Upside-down To-do Lists

By Alina Chase

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My never-ending attempts to stay focused on priorities (and submit this blog on time!) led to a brilliant alternative to traditional to-do lists. Do them backwards.


Traditional agendas sound like a fine way to organize time.  But if you’re as overly optimistic as I am, they’re little more than guilt-inducing wastes of time. How often do we plan out a day and run out of time (or steam) long before everything is accomplished, leaving some important things undone?


The reason this happens so often—besides allowing ourselves to get distracted (i.e. procrastinating)—is that it’s impossible to predict or control how long most to-do’s will take. How long will you wait for the doctor? Will the one-hour meeting drag on for two hours? What if the puppy chews up your notes—again?


While an upside-down to-do list, like its traditional cousin, will not help us get more done, it will help us re-prioritize as the day plays out so that what’s most important is not still sitting at the bottom of the list at bedtime.  Some things will not get done. But hopefully they are things we chose not to do, not priorities we ran out of time to do.


Here’s how it works for me—and it is working, minus the distraction factor. As I work my way down and up and around the list, end-of-day objectives remain at the top, and it’s easy to see what can and should be nixed along the way. And plenty gets nixed.


My afternoon list began with tomorrow morning. Leave at 0730 for an important meeting. For a stress-free morning, I’ll need to be up at 6. Then working backwards, tonight I’ll need to wrap up whatever I’m doing by about 9:30.  Set the alarm before I fall asleep in the recliner. The next item is this blog, submit not later than 7 p.m. The list also includes: pull weeds, clean the carport, shop, pick up a library book and make an important phone call.


(Can you already see how much of this is probably –not- going to happen by bedtime? So let’s think of it as a “wish list” instead of a to-do list.)


Here’s how it looks so far. I stopped at one shop. The 10-minute phone call lasted an hour. But that’s OK—it was worth the time. I got the book but also had to stop for gas. Then I got distracted with family-drama emails that could have waited until after 7. Shame on me! It’s after 6:30 and the blog’s not finished. Will I feel like weeding and cleaning between 7 and 9:30?


While this doesn’t seem to be going well, what doesn’t get done wasn’t a priority. As for remaining to-do’s, if I get this blog submitted on time and don’t fall asleep before I set the alarm, I will have accomplished what mattered most.  It will have been a fine, stress-free day and as productive as it needed to be.

One thought on “Upside-down To-do Lists

  1. An interesting take on the To-Do list. I usually find myself taking care of all the little, not-really-important things on my lists and not getting to the priorities. Maybe I should just slim down my lists. 😛
    I like your laid-back approach.


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