overwhelmed, exhausted, stressed

You are Not Cinderella and There is No Ball: Stop Being a Slave to Your To Do List

Are your to do lists robbing you of joy?  Do you give yourself permission to rest and feel satisfied only after completing every single task at hand?  You are not Cinderella and there is no ball! If you are among the many people who go through their days focused on accomplishing a lengthy list of tasks and projects in the hopes of feeling relaxed and happy at the end of it all, then this article is for you. 

Many people have this fantasy that once the to do list is complete, then we have finally earned the right to feel satisfied and peaceful.  In order to get there, we often push ourselves beyond moments of fatigue and hunger, and we deny ourselves moments of rest and recovery.  Beneath this drive to accomplish it all at all costs is a belief that our self-worth and value are dependent on being productive. 

This is a recipe for low self-esteem and chronic disappointment.  We lie awake at night with our minds spinning through all the tasks not yet accomplished that day and creating an even longer to do list for the next day.  Instead of feeling the peace and happiness we seek, we end up feeling stressed, pressured, and irritable. 

There are basic reasons this approach to yourself and your day simply does not work.

The list is too long.  People who need to feel productive in order to feel happy tend to load themselves down with an impossibly long list of tasks.  They expect themselves to daily accomplish all projects in the home, at work, with family, friends, exercise, etc.  They pressure themselves to be equally effective every single day.  For certain, they have had days when all went well and the to do list was actually complete.  And the thrill they felt on this gold star day becomes a sensation they seek every day.  Yet no one is capable to sustaining a consistent level of performance in one area of life, let alone all areas.  When they inevitably fall short of this goal, they engage in negative self-talk that lowers self esteem and mood.  They scold themselves for being lazy or failures.

We can’t control everything.  Accomplishing most goals on our to do list involves the cooperation of factors beyond our control.  We might expect ourselves to control everything, to predict the potential challenges, moods, pitfalls along the way.  Yet this is a trap.  Daily chores can quickly be set off kilter when appliances or vehicles stop working correctly.  Family and friendship tasks often require other people responding to messages, showing up on time, actually eating the meals you prepare for them.  Work projects often depend on technology working correctly and colleagues cooperating.  And many daily errands are affected by traffic and weather.  We simply cannot control all these factors in our lives.  Which is why making our well-being dependent on everything going smoothly is a recipe for disappointment.  We end up angry and resentful, mad at ourselves for not predicting the things that didn’t go well and frustrated that our to do list will be incomplete this day.

We miss opportunities for joy.  Going through our days with a focus on making it to the finish line causes us to miss the journey.  We can become so intent on checking things off our to do list that we aren’t even present in those moments along the way.  We rush ourselves through errands and constantly tax our brain by multitasking.  Our drive to accomplish as much as possible becomes so singular that we are not even aware of the beautiful, small moments that occur.  We walk the dog while texting and miss out on the pastel sunrise.  We answer emails in between work tasks as our attention splits in several directions.  We miss the small details.  We rush through conversations and forget to warmly greet people we pass along the way. 

So how do we stop this cycle of treating ourselves like Cinderella who must earn her right to happily ever after?  It’s time to change your priorities and the dialog in your head.

  • Define your worth beyond accomplishing tasks.  Take the time to reflect on what you value most about yourself.  Focus on your character, your inner qualities.  And see how you let these shine through each day.  You do not need to prove your worth to yourself or anyone. 
  • Focus on just 3 main goals for the day.  We are more effective with our goals when we allow ourselves to focus on just a few per day.  Give yourself permission to cut back or postpone other tasks for another day.  You can manage to focus on all parts of your life that are important throughout the month, just on different days.
  • Do one thing at a time.  We know that our effectiveness is diminished by multitasking.  Our minds are simply inefficient when constantly switching tasks. Try to just do one task at a time with full focus.  Allow yourself to fully be present in the task at hand in a more mindful way.
  • Check in with yourself throughout the day.  Set aside regular time throughout your day to pause and check in with yourself.  Take a few breaths and notice what your body, mind, heart needs in that moment.  And try to respond to these needs even if it takes you down a different path than you’d planned.
  • Look for moments of joy all day long.  As you become more mindful and focused on one task at a time, you may begin to notice the joy right in front of you.  You do not need to earn happiness or wait for it. Drink in the sunshine as you walk to your car.  Enjoy the warm water and bubbles as you wash the dishes.  Really listen to your loved ones as you share a meal.
  • Prioritize rest.  Setting aside times throughout your day for rest and recovery allows you to more fully focus your energy where it is most meaningful to you. 
  • Speak to yourself with compassion.  Give yourself the same kindness and grace you offer others.  your strengths and value beyond your service to others and be gentle with yourself when you fall short of a goal.  In short, talk to yourself like someone you love.

Written by Suzanne J. Smith, Ph.D. for Lakefront Psychology Blog.  If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, wellness, perinatal mood, relationships, or parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below.  If you are interested in scheduling an appointment at Lakefront Psychology, LLC for a psychotherapy consultation, please call 216-870-9816.

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