It is the season of New Year’s resolutions, when we are tempted to make big new personal declarations – that get added to our lengthy to-do lists. As a devoted fan of lists, I’ve concluded that long to-do lists are a bad thing. Whether lurking in the back of your mind, on the back of a napkin or digitally in a cool iPhone app, such lists, because they are a symbol of all that is not yet done, can drain our mental energy, motivation and sometimes self-esteem – before we even begin to tackle them. So take a pause before you add to your list of resolutions. And perhaps even prune your list now.
I recently read (at www.slate.com) about research by Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir and Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan. Their varying studies confirmed that when people feel that their time is scarce, they are less creative and their decision-making suffers measurably. This sense of scarcity (around time) is exactly what we experience when our to-do commitments seem to outsize our available time. We may think we’re creating a fuller life, but in fact, we are limiting ourselves in ways we do not realize.
Excessive to-do lists can paralyze us. This is a common reason for my coaching clients to seek my help in getting “unstuck.” And as Shafir and Mullainathan explain, when the list of tasks waiting for us is excessively long, heightening our sense of time scarcity, it takes even more energy to choose something and get started. The reason for this is that we exert mental energy subconsciously worrying about all the things we are choosing to neglect every time we make a choice to take care of one commitment. In short, every time we jump into action to complete something, instead of experiencing the pure exhilaration of accomplishment, we also experience the “downer” of having made another trade off.
I have personally experienced another side effect of overly ambitious plans: the longer a task sits on my list, the greater the effort I imagine will be involved to complete it. This imaginary growth makes me want to put off the task even longer, and, it eventually requires more mental energy than it should to overcome my resistance and get the job done. I work with very successful executives who relay to me the same tendency; so you are in good company if you also experience this.
So that’s my own New Years resolution: Put less on my list. Be a bit more steady and realistic on a daily basis in completing the small and large tasks that lie between me and my desired outcomes. Work through my list with greater focus, confidence, and enjoyment. After all, to-do lists are meant to help us lead a “fuller” life, not to deplete our energy, creativity and decision-making.
How does that sound to you?…. Make “less” be your path to “more”. Scrap the shiny, new ambitious resolutions for sharpened focus, shorter lists and higher quality follow-through.