Taming Your To Do List

Jul 18, 2022

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Does your To Do List cause anxiety and overwhelm? Are you having a physical reaction just from reading that last line? If so, you are definitely not alone. Taming your To Do List is, perhaps, one of the biggest sources of stress in our lives. It seems to never end. The moment you cross off one thing, another – or maybe even two things – take its place. 

Now, I admit, I love to make lists because I thrill at crossing off done tasks. But if you’re finding yourself more anxious than accomplished, I offer some hope. I have a 5-Step method taming your list and getting things done, while still having time for the things and people you love. And it all starts with leveraging your calendar.

“If you are coming from time scarcity, from the feeling of not having enough time… you cannot do enough to solve the problem of not having enough time. Because that is a thought problem, not an actual time problem… You have to change how you think about your time… Can you decide when you want to do something, put it on your calendar, and then get it done as scheduled?”  – Dr. Sara Dill

What You’ll Learn

  • 5 Steps to Taming Your To Do List
    • Leverage your calendar
    • Make that huge list
    • Execute the 3 Bs
    • Don’t leave things off
    • Honor your calendar
  • Life application
    • Take notes
    • Carve out chunks
    • Live life one thing at a time
    • Address time scarcity

Contact Info and Recommended Resources

Connect with Sara Dill, MD, The Doctor’s Coach


I’m Dr. Sara Dill, and this is the Stress-Less Physician Podcast, episode number 23. Welcome to the Stress-Less Physician podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Sara Dill, MD. Using my unique combination of coaching and mindfulness tools, I will teach you practical ways to reduce your stress level, feel happier at work, and create a better balance between your medical career and personal life. If you are a busy practicing physician who wants to design a life and medical career that feel good to you, you are in the right place.

Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the podcast. I am actually doing this with my puppy, who now is actually nine months old on the loose. So this is the first time he’s just sleeping and being quiet, so I’m going to see how it goes up until now. I’ve always had to put him in another part of the house, because he could pretty much be counted on barking at some point. So we will see how this goes. So good to be back. I am actually feeling quite refreshed. I had a little mini vacation, a mini getaway a few days ago. I went up to a place called Paso Robles here in California. It’s about a two-hour drive north of Santa Barbara where I live. There’s a light display. There are all these LED lights that are displayed out on several acres in the middle of these vineyards.

It’s called Sensorio, and I’ve wanted to go for at least two years. And so I finally went up with my boyfriend. We had like a little mini getaway, had a couple of great meals, and it was amazing. You know that experience when there’s something you’ve been looking forward to doing, and it not only lives up to my expectations, which I try to have very few, but it actually exceeded them, but I sort of knew it would. So I had a great time. I would encourage everyone to see if they can have like, just a little mini vacation, even where you live something that’s fun you’ve been wanting to do, and maybe putting off. And that sort of ties into today’s topic, which is—I’m calling it “Taming Your To-Do List.” So how to tame your to-do list? And this has come up a lot with my clients.

I know it’s something that I have sort of worked on managing for myself, and I wanted to talk about it on the podcast. It ties in with getting stuff done and productivity, but I really like to think about it as sort of taming, this to-do list that so many of us have, and I think often feel like we never get through it, right? It’s always sort of hanging over our heads. So I’ll just start by asking you how many of you have little pieces of paper with your to-do list written on it, or maybe you do it online, online notes with your to-do list. And is it ever done? Do you feel maybe like you can never keep up or like some how you’re supposed to clear out the to-do list every day? Are you always adding to it? Maybe you lose your to-do list, right. Especially if it’s literally on a little piece of paper.

I will admit here that I am one of those folks that I love putting things on my list, just so I can have the pleasure of checking them off. So I have certainly been known to do that. I like that feeling of accomplishment and getting things done. I like that sense of being productive. And clearing things off my to-do list, both literally and figuratively, it’s sort of like organizing the house or for me, it’s always the battle of paper. Magazines and bills and mail. So that’s something that’s usually on my to-do list, and this is how I tend to approach that.

So I would also ask you to look at your life as sort of a big picture. Are you getting the things done in your life that you need to get done and want to accomplish? And are you making sure that you also have adequate time for yourself and your friends and your family, maybe even more than adequate time. Do you have the time and the space in your life and maybe on your calendar to not only get work done and all the little things that make up our to-do lists and the tasks of life? But do you also have enough time for yourself, for your friends, for your family for fun? Do you have time set aside on your calendar or in your life for your health, for things like exercise, maybe for taking walks or yoga for relaxing, for food prep, for eating dinner, do you have enough time for sleeping?

That seems like it’s one of the most basic things, but most people I know really complain about not having enough time to sleep. Or feeling not rested, feeling perpetually tired. So tiredness can be both an actual physical feeling, but it can also be sort of a mental feeling, mental fatigue. And that’s really where I think this idea of taming your to-do list can help you create a sense of enoughness: enough time, enough space of not sort of perpetually running through your list in your mind. That creates a lot of anxiety, a lot of overwhelm, and a lot of perpetual feeling of being behind.

What would it be like to not worry that you were forgetting stuff or behind, or that you didn’t have enough time to get everything done? Notice if that would help relieve some of that mental fatigue, the mental tiredness, the mental busyness that we often are sort of at the mercy of. So again, are you someone that often feels like you have too much to do, or do you always have more to do? Do you feel anxious when you wonder, when you might find the time to get it all done? Do you have a lot of time scarcity where you feel like there’s just not enough time? So, in my experience, if something is not on my calendar, it doesn’t happen. So what I mean by that is I would like to see everything that I need to get done. All those things that I would normally put on my to-do list. I like to put them on my calendar. I like to calendar it all.

I don’t know if that’s actually a verb, and I apologize if my sister’s actually listening to this because she’s an English teacher, but I do. I like to put everything on my calendar. I call that calendaring my to-do list, because if it’s not on my calendar, it typically may not happen. I don’t have any guarantee that something is going to happen. So it’s also a way to look at what I prioritize. If you were to look at your calendar right now, what’s on it? Is it mostly work stuff? Do you have fun stuff on there? Do you have anything on your calendar? Do you just sort of keep it all in your mind or again, is it on little pieces of paper or some other system? And if you have a system that works for you keep doing it, but this podcast is for anyone, for whom you feel like you’re always trying to get stuff done.

Your to-do list is never done. And you feel sort of like a victim of time and all the busyness and everything in your life that you feel like you’re always trying to catch up with. So I wanted to go through this in a somewhat methodical practice and then I’ll come back and recap it as well. So the first step of taming, your to-do list is to start by looking at your calendar. What’s on it? Again, is it mostly work stuff? Like I put my clinic schedule on my calendar, right? Maybe my call, schedule meetings, things like that. That’s pretty typical. What kind of calendar do you have? Is it a paper calendar? Is it an electronic calendar? Do you have multiple calendars? Do they talk to each other? I use my Apple or my iPhone calendar. I’m not actually sure which it is. It’s the one on my phone and it also then transfers to my computers.

And I use that because I always have it. I always have access to it. I’ve synced it to an outlook calendar that I use for another business as well, but you need to have access to your calendar. And then I would just notice, do you have things from your to-do list on your calendar? That’s going to be the goal here. So the first step is to look at your calendar. If you don’t have one, get one and I would encourage some sort of electronic calendar, right? One that you can access. One that you can sync. One that you can share. One that you can check frequently and always be adding to or subtracting from.

The second step and this is a big one is to make a list of everything that you want to do or get done and that is a priority, or maybe even not a priority, but that’s sort of on your mental to-do list or on your physical to-do lists. So this is sort of like a huge to-do list, right? So this might include all sorts of things like vacations in the future, organizing things, whatever it is. And this is something that we can continue to work through, right? You don’t have to make everything on this list all at once, but I would try to be as complete as possible and certainly include your current to-do list, whatever that looks like.

And this may be something that you want to do on a weekly basis, on a daily basis in sort of a mini version, and then something that you want to do on a quarterly schedule or even an annual schedule, right? So you can sort of having a moment where you step back and look at what are things you want to make sure happen this year, this month, this quarter, this week, today.

The third step, and this is sort of a coaching step here is after you have this list, your to-do list or whatever, it looks like, things that you want to make sure you have time for priorities, whether that’s exercise time with friends sleeping, etc. I want you to do something called The Three B’s. So that’s B as in boy, B as in baseball, The Three B’s. And I think I’ve mentioned this on an earlier podcast, but this is where you go through that list. And you’re going to audit it first before you just put everything on there. I want you to ask yourself, is this something that’s a priority for me? Is this something that needs to happen? And is it something that I need to do? So the first B is to bag it. So that’s the invitation. Can I just delete this from my list? Is this something that’s really important? Do I like my reasons for wanting to get it done? Maybe it’s something that you don’t particularly want to do, but you want to have it done. So the first question is, can you just get rid of it, especially anything that’s on the list that you aren’t particularly excited about?

So that’s the first B. The second B is to barter it. And what that really means is do you have to be the one to do it? Does this belong on your to-do list? Right? And so an example would be, I like to have a clean house. I don’t want to bag that. I don’t want to not clean my house, but I don’t particularly want to do it. I like doing laundry so that, I’m happy to do it, but I don’t really like cleaning bathrooms. I don’t really like cleaning floors. I’m happy to tidy up the kitchen and do some dishes, things like that. But so I pay someone to come and clean my house for me. And it is a pleasure. And I feel eternally grateful that I am able to have someone do that. So that would be an example of bartering something, right?

Finding someone else who might enjoy doing this task that is on your to-do list. So it could be shifting it to someone else. The same might be true with work tasks. Are there things that you routinely do at work that you don’t particularly want to do, but that need to get done, right? Is it a good use of your time? For example, I had a client and she has her own practice and she’s the one that takes the laundry to get it washed. So, we talked about that like that didn’t seem like a very good use of her time. It’s something that needs to happen, but is that a good use of her time? Should that be on her to-do list or not? And you might decide, yes, actually, it’s something that I need to do for whatever reason, but I would just question everything on your to-do list before you commit to doing it right before you commit to making sure that it happens, before you commit to making sure that you’re the one who’s going to do it.

And then the third B is to better it. So, especially this is true of things that perhaps you aren’t super excited about doing. So, for example, like maybe organizing your taxes, that is something that I don’t tend to look forward to doing. I do it because I’m the one who has access to all the information. And so I often will sort of offer myself a reward afterward, or I break it into smaller steps or I promise myself a fun evening out with some girlfriends or a walk with my puppy or something like that. That might be an example of bettering it. A lot of people don’t love working out. So they work out with a friend or a trainer, right? Again, it’s a way of making the experience more enjoyable because it’s something you’re committed to doing, but maybe at the moment, you don’t love it.

So those are The Three B’s. I got that tool from Martha Beck, who was my first life coach. So I just want to give a shout-out and acknowledge where that comes from, but it’s a great tool. And then step four, this is the real meat of this “Taming Your To-Do List,” is you’re going to put everything from that massive to-do list or whatever to-do list you have that you’ve decided you want to keep, and you’re going to do it, and you’re going to put it on your calendar. You’re going to find space for it on your calendar. This might look like blocking out big chunks of time or smaller bits of time. You’re going to experiment with this. But what I want you to do is calendar everything. That’s still on your to-do list. And this is a good way to check. If what you are expecting yourself to accomplish is what I would consider realistic and appropriate.

A lot of the time when I’m working with clients on designing a life they love or pivoting their career, I ask them to not be realistic, intentionally. Because often our brain limits what we even dream might be possible for us by being realistic. I’m air quoting here. But in this case, sometimes what people are expecting themselves to do and accomplish and still get sleep and still have time to exercise and spend time with friends and family is unrealistic. So this is also a good check, right? If you can’t find time for it on your calendar, you might really need to look at what it is you are trying to accomplish yourself, right? Can you enlist other people? Do you want a life that has more spaciousness in it that has bigger blocks of time? What might you have to be willing to let go of?

So, you’re going to put everything on your calendar. And this could include calendaring. Some things out that are important, but not urgent down the road. Not everything has to get done today, tomorrow this week, or next week. It might be something that you want to have happened by the end of the year. And then the fifth step of this practice of taming, your to-do list is to honor your calendar is to do what’s on your calendar when it comes up. So, you may want to review this.

So let me just recap those steps. Step one is to check your calendar. Notice what’s on it. Two to make a list, right? Your to-do list. Just get it all out on paper, get it all out of your head on paper. Step three, The three B’s. What can you eliminate? What can you give to someone else? Maybe you can pay someone else to do it. Maybe you can trade with someone else, right? Maybe you can get your kids to do it or someone else to do it. Step four, put everything on your calendar; calendar all your to-dos. And then step five is to honor your calendar.

When it rolls around, I want to make sure you’re including fun things, as well as other important events or dates. What most of my clients do is get very good at calendaring all their work stuff. But I really want you to calendar everything else. Maybe calendar it first. So how does this work in real life? How does this work in my life? I don’t know about you, but I often, or at least sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, and I “remember” something I need to do. Again, I’m air quoting remember.

What I found useful is to briefly get up, not turning on too many lights or anything like that, and write it down. I actually have a little journal right by my bed. So I can just write down these things I remember that I need to do so I can go back to sleep. Same with things I remember during the day or if it suddenly pops up in my head, “Oh yeah, I forgot, I really want to get this done.” Or I hear about some amazing place I want to research for a trip or someone mentions whatever it is, a podcast, a book, etc. I either write those things down or I text them to myself if I’m at work or something, or I add it to my notes tab on my phone. This is so I don’t have to keep a lot of these things that I’m trying to remember in my head, because that often creates a lot of feelings of anxiety, right? Needing to remember things. And I just like to empty those things out. There’s no sense right. Wasting my brain space and my brain energy, trying to keep track of all of these things.

Then I sit down at least weekly, if not daily, with this list, and I find time on my calendar for everything. This helps me settle down my brain. So it doesn’t feel the need to keep reminding me again, of all my to-dos. So sometimes it is helpful. Sometimes I randomly remember something that I want to do and it helps to write it down or text it or in some sense, capture that. So again, you can find time to do it and put it on your calendar. And so then the next time my brain tries to remind me about this thing, I can literally say, “Oh yeah, I’m going to do that Thursday at 3 PM. It’s on my calendar. It’s as good as done.”

So I would say the place to start here, try this with all the things on your to-do list that you find difficult to do or difficult to make or find time for. So if it’s something that you have no problems getting done, right? So for me, I like grocery shopping. It’s not really a chore. I never really have a hard time figuring out when I’m going to go. I wouldn’t really worry about putting that on my calendar.

So again, if it’s something I already always have time to do, or it isn’t a big deal, I wouldn’t start with putting that on my calendar. If it’s sort of a standing date. Like I like to go to this on Saturday morning farmer’s market here in Santa Barbara, I might put that on my calendar. Just so it’s there. Especially if you share a calendar with someone, I also like to block out times in my schedule that I need free time, just so that they don’t get filled up. Because that’s sort of what happens. We sort of fill up our free time that we think we have with things that maybe again are urgent, but unimportant or unimportant and not really a priority, but that are available, and we aren’t sort of conscious about it.

So again, I would say start this process with your to-do lists and especially with the thing or things on your to-do list that you find difficult to accomplish or make time for. Again, I don’t find it helpful to always put down every tiny little thing. So for instance, I might put, running errands down as a time block later in the week, maybe Friday afternoon or Saturday. As an hour or two. And in that, would be, going to the post office, mailing packages doing returns, things like that, going to the bank, whatever that is for me, running errands, rather than putting every little thing down. You can experiment with either one. I don’t like my calendar to be broken down into teeny, tiny little time blocks. I usually have half an hour or an hour or bigger blocks. So again, I don’t like to put every little thing down, but I do like to block out chunks of time. And then within that, I have a little more flexibility in how and when I accomplish them. I also put things on my calendar, like my bedtime down with an alert, and this is important because then it reminds me when I need to start winding down.

I mean, I sort of know, but it helps me make it easier so that I know at 8:30 or 9. Oh yeah, it’s 9 o’clock, right. This is when I like to start winding things down, whatever that looks like for you. And this is important for me because sleep is really important. When I don’t get six and a half or seven hours, minimum of sleep, really seven hours, I just don’t feel great. I used to think I didn’t need that much sleep, but I really have discovered that everything is better in my life when I’ve gotten seven to eight hours of sleep, that’s sort of my minimum.

I also think the idea of trying to get everything done, and accomplish it all is a very unhelpful thought, right? It creates a feeling of overwhelm for me, even thinking about it, I have to get it all done. How am I going to get it all done? How am I going to get this all done? Lots of overwhelm, lot of anxiety, right? A lot of time scarcity there. I would just ask yourself what if you aren’t supposed to ever have everything done. What if that’s the point of life? Life continues to unfold. We always have new things to do. It’s sort of like dishes, right? You do them, and then new ones appear in the sink, right? What if that is life? What if it is a series of tasks and events and things to do. We want to be intentional about, about what we choose to do, what we commit to doing, what we put on our to-do list, and what we calendar.

That is why I think stepping back and making sure that you are putting things on your calendar that are important to you. Like sleep, like exercise, like healthy meals, like food prep, like time with friends and family, whatever that looks like, right? Maybe time doing nothing. What if it is just a series of tasks, big and small, fun, and less fun that we take on one at a time? What if we just focus on the next task? What’s next on our calendar? What if we just focus on the next patient, the next day, you can still plan for the future. And that’s the beauty of this “taming your to-do list” is you’re taking time to really think about what it is you want your future to include and not include what it is you want to accomplish. What do you want to make sure you’re spending your time on?

So definitely plan for the future, but notice that when it arrives as one moment at a time, right? We do one thing at a time. So I would just encourage you to experiment with this, see how it works, and tweak the whole system for yourself. So again, just some guidelines. I would say don’t aim for just doing more focus on doing more of what matters, right? Prioritize rather than just be productive. Notice if you constantly feel time, or scarcity, notice your thoughts about not getting everything done, or not having enough time. Can you remind yourself that we all get the same amount of time and that we get a fresh 24 hours every day, right? There’s always more time, in some very literal sense, right? Can you find some thoughts about time and your time in particular that feel more abundant, that don’t create anxiety or stress?

And if you are coming from time scarcity, from the feeling of not having enough time, I just want to let you know that you cannot do enough to solve the problem of not having enough time, because that is a thought problem, not an actual time problem. So you cannot do enough to solve the problem of not having enough time, because it’s a thought problem. You have to change how you think about your time. You have to change how you prioritize your time and what you decide to do and not ask yourself, what do you want to do with the time you have each day? What if you believed you had plenty of time to accomplish what you needed to?

A lot of the time, what we do is procrastinate, getting things done until the last minute. So we spend a lot of time thinking about them, worrying about them, not doing them. And then we finally do them at the last minute, and then we’re much focused and we get it done. But rather than wait until the last minute, can you decide when you want to do something, put it on your calendar, and then get it done as scheduled as if you’re on a deadline. As if you really have to get it done without all the drama and the stress, but very focused and very productive.

So to recap, what I’m inviting you to try doing, to tame those to-do lists is daily or weekly making a list of everything that needs to happen or that you want to have done or accomplished. This might include future things like vacation planning, paying bills, your work schedule, exercising, date night, or girl’s night out kids, sporting events or school events, chores, meetings, travel, etc. This can include errands and random to-dos. I often will just block that out as random stuff that crops up every week. Just to have time that I know, oh, I have time set aside for this. Right. Then you’re going to do The Three B’s on that big list. Can I bag this meaning? Does it really need to get done? Can I barter it? Meaning do I have to be the one to do it? Or who else could do it? And then bettering it. If it’s something you’re not looking forward to actually doing, but you want to have it done, how can you make it better? Then you’re going to calendar it. You’re going to find time for each and everything on your calendar. And then you’re going to honor your calendar. You’re going to look at your calendar and you’re going to do what you said you were going to do.

And then you just fine-tune it. You repeat this and experiment. See what works for you. Definitely be open to seeing what works. If you have resistance to doing this, get curious, right? Ask yourself why, why am I resisting doing this? What am I thinking? This is all about building awareness coming at it with curiosity. Do I like feeling busy? What would it be like to have more free time? Some of my clients sort of don’t really know what to do with themselves when they don’t have a perpetual to-do list. That might be something to explore.

I would just say, let’s not decide to be sort of the victims of our to-do list, the victims of busyness. Let’s take charge of how we spend our time, how we spend our days. Let’s be intentional about it. Let’s tame that to-do list once. And for all.

Thanks so much for hanging out with me again. If you have any questions or comments, or if this is something you struggle with, definitely reach out. Send me an email, go to my website, and set up a free mini session with me Again, my email is [email protected]. No H on Sara. And let me know. I read all my own emails, and otherwise, I will talk to you next week. Bye.

If you are a busy practicing physician ready to start feeling less stressed, enjoy work more, and learn how to create a more balanced and sustainable medical practice and life, sign up for a consult call with me at www.saradill.com. That’s S-A-R-A-D-I-L-L.com. It would be my privilege and pleasure to work with you.

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