Your To-Do List is Getting in Your Way

Your To-Do List is Getting in Your Way

If you’re anything like me, you have a to-do list a mile long.

Mine used to be epic. I don’t know what I was putting in my coffee on Monday mornings, but I’d always start my week thinking I could conquer the world. At 6:00 on Monday morning, I would plan an amazing week:

  • Run ten miles! Never mind that I didn’t run more than two miles last week. This week’s Kathleen is going to knock it out of the park.
  • Write 14 blog posts! Monday morning Kathleen sure doesn’t know rest-of-week Kathleen if she thinks she can come up with a topic, an outline, a lot of text, and a good picture four. teen. times this week.
  • Cook six gourmet meals! Monday morning Kathleen gets hungry and ambitious. Rest-of-week Kathleen tries to redefine gourmet as something other than rice and beans and also would like to redefine cook as either cook or reheat.

I’d get to the end of the week, look at the to-do list, lament the fact that I didn’t get to scratch much off, then beat myself up for not getting anything done. Sound familiar?

One day, I decided to try something different. I took a blank sketch book and split it into sections. I labeled the sections. Fitness, writing, work, cooking, etc. Then, instead of writing what I wanted to do, I made myself only write the things I was able to get done that week.

It looked a little something like this:

  • Fitness: Monday: went on a two-mile jog with the dog. Tuesday: walked three miles. Thursday: went to yoga with a friend.
  • Writing: Wrote 1200 words Monday, two blog posts (word count unknown) Thursday, another 1000 words Friday
  • Food: made chili that lasted four meals (need to cut the recipe in half!), made grilled salmon for friends

At the end of the week, instead of beating myself up, I sort of puffed up like a proud peacock. “Holy smokes!” I exclaimed. “I’m not a lazy so and so. The problem is my to-do list!”

I kept at it. My categories got more refined, and my accomplishments grew. Sure, there were a lot of small wins: “remembered to call my friend on his birthday” but there were a lot of big wins too: “had a long conversation about our long-term investment strategy.”

I showed this tracker to a couple friends and family members, and they liked the idea.

So, that got me thinking.

What if there were a way to set annual goals, then track weekly achievements?

I did some research, and didn’t find what I was looking for. So, I did what anybody with more entrepreneurial enthusiasm than good sense would do: I created something, and launched it on Kickstarter.

Why Your To-Do List Gets in Your Way

If you write to-do lists like your future self is a different person than your current self, it’ll always get in your way.


When we write lists, we think that the simple act of writing the impossible down makes things possible.

In my experience, that’s simply not the case. Writing that I’ll write all the blog posts and run all the miles only reminds me at the end of the week that I haven’t done all I set out to do, and that makes me feel like a failure.

However, writing down everything I did accomplish makes me feel like a rockstar on a Friday afternoon. I can look at my list and think, wow, no wonder I’m completely wiped out right now. I wrote four newsletters, scheduled 27 posts for five websites, shared a lot of other people’s stuff on social media, and cooked four meals from scratch. I should take a break!

I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep track of the things you absolutely need to do, because there is value in scratching a line through a sentence or a phrase.

I’m saying don’t use a to-do list as a bucket list. Accentuate the positives and build momentum by seeing just what you can do in a week.

After all, if you see what you can do in a week, what can you do in one remarkable year?

I'd get to the end of the week and look at my to-do list, then beat myself up for not getting anything done. Sound familiar?

Written by Kathleen O'Malley Celmins

Kathleen is a recovering to-do listaholic and a storyteller. She believes everyone has a story inside them. She's a blogger, a blog manager, and an entrepreneur.

4 Responses to Your To-Do List is Getting in Your Way

  1. I love how you point out that you shouldn’t make to-do lists based on the person you aren’t right now. Eventually you might turn into that person, but it won’t happen overnight.

  2. Kathleen,

    Hi! I’m so glad I found your site via Miranda Marquit! It’s not often I find two fantastic sites like these.

    Your to-do list sounds exactly like mine, plus 8 pages. I’ve been an obsessive to-do list writer for over two decades. On a practical, honest level, I know there is no way I’ll get 8 pages of tasks done in a day, especially now that I have an awful nerve disorder to battle each day. Each night for years I’ve crafted such massive, impossible lists. There’s so much to do! Find more freelance writing and editing work to help pay my medical bills, launch my new blog, submit guest posts, write for content mills when truly desperate and a utility bill is due the next day, cook from-scratch healthy dinners, work out, read, see yet another doctor. The list never ends and it never gets close to being done.

    You’re exactly right. Creating a to-do list that I cannot complete makes me feel like a failure. Each and every day. I’m so excited to see your Kickstarter for A Remarkable Year! I wish I could donate, but my family and I are broke from the multiple surgeries I’ve undergone. I will share your fantastic advice and Kickstarter campaign on my social media accounts! Thank you for the much-needed advice!

  3. I realized my to-do list was doing just that and I decided to ditch it and create an “intention journal” I chose only a few areas to focus on for the day and then reviewed whether the amount that had to be done was realistic and reasonable compared to how much time I had available.

    Doing this for a few months revealed a lot of patterns that got in the way of me setting goals that I can actually achieve and feel good about.

    We take the to-do list for granted, but there’s so much we have to learn about our own unique approach to work.

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