How to Not Drown Under a To-Do List

Can creating a goals list make you more effective?


Garrett Mintz , Fri 20 December 2019
Jon, a tall, strong, lumbering man was recently hired to cut down trees for a wood-burning energy company. On Jon’s first day, he cut down 8 trees (a pretty impressive amount). On his second day, he cut down 6 trees (still pretty good). On his third day, he cut down 5, on his fourth day 4, and by the end of the week he could only cut down 2 trees.


Jon went to his boss, Steve, and said: “I apologize but I must be getting weaker.”  


Steve replied, “When is the last time you sharpened your ax?”


Jon responded, “I haven’t had time to sharpen my ax because I have been so busy cutting down trees.”


You may be thinking to yourself, “obviously Jon needs to just sharpen his ax and he’ll be able to cut down as many trees as he did on day 1.”


But is it really that obvious? When is the last time you sharpened your ax? The ax is a metaphor for time management in this story. It is really easy to judge and know the “right answer” for how everyone else should manage their time, yet, many of us wonder why we are never able to complete our own to-do lists.


Stories are engaging and become more real to us the more they relate to our lives. So while not everyone reading this blog may be a tree cutter, you can definitely relate to the trials and tribulations of getting everything done on your to-do lists.


You might be thinking to yourself “well I already take the time to create a to-do list so I am good.”


Merely creating a to-do list is not enough to properly manage your time. If it were then getting everything on your to-do list complete wouldn’t be an issue and you wouldn’t have read this far. We know that when a to-do list is too long, it can cause us to drown and feel like we are under a never-ending pool of things to complete. We create solace with never completing our to-do list and justify never completing the list.


But what if, instead of just creating a to-do list, you instead create a story around every task on your to-do list? Just like the story about Jon the tree cutter engaged you enough to read this far, having a story around every task on your to-do list helps you stay engaged on the tasks you need to get done.


Not only do stories help you stay engaged, but they help you prioritize your tasks as well. If you create a narrative for your day or your week or your month (or even year!), you can create a path to success.


Sure, you may want that promotion (award, ribbon, raise, acknowledgment from peers and supervisors, family progress, or anything else you define success as) at the end of the year and sure, you may have thought of some milestones (i.e. tasks on your to-do list) that will help you achieve those outcomes, but what is your narrative for how all those tasks will get done? What sacrifices are you willing to take to make your story happen?


When you create a story for yourself, you create a picture for what you can realistically achieve. Since you are the only person who knows what you are truly capable of, you know that your story will be feasible since YOU wrote it!


So stop reading this article, go to your to-do list, and begin writing a story about each task. You will realize that your to-do lists turn into already-done lists quicker than you ever imagined.


And if you were curious, Jon ended up sharpening his ax by sharpening his mind and realizing that burning wood is a very unsustainable way of producing energy. Jon created a story for himself and enacted windmills all over his community and is powering his town sustainably.

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