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To Do or Not to Do
by Scott Friedman, CSP

That is the questionÖwhether Ďtis nobler to spend eighteen hours a day trying frantically to wipe out your "to do" list, or to throw in the towel and admit that not even an army of ants could get it all done. Youíre zipping along in the fast lane of life. Youíve got e-mail, voice mail, a pager, a cell phone, and a lap top computer-- all supposedly designed to bring you convenience and flexibility. Along with all that convenience are 53 unanswered e-mails, a pile of voice mails delivered at midnight, and a page sounding in the middle of your childís soccer game. Whatís worse is that we have come to accept this high-speed rat race as the norm. Humor me and answer these questions:
  • Do you have things on your "to do" list from last week, last month, last year?
  • Do you go into withdrawal if you forget your cell phone?
  • Do you routinely work at home in the evenings or on weekends?
  • Have you considered having your pager implanted on your arm?
  • Do you fantasize about putting this message on your voice mail:
    "Hi, this is Bob in Accounting. I canít take your call right now because Iím busy having a nervous breakdown. Iím sure that the reason you called is very important. I hope to call you back sometime this decade if I donít die of exhaustion. Have a terrific day. Beeeeeeeeep."
Itís no surprise if you answered yes to any of those questions. An article in Fast Company magazine entitled, "Donít Manage Time, Manage Yourself" by David Beardsley states that the average businessperson has a chronic backlog of 200 to 300 hours of uncompleted work! Thatís a month or more! Itís impossible to catch upóthatís the bad news. People everywhere are routinely a month behind.

That brings us to the $63,000 question. If we canít get it all done, how do we actually live with the pressure of always being behind? The answer just may lie in the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching. This ancient Chinese book reminds us to seek simplicity, to let go. The Tao states, "In letting go, it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go." The good news is that when you surrender to the reality that you canít do it all, your stress level goes way down and your quality of life goes way up.

Am I saying to take the following approach? If you have something to do let it go; if it comes back to you complete it; if it doesn't come back to you, it was never yours to do in the first place. No, that may get you in a little trouble.

Am I saying just forget about your responsibilities and walk away? No, ignoring things wonít make them go away. Iím saying take some time and look at yourself and your life and figure out what you need to let go of to feel good. Maybe you need to let go of the belief that in order to go home from work you must have your work finished, or have a very good handle on it. Perhaps you need to let go of the idea that you have to be in total control all the time. With change being flung at us constantly, we have a tendency to hold on tighter because of our fears. Yet, if we could only let go and live with uncertainty, weíd actually be a lot happier.

Itís tough letting go because we feel out of our comfort zones and even incompetent at times. I know I get nervous when I feel like Iím in completely new territory and nothing seems familiar. I had a Macintosh computer ever since I can remember. Many of my friends and colleagues switched to an IBM platform because the Mac was no longer meeting their needs. I shared some of the same frustrations, yet I didnít want to switch. I had never even turned on a PC before. Finally, my frustration got so high that I made the switch. At first, the learning curve was painful, but now I look back and I canít believe I waited so long.

Donít we frequently say that after weíve made a major switch in our lives? Once we released the fear and took the plungeówhatever it wasówe often say, "I wish I had done it sooner." The other great bonus in letting go of fear and making a change is the learning that comes from it. Itís revitalizing. Itís energizing.

Staying energized is tough if you feel like you are always behind. Living faster and harder does not improve quality of life; living with more focus does. You canít be focused and energetic if you are running nonstop, trying to do everything. Instead of adding every event, project, goal and opportunity to your list that comes your way, you must become discriminating. You need to become a connoisseur of possible "to doís." Reframe the way you think about your "to do" list. Instead of viewing your list as an endless list of obligations, it should be a reflection of your passions and priorities. It should be an honor to get on your list.

The key to creating a Grade A list is to really take some time to affirm your priorities. To be effective, this requires honest soul searching about some difficult choices. A fast track at the office, involved parenting, a serious hobby, volunteering, and season tickets to 81 home baseball games is probably too much to juggle. You canít avoid making these choices. You have to set your priorities.

Once you have decided whatís important your world gets a whole lot clearer. When you ask yourself, "Is chairing this committee in alignment with my priorities?" youíll know whether to accept or not. You will be able to let go of other potential distractions and unwanted commitments. Jeffrey Miller, President and CEO of Documentum said it well when he stated, "There is always too much work to do and not enough time to do it. In order to prevent insanity, frustration and burn out, we need to develop our own pace and then develop laser-like focus on your priorities."

Day in and day out itís still tough to keep track of priorities. I have found something that really helps keep my priorities in focus. Every night, the last thing I do before I end my workday is to make a realistic list for the following day. Donít make your list too long to achieve. Stick to four to six items. Through trial and error, I have discovered that itís best to allow for the unexpected. I leave open some unscheduled time to build in for distractions that invariably crop up. The other element I include is time for important long-term projects. I spend a set amount of time working on one component of a big project. This is true whether itís a work-related project or a personal goal.

The other tools I regularly use are three questions I repeat like a mantra. They are:
  • Whatís important?
    This reminds me what my priorities are because sometimes itís hard to decline appealing invitations that are not reflective of my priorities.
  • Whatís important now?
    What has to be done now, today, and this week? This keeps me from getting distracted and focusing on good things at the wrong time.
  • Whatís important, not?
    I phrase this one with the "not" at the end because so often we think something is important and then belatedly realize itís not.
    Once you determine whatís important and establish your priorities, it becomes much easier to eliminate the clutter that can cloud your vision. Once we let go of what isnít important and what we canít control, we can enjoy the wild ride. Maybe you can even let go and ride "no-handed!"

Copyright Scott Friedman. All Rights Reserved.

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