To-Do Lists are Bad for My Health

Ever walk into a dive bar of just construction workers, meanwhile you’re dressed like a city slicker in a sport coat? It’s like the record player scratches to a halt. (Yeah, that totally didn’t happen to me when we got to the little town where we were getting married. Nope. Definitely didn’t happen.)

(Man, that’s gotta be one of my weaker blog post introductions, but it’s been a while, and I’m using my bus commute to be productive via my iPhone and foldable Bluetooth keyboard. So… hi y’all. Good to be back!)

Well, I recently read something that brought my literacy to a grinding halt. It was from a longer post by ‘The Agile Marketer’:

As you go down the list, understand that the items at the bottom may never get done. That’s totally fine.
One of the axioms of productivity management is to never complete your to-do list.
The low priority items are low for a reason, and often completely disappear. Be proactive, go talk to the project sponsors and see if the low-ranking projects can be removed entirely, or rescoped to be either smaller or have more organizational impact.

This hit me like a pound of bricks feathers bricks duck-sized horses because I have anxiety around to-do lists. It’s not huge, but it’s not insignificant, either.

It likely stemmed from being told to write something down when I’d forget something as a kid.

It likely grew from my congenitally geeky inclination to devise a custom notation system.

It likely blossomed from wanting to practice using my new system of short-hand and hieroglyphics.

It likely crept up the walls of the house that is my soul, gradually obscuring windows and obstructing egress passages and obfuscating the boundary between my soul-abode and natural surroundings (thus reaching Nirvana and becoming one with the Universe… damnit, the analogy broke down and took me in the opposite direction) when I started practicing Scrum by myself, the post-apocalyptic journey documented in this very blog. (Damn, that’s dark. Someone aught to really tend to this garden…)

Phrasing this list as a ‘to-do’ list connotes a necessity.

The things on this list are to be done.

I internally interpret this a tad differently.

The things on this list will be done. By me. It’s on me to get them done. I have to get them done. I wrote them down for a reason, didn’t I? I cannot truly rest because I have this list of things I have to do. Oh sure, I can chill for a bit, but I know, in the back of my mind, I have this weight hanging over me of things that have not been done. And there are a lot.

To-do items imply a destiny – a future state that is pre-determined, where if they fall in my list, then I am the conduit for their journey – I serve the list.

I serve the list.

Damn. Let’s flip that to something less soul-crushing more empowering.

The list serves me.

Ahh. I can literally breathe easier, and I get here by not viewing to-do’s as have-to-do’s, but as can-do’s.

If list items are truly have-to-do’s, then my body would make it happen: no list would primarily motivate getting food, clothing, shelter, or physiological needs. If you look at the cost of delay for a to-do that feels like a have-to-do, there might be a late fee or some extra hassle you will deal with in the case of paying a bill or seeing family at some holiday, but you likely won’t die.

If list items are more like can-do’s, then they are choices, and at any point in time, it is my decision for what to do now & next.

This is a way more empowering mindset, and particularly helps me with the stuff lower down the list.

Down there are things like fixing the zipper on my leather jacket, but also things like learning to skateboard, parkour, and pop ‘n’ lock. (Now can you imagine ’em all at once? Straight baller.) If I’m honest with myself, I may never get to these.

And this is a difficult conversation to have (…with myself), since if not getting to those lower priority items actually does seriously bum me out, what does it say about how I’ve prioritized them? They may not be urgent, or demonstrate how I am a responsible adult, but if I value the notion of dying well, and not regretting things I did not do, then I may want to re-prioritize. This is akin to getting feedback from a stakeholder, like… your future self, on your deathbed, drinking Soylent, wondering why the future hasn’t figured out a way to make this taste good.

Re-shuffling to-do items now becomes easier, since they’re all just options, have less weight, and better enable you to react to changes in life, respond to changes in life, and initiate those life changes.


If I haven’t explicitly stated before, the primary audience for this blog is myself, so you’re essentially reading my diary. This is thus a conversation with myself, combining and unpacking Agile concepts and personal development in a mental meandering that is both ad hoc (that’s right – you think I plan this?) and public (my thinking: the most personal is the most universal).

The notion of dying well may not be a difficult idea, but it’s a serious one, motivating me to re-prioritize a personal backlog item: buy a couple of paint buckets and drum sticks.

I have to.