Can’t imagine your “to do” list going away? Think again.

Those of us with hectic schedules have action-packed calendars and days plotted out minute by minute. We have some weighty responsibilities and competing priorities. People are counting on us – really counting on us. We’re more stressed and less rested than we want to be. There’s always something to do. Right?

This doesn’t have to be the case.

In my previous blogs on this topic, I talked about an incredibly positive difference you can make in your life if you shift your relationship to the many accountabilities in your life. If you can relinquish your hold on the myth that you can somehow “get it all done” and embrace an approach where you focus on what really matters, you can become more productive than you ever thought you could be. You can experience tremendous relief from stress and frustration in the process. You can become a more accomplished person. It requires an acceptance about what you can get done and what you can’t and a new way of directing yourself as you make commitments and fulfill them.

If you look at your various accountabilities – paid for and not paid for – with a view towards the things that matter the most to you in your life, it can help you gain great clarity about what you take on and what you don’t take on. One of the keys here is being disciplined about seeing things through the lens of what really matters. It requires moving away from an inherited, unquestioned mission to accomplish it all – to a life where you choose to do the things that align most closely with what really matters to you.

If you examine how life occurs for you, you may see an endless stream of triggers to initiate action. For example, many people regularly derive work out of their stream of e-mails – and the more e-mails that arrive, the more they experience a demand for action. Then they keep lists of the things that demand action. Typically, these are considered “to do” lists – of things that “should”… “must”… “ought to be” done.

But when the stream of triggers for action arrives, people are mostly left with a demand for action that pushes the limits of what they can get done. And when people experience more demand for action than they can deliver, it can become tough to cope – an experience of being overwhelmed.

What we have learned is that stress, tension, and potential overwhelm do not arise from the level of demand – even though people typically think that’s the problem. Rather, it arises because we immediately and often unthinkingly label much of what shows up for us as something “to do.” That’s why we work with clients to break the habit of labeling everything as “to do.” Instead, we work on telling this simple truth: That each demand is either something I am doing, or something I am not doing. If you think about it, it’s very logical. A person is never doing everything; we are always doing something, and also not doing other things.

In addition, we have to see what we’re doing as our word. It is a promise.  As your word, it’s tough to walk away from. And when you deal with what you are doing as your word, you realize that you cannot promise everything; you have to choose. As we strive to be honest with ourselves and others about the commitments on our plates, we not only become more realistic about how we direct our efforts and energy, we become much more reliable. And that can be huge – I have seen it be life-altering for people as they become more productive than they knew they could be, with more peace of mind than they’ve had in a very long time.

The power of seeing what I am doing means that I can’t give my word to is what I am not doing. It’s a shift that doesn’t happen easily. Brutal honesty can be tough and making a commitment is a big deal. I have seen clients make great strides, then backslide to former, more familiar habits. Or perhaps the discipline becomes difficult to maintain. There is certainly no way to execute this practice perfectly. Like a martial art or playing a musical instrument or anything else that calls for mastery, you will make course corrections and refinements as your practice advances. You have to keep practicing.

One place where it’s easy to get tripped up is if we begin to attach judgment to our decisions and results. I tell people that honoring your word is not good and failing to honor your word is not bad. Attaching some sort of morality or sense of ego to your word can complicate things and get in the way. I advise people to do what works because it works. Do it because it contributes to a distinct and amazing difference in your life. Do it because as you consistently fulfill on your commitments, the feeling called “fulfillment” is inescapable.

I’m not saying that things won’t ever go wrong, or that you will always make the best choices for yourself. But the process of managing yourself in this new way will bring fresh clarity to your focus and help you realize a measurable uptick in your productivity. It won’t necessarily get easier over time, because there will always be tweaks you can make and improvements you seek. But as the benefits flow, there will be an ebb in stress, overwhelm, and exhaustion. Increasingly, there will be those rare times when you can peacefully think, I have nothing “to do.” I have only what I am doing and what I am not doing. Imagine that.

Coming up next: How you can take this to the next level.

The fourth entry a blog series by productivity expert John Fisher

Read article 1article 2, article 3