Keep two To Do lists – one with all the things you ever will need or want to do ever, one with a fixed number of items, say 10. You can only work on items on the fixed list. You can only add a new item to the fixed list when you complete an existing item.
- Get over FOMO by being conscious about what you miss out on
- Helps you prioritise
- Guide you towards thinking about what really matters to you
- Limits feelings of overwhelm
There’s effectively an infinite number of things that you want to do, or that would be beneficial/helpful/enjoyable/insert your own adjective here for you to do. Since you only have probably around 80-100 years on the planet (barring radical advances in anti-ageing technology), you as a human, by definition, cannot do everything you want to do with your life.
But that doesn’t stop us trying! We sometimes try to spread ourselves too thin, and get as many of these things on our lists done as we can. And we end up shallowly engaging in each one. We work on one task until we get those dopamine-inducing quick beginner spurts of progress, but as soon as we hit the work that’s harder and feels more like a slog, we switch to another task.
A fixed item To Do list is a way to help get past this problem.
How to do it
- Create a master To Do list. Write down all the thing you want/need to do, ever. You can do this in a broader bucket list way (everything you want to do before you die), or you can do it on a daily level (everything you need to do today). Oliver Burkman, who I first heard this idea from, compares this to a daily kanaban – a personal version of a business prioritisation tool). This will have many many items on it. Break them down into life domains if you like.
- Choose how many items will go on your fixed item To Do list. Oliver Burkman suggests 3 for a daily list, which seems pretty good, but you could also just go with one! For the life goals version of the list, somewhere between 5-10 is probably about right. More than this, especially if you have many items within a single domain, and you may not get the benefits. But you can experiment and see what works for you.
- Pick your fixed items from your master list. You can follow your usual rules for goal setting here, the main thing is to know specifically when it’s done – e.g. “Have a 10 minute conversion with a stranger in Japanese” is better than “Learn Japanese.”
- Work on the items on your fixed To Do list. You must ignore the things on the master list. You are not allowed to work on anything on there. If you really really want to, you must complete an item on the fixed list first*. That will free up a space, and you can then move a new item from the master list to the fixed list.
* This doesn’t mean blindly follow any task to completion no matter what. For example, if you started reading a book and it turned out to be less useful than you thought and you’re not getting anything out of it, you can consider that task completed. Dropping things that are not helpful can be just as useful as starting things that are helpful.
One off exercise to create the lists, but the fixed item list is probably something you’ll check on a regular basis, perhaps even daily.
Why it works
Why do you overfill your To Do list, and leave yourself overwhelmed? I don’t know, but FOMO (fear of missing out) probably fits in somewhere. There’s so much you want to do – learn a new language, learn a musical instrument, spend 6 months travelling through Africa, go on a hot air balloon ride, start a family, get that master’s degree. If you add up the time needed to do all the items on your master To Do list, you’ll inevitably find that it will take more time than you have available to you.
This can be a bit stressful. Have you ever met someone who has already ticked off one of the things on your list, and you felt a little anxious yearning? You probably say something like “I would love to speak another language,” “I’ve always wanted to play the jazz flute,” “I’d love to visit Africa one day,” and inside you feel a sort of disappointment with yourself.
Perhaps over-burdening ourselves with a huge To Do list is a way of dealing with that discomfort. At least then we can say to ourselves, “It’s OK. I’m working on that. I mean, I wrote it down on a list! I’m totally on my way!” And we choose the stress of over-burdening over FOMO.
But it’s an illusion, either way. Remember, that person you met who travelled Africa, they had to miss out on other things to do that. The money they spent could have gone towards buying their own property, now it’ll be much longer before they get to do that. The long time they spent abroad means they have less career experience, and their lifetime career earnings may also be lower as a result. The time they spent in Africa was time they didn’t spend in Europe, North America, Asia, South America, Oceania, or anywhere else.
That person you met who speaks another language. Unless they had a second language thrust upon them (lived abroad, emigrated when young, etc.), they missed out on a lot to do that. It’s a significant time investment to become fluent in a second language (although many $39.99 eBooks will tell you otherwise). They had to study when they could have been doing other things, and also possibly cover the expense of trips to that country, getting a tutor, or taking classes.
The other way this is an illusion, is that you’ll always be missing out, regardless of what you do. The central premise of this exercise is that there’s more that you want to do in your life than you will ever have time for. You are always missing out, and will always miss out, because it’s impossible to achieve immortality (not even a $39.99 eBook will claim to give you that). No matter how hard you try and how efficient you become, you will miss out on something. So accept that, let go of the need to do everything, and pick a few things that are important to you.