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There Is Such Thing as a Positive To-Do List

It doesn’t all have to be tied to work and chores

Personally, I love to-do lists. I have daily to-do lists, weekly to-do lists, work-related to-do lists, recreational to-do lists, a to-do list of new restaurants to try and a to-do list of my long-term life goals. I even have a checklist of every U.S. president so that I can eventually realize my goal of reading a book about every one of them (by the way, James K. Polk was a super interesting guy — just sayin’). But whenever I share my unabashed love for my intricate, color-coded system of checkboxes, most people look at me like I’m fucking nuts. I, in turn, am astonished that most people have negative connotations with to-do lists, regarding them as just a daunting litany of shit to get done.

I guess I understand the negativity, at least when it comes to the task-driven lists, but what about the bigger to-do lists? Shouldn’t these lists of life goals and new restaurants to try inspire everyone to realize their potential? Clearly, I’m a bit biased here, so I turned to Divine Time Management author Elizabeth Grace Saunders to see if those big-picture to-do lists can work for everyone — even the checklist-averse.

“Writing down what’s important to you and reviewing those lists on a regular basis absolutely can help you with accomplishing your goals,” says Saunders, who — as a professional time coach — counsels people on how to make the most of their time and keep their lives organized. Using herself as an example, Saunders says she utilizes a monthly goals list and a life goals list, as well as a list for ways she wants to live her life, like, “Do what seems right on a gut level,” and “Take each moment as it comes.”

To make these lists effective and helpful, Saunders says it’s good to review them at regular intervals so that you never lose sight of them. For her list of principles, for example, she reviews them weekly to remind herself to live her life the way she wants to live it. Obviously, with a list like this, there would be little reason to “check things off” — instead you’d want to utilize it as something of a personal manifesto of ideals that you want yourself to live up to. A list like this, she says, can be useful in times of doubt and even help you make important decisions.

If you’re thinking that a list of life goals you can’t regularly check off is too overwhelming, Saunders recommends setting smaller goals along the way that you address monthly. So if you have a goal to buy a house a year from now, each month, give yourself a smaller goal to build up to that, like scheduling an appointment with a realtor or researching different areas that you may want to live in. By giving yourself smaller steps along the way, the ultimate life goal will seem less overbearing and much more achievable.

For lists of big, expensive stuff like “places to visit,” Saunders warns that you need to take a bit of a leap of faith. If you can afford to vacation once a year, say, the first step you’d take is to buy the plane tickets. By doing this first, “That then forces you to make the time to plan the trip,” Saunders explains. So, once those tickets are bought, then you’ll feel compelled to schedule some blocks of time on evenings or weekends to make those other arrangements.

Finally, when it comes to lists like “books to read” or “new restaurants to try,” the key to making the most of those is to stop looking at them like tasks. If you’re someone who’s going to be overwhelmed by the site of 50 books to read when you’ve only checked off three, Saunders recommends, “Instead of thinking of them as to-do lists, think of them as potential ideas — that way there’s no guilt about the undone.”

Narrowing your focus is also a key to feeling successful. Instead of thinking that you have dozens of books to read, give yourself the goal of reading one book per month: Once you select that book, read it and finish it, and next month, select yourself a new book or restaurant or whatever it is that may be important to you. Saunders explains, “The only ‘goal’ is the specific book you’ve chosen for right now.” Don’t even think about all those other books or restaurants — just let yourself enjoy the experience of whatever you’re currently focused on.

Saunders assures that by narrowing your focus and checking your goals at regular intervals, you’ll feel satisfied knowing that you’re living by your principles, working toward your dreams and even accomplishing those smaller goals in life, one step at a time.