Is my to-do list making me less productive?

A blogger friend of mine, MJ James, asked a thought-provoking question this week on her website at The Burned Out Business Mom.

“Is it more fulfilling to be overwhelmed and only a little accomplished at 45 things, or is it more fulfilling to thrive at five things” she wrote.

The answer was something I learned the hard way just a few years ago. Less really is best.

I think a big reason many people A) don’t set goals; and B) rarely achieve them, is that they try to do way too much in the time they allotted. A few years ago, before I founded Forward From 50, I took a day to set goals for the year ahead.

I meticulously segmented 39 goals into six different categories: spiritual, family, career, financial, physical, social and intellectual. Then I created a spreadsheet with boxes for me to check off every day if I felt I had either worked on that goal or achieved it. I thought I had created a foolproof system for getting things done.

Although you can make anything foolproof, you can’t make it damn-fool proof. Procrastinators always find a way to avoid what they should be doing.

What I actually did was waste nearly a whole day of productivity trying to make myself more productive for an entire year. How many goals did I end up accomplishing the first month? Three. What was the most frequently-checked box? Create a daily priority list.

I love to make lists of things to do. It makes me feel like I’m “doing something.” But my monkey brain was frequently distracted by any shiny object that passed in view. I felt very much like the Doug, the dog from the Pixar movie Up, whenever he thought he saw a squirrel:

I wish I knew who came up with this quote: “There are no limits to what you can accomplish when you’re supposed to be doing something else.”

Because I had set so many “goals” that year, I wound up accomplishing none of them. It is a problem I continue to struggle with.

On Jan. 1, my No. 1 goal for 2022 was to launch a podcast featuring dozens of people I already interviewed for Forward From 50. Here we are six days into the second half of the year and the first episode still isn’t completed. It wasn’t my only seriously-delinquent task for the year.

When I returned from a two-month trip visiting my daughters, I changed strategies and committed to setting three big goals every month. Then I established three most important daily priorities (MVPs) to help me move closer to achieving those goals. My productivity has soared.

Like MJ wrote on her blog, “When you prioritize things, you choose where to put your time, focus, and energy. If you are feeling unproductive, overwhelmed, or burned out, then you must clear out the things on your to-do list that are not aligned with your purpose.”

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed to the point you don’t have energy to do anything, try starting small by committing to a single — just one — important task to accomplish today in order to advance your purpose or your dream.

Then, after a week or two of success in doing that, you might add two MVPs. I think you’ll be surprised at how much you really can accomplish even by the end of July.