June 24, 2019

To-Do Lists Won’t Make you Successful. Here’s what Will.


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“Failing to plan is planning to fail,” or so the modern-day proverb tells us.

At the heart of it, planning is just a way of organising tasks to achieve something of intention.

Planning is commonly seen as a way of taking charge of our destiny and being responsible. We plan to better our lives, achieve success, and to make sure that we’re making the most of our time.

Society broadcasts that the only way to succeed and be happy in life is to plan. That by planning, we’ll never be anxious, have a bad relationship, forget our carefully constructed presentation notes, accidentally offend someone on social media, or suffer from imposter syndrome. In short, life will be perfect.

Whether in relation to how we schedule our time or how we’re preparing for the future, planning is an inescapable part of everyday conversation.

We harmlessly ask our partner, “What do you have planned for your day off?” Bumping into an old friend and finding out they are married, we might enquire, “Any plans for kids?” Or, at a family gathering, we might hear, “What’s the big plan?”

However innocent, conversations about planning can often make me feel like I’m not doing enough. Perhaps that’s because one too many times I have been warned and reminded, “Don’t waste your time,” “The clock is ticking,” and “Time is precious.”

With the implied warning being that unless I use my time more productively, I’ll fail in life. But, business isn’t synonymous with effective planning, despite how it may seem. I should know; I’ve engaged in some pretty unhealthy productivity habits born out of the idea that I should “do more to achieve more” in order to prove myself a success.

Turning to productivity experts on Pinterest for inspiration, I would gorge on candy-coloured Pins telling me, “You’re 20 days away from the perfect life plan,” and was reassured by their ambitious claims. But, when I couldn’t reach the mark for my one-month goal, I was sure I failed. Neurotic and anxious to succeed, I further subscribed to productivity-focused media and downloaded apps to help me better plan my life and time.

“7 steps for planning your perfect week.”

“How to plan your day like Meghan Markle.”

“Want to be a success? Plan big.”

These became just a few subject lines to get dropped into my inbox every morning before I even had a chance to drink my tall, black morning wake-up coffee.

And, as if the email prompts weren’t enough to send me into panic overdrive when I didn’t act on them, an increasingly irritating app I downloaded liked to remind me, “It’s time to plan your day!”

To prove myself a success to society and my time management app, Sorted, I doubled up on my efforts to maximise my time. I scribbled down lists of to-dos like my life depended on it and overindulged in the habit of busy work—continuously doing stuff without it adding any real value to my life.

Before long, I was overworked and stressed, with nothing to show as actual work. I only learnt to appear to be in control. In short, my planning had taken over my life, and yet, my life was no better for it.

Busy as a Badge of Honour

In her TEDx talk, “Stop trying so hard. Achieve more by doing less.” Bethany Butzer, author, speaker, and lecturer at the University of New York in Prague, describes my misguided approach to getting ahead in life as “upstream effort”—where one tries hard, using a lot of energy, without really going anywhere.

She asserts that by subscribing to society’s idea that “nothing in life comes easy” and we must “fight hard to make it,” we have wrongly conditioned ourselves to believe that the struggle is the only way to be a success. And that, in our attempt to gain external approval in order to feel worthy, we have become too obsessed with being busy at the expense of our well-being.

Butzer prescribes “slowing down” and reconsidering what is meaningful to us, to hit the reset button on business. In doing so, we can apply “downstream effort,” where one balances effort with ease, in order to achieve more of what we want in life.

She explains that we’ll know when we’re engaged in downstream effort because we’ll be going with the flow of life instead of fighting against it. “When we engage in effort toward goals that are personally meaningful to us, our trying doesn’t feel like trying. And, our success feels successful regardless of how it looks to people on the outside.”

It’s important to have a goal—but it’s more about the journey.

When the Clock Strikes

In the early industrial revolution, scientist Frederick Taylor famously proposed the “one right way” to maximize worker productivity in order to enhance economic efficiency. His philosophy—to break tasks down into time-based objectives and reward workers based on what they achieved in that time—had long-lasting effects on society.

The idea of what we get done in any given time directly relating to how we’re financially rewarded or whether our contribution is valued may indicate why we’re so consumed by getting as much done as possible in order to feel worthy, as Butzer puts it.

A study by Sellier and Avnet called “So what if the clock strikes?” found that our perspective on time and how we schedule tasks to achieve our goals is significant to our health.

Planning our time against the clock (tasks scheduled in time slots) versus by event (tasks organised in order of completion) causes a marked difference in our overall sense of well-being.

Clock-timers were “cognitively busier” and less able to “be here now” than event-timers. Their perspective on how in control they are of their time and destiny, as well as whether they get enjoyment out of their work, was negatively impacted.

Perhaps, then, for the sake of our well-being, it’s time that society takes a serious chill pill when it comes to planning and scheduling our time.

Relax With the Planning

Writing down our goals and planning how we will achieve them is, of course, of benefit to our progression. Without focused intention and being mindful of our daily, weekly, or yearly priorities, we can all too easily drift from one thing to the next, with a lack of accountability for our personal development leading to a deep discontentment for our particular situation.

But obsessing over every detail of our lives can lead to controlling tendencies and an inability to “go with the flow” that prevents us from opening up to life’s many exciting and rewarding spontaneous opportunities.

We need to shift from a culture of “doing” to a culture of “being.” We need to give our brains permission to percolate on things awhile to fully process what’s going on before taking inspired action. Doing so will enable us to access “downstream effort” more easily, feel more in control of where life’s headed, and be better able to enjoy each stage of the journey.

Maximizing our time may have served society once. However, we must stop and introspect when is the last time we had that coffee with a friend in town, helped out a family member, or attended a last-minute network event full of inspiring entrepreneurs. If our schedules are so full that we no longer derive meaning from what we’re doing, we must question, have our planning and productivity habits become more of a hindrance than a help?

Planning is a skill, which is useful, yes. But should we allow it to consume every waking thought? Probably not.

I have decided, then, it’s far better to focus on prioritising the present and let the future take care of itself.


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