasks are the most important or urgent, and which ones can be put off until later, “It helps you manage your time more effectively and ensures that you are working on tasks that will have the most significant impact on your goals,” she says further.
Putting the ‘why’ in your to-do list helps you understand the purpose, goal behind each task. It helps you manage your time more effectively and ensures that you are working on tasks that will have the most significant impact on your goals
Asking questions in your to-do list can have two outcomes. The first is that you will realise what matters to you. It connects you to what really matters to you, and what you want to achieve. “In this case the task becomes a milestone for something bigger that excites you,” says Gati.
Secondly, adding the question of ‘why’ also helps you to realise that a certain task is not so important. You can choose to delegate, postpone or cancel it. As a result, the anxiety of ticking all the boxes on your to-do list reduces.
Be as articulate as possible
Put it in clear words, why you want to do this task. Why is it on your to-do-list?
Sana Bagesh, an author, life coach and founder of the leadership platform Tamakkan, emphasises the importance of being articulate. “Be as precise as possible, when articulating ‘why’.” If you aren’t clear with yourself, you’ll get swept away by immediate action lists, short-sighted plans and then stray away from the overall purpose, she adds.
How it benefits productivity
Now that you know why you want to do a task, prioritise, effectively manage your time, and work to stay motivated.
Knowing the ‘why’ behind each task can provide motivation and a sense of purpose, adds Khan. “When you understand how a particular task contributes to your overall goals or objectives, you are more likely to stay focused and engaged in the task,” says Khan. This helps you maintain momentum and reduce procrastination.
It helps you prioritise
Which task is most crucial? And what are you getting out of it?
So, when you prioritise your tasks, you can focus on completing the most important ones first. This helps as you make the best use of your time and increase your productivity. It also reduces stress and anxiety as you now have a clear plan in place.
It can help with time management
Approach your to-do list with a calm mind, adds Khan. Prioritising well also contributes to effective time management. Plan for realistic deadlines, eliminating distractions, plan routine breaks, and break your tasks down into simpler chunks.
As you keep working to change your perspective, also answer to yourself, why you need to do something. Set up small rewards for yourself for completing tasks, says Khan. It can be as simple as taking a break, going for a walk, or having a treat. Celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small they are. Don’t be hard on yourself.