Turning Your To-Do List Upside Down

It’s looming behind me as I speak, mocking me. It’s my whiteboard wall, which as I noted on this blog the other day is filled with dozens of bullets of short-term tasks to advance myself as a writer and teacher. It helps my mind to have all of these to-do’s written down; I feel a sense of control over my fate. But is it helpful to start my morning staring at four six-foot-tall columns of tasks waiting to be completed?

I would imagine a pelican's to-do list is fairly short, with "Catch fish" and "Eat fish" the top two answers on the board. When I had lunch at a waterside restaurant in the Marathon Key of Florida last month, these pelicans seemed to be crossing another item off their list, "Pose for tourist."
I would imagine a pelican’s to-do list is fairly short, with “Catch fish” and “Eat fish” the top two answers on the board. When I had lunch at a waterside restaurant in the Marathon Key of Florida last month, these pelicans seemed to be crossing another item off their list, “Pose for tourist.”

We all feel overwhelmed at times by our many to-do’s in life, many of which–related to health and financial security–are not optional, unlike the bullets on my whiteboard wall. I am particularly inclined to feel overwhelmed at this time of year, when overcast days trigger what my doctor calls Seasonal Affective Disorder, but what any rational person could easily call the winter blues.

Yet any student of creativity knows  that the key to success is focusing on what you can control, and we can–to an extent greater than we give ourselves credit for–change the way we see a situation in life. I am feeling overwhelmed by too many things to do. But is it possible that I am in fact blessed with an abundance of things I could be doing?

That is the position of entrepreneur coach Molly Gordon. I read about her in a recent post by the accomplished creativity expert Dr. Douglas Eby on Psych Central. Eby quotes Gordon as follows:

“People are always asking me how I get everything done. There are many answers, but one in particular arose in the midst of one of my morning meditations. As usual, my mind was prancing around like a young puppy, willing to heel for only a moment or two before racing off to explore some enticing scent in the bushes.

“Also as usual, one of these enticing scents was my ‘To Do’ list. As I gave a gentle tug on my mental leash, I experienced a sudden shift in perception. It was as if I had slipped through the looking glass to discover that I was living in a world of abundant possibility as opposed to one of temporal scarcity.

“I no longer had the problem of not enough time and balancing my life with my work; I had the gift of more than enough to do.”

I certainly have more than enough to do. I’m going to make an effort to try on this new suit for size, this to-do-list-as-a-blessing. Now I just need another mental trick to calm myself of the fear that whatever to-do I choose to work on should in fact have been ignored for a to-do of more urgency or importance.

How many days until spring again?

15 thoughts on “Turning Your To-Do List Upside Down

  1. Pingback: Turning Your To-Do List Upside Down | Stan Stewart's Blog

  2. An interesting perspective . . . I don’t know if I can always trip the switch from Overwhelm to Abundance, but I can think of a number of elderly people I know whose days are a desert of empty hours. That image helps me feel grateful for too much to do.


    1. That’s an excellent point, Ellen. I have some older relatives that I see with empty hours and I want to help them, but unfortunately they need to be willing to recognize their situation is ideal and accept the help. There was a cheesy pop song by Styx back in the 80’s called “Too Much Time on My Hands.” I used to hear that and say “Oh, I’d love to have that problem!” but it can in fact be a problem.


  3. nancyarnypisunyer.blogspot.com

    Having received my first official rejection letter from a publisher this weekend, my to-do list just got a new top-of-the-list item: find another publisher to submit to. But that being said, perhaps you should divide your white board into Steven Covey’s 4 quadrants and put the post-its in appropriate sectors. Check Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for an explanation, if you’ve not learned this system yet. Or here is a link to quickly explain these. I will now go do this myself! Consider yourself blessed to not only have choices, but to have a job and a white board and a pile of post-it notes, and move on.Deep breath. Dive like a pelican!


    1. Thanks, Nancy. I think I know the quadrants you’re talking about, and how we’re inclined to focus on the quadrant of easy lifts but not urgent because that’s not as intimidating as taking on larger tasks that will become more urgent. I’ll track that down.

      “Dive like a pelican!” Yes! Who knows what I’ll scoop up in that big gullet.


  4. Virginia Kidd

    We have no winter in Sacramento. All the grass is brown, the ski resorts closing, the rivers drying up. Lawns can only be watered on the weekend, and cars cannot be washed with hoses, only buckets of water. I wish for dark cloudy days, where the bright computer is like a fireplace to hover near. Oh, we can’t have fires, either. Fire season has already begun. I wish we had just a little of your snow, though not the fierce cold. I’m not sure what this all says other than that we can all keep writing and have different worlds to describe.


    1. I grew up in Arizona and did my undergrad in southern California. I’m well aware of the tough drought you’re going through right now, and sympathize. I’d love to send you some rain! Most of what we’ve received, though, is not snow but cold.

      That said, I need clear skies and sun at this time of year. During my week in Florida I felt alive. Since coming back it’s all I can do to keep pushing through each day, like trying to run in a swimming pool. I have my mood-relief light and that helps, but still…


  5. Hmmm… not sure I could ever view my to-do list as a wealth of possibilities, but I can see how that approach would help… I’ll stick it on my to-do list… 😉

    I sympathise with the SAD, Patrick; I know how soul-sucking that can be. I’ve been hearing that it’s horrifically cold in a large part of the US at the moment too – is that the case where you are? Here in the UK we’ve had torrential rain and flooding for the past couple of months. Perhaps we should ship some of it to the people of Arizona – we’ve certainly got a surplus you could have, guys… 😉


    1. Hi Wendy, I live in northern Virginia just outside of DC. Unusually low temperatures this winter, but it’s the days and days of overcast weather that get to me. It snowed about two weeks ago and most of that is still around (another inch dusting yesterday).

      You know, I first learned I had SAD when I did a college study program at Oxford; I went there straight from southern California and had never lived in a place that had a lot of clouds. I wasn’t diagnosed for years, but that’s when I first learned how much not seeing the sun can affect my mood. Fortunately the mid-Atlantic isn’t like this year-round.


  6. SAD sucks. Though I fare better in the south than I did in the north, it still gets me on occasion. I read the article on Psych Central a while back and decided to make a conscious effort to be on the abundance side. I also use the four quadrants, but even when I schedule well, it’s tough. Busy doesn’t equal progress, so I try to look for the progress each day.


    1. I’m not quite there yet! A confession: part of the reason I like making to-do lists (beyond making sure I don’t overlook anything) is to have the pleasure of crossing something off. On Sunday I did something important that wasn’t on the whiteboard; I grabbed a dry-erase marker, wrote that task on there, and immediately crossed it out. If to-do’s are abundance, why would I want to reduce my abundance by crossing them off? 🙂


  7. Pingback: Poetics Serendipity | Margo Roby: Wordgathering

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