My Anti To-Do List




I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with to-do lists: on the one hand, they can be extremely handy to keep track of things that need to be done and there’s nothing more satisfying than crossing off each item.

On the other hand, they can become one’s worst nightmare: once you start a list, it’s hard to stop, and if you don’t have them all ticked off by the end of the day, you feel like an unproductive sloth. They can also take a good chunk of time to create or can be confusing: 30 items on my list, but wait, is fluffing the pillows considerate a separate task to the making of the bed? Should I create a subheading for “clean bathroom” that includes scrubbing the tile grout with a toothbrush? And do I need a separate list for “cleaning products required”? Maybe add a music soundtrack for each task?

The to-do list gives us a false perception of productiveness, success and achievement and although it can keep us focused on the task, it can also derail us from living a more spontaneous life where we focus our time on living and being rather than compartmentalising our hours into trivial task sessions.

Prior to becoming unbusy, this is what my to-do list looked like:

Image: Natalie Alleblas

Image: Natalie Alleblas


Looking back now, there are a few issues I have with such a list.

Firstly, there are way too many tasks on the list. Sure, some may only take a minute (such as opening the windows) but it is the fact that there are 27 items that I am expecting myself to complete between the hours of 7am when I wake up to when I go to bed around 11pm. The expectation is too high, and the realism is too low.

Secondly, the list is unrealistic because it does not factor in life’s spontaneous moments: I may get a phone call which might distract me for 30  minutes or so. My youngest daughter who is home with me may have a particularly difficult day where I am spending more time with her than on anything else. Or one of my other two children may be home sick. What if I realise I’ve run out of pasta sauce and have to pop down to the shops? Or what if I just don’t damn well feel like vacuuming today?

The problem with spontaneity when you have a to-do list is that it puts your mind into a negative state: you start putting yourself down because you did not stick to your to-do list. You start stressing because it means you are behind in your schedule and will have to work twice as hard the next day to make up for it. You forget to live in the present moment: maybe you were just meant to sit with your youngest child and play tea parties all afternoon on this particular day, to have that moment of connection with her.

But you were stressing about your to-do list, so your mind was elsewhere and you missed the present moment.

So what am I suggesting, that we throw our lists away and just live for the moment and tackle each task when we feel like it?

Since I’ve become unbusy, I have created a list for myself (mostly mentally rather than on paper) that consists of 4 things that I want to achieve for the day. These 4 things represent the non-negotiable tasks for my day:

1. Cook dinner

2. Load of washing (if there is a dirty load ready to go)

3. 30 minutes of study

4. Kids homework/bath

My list is all about putting things into perspective. My family must be fed each day, and have clean clothing and be clean and healthy. If I meet these requirements, then I’m doing ok. Anything else I complete is an added bonus, but if I don’t get to it, it’s no big deal. Life can still successfully continue!

As an example, yesterday my husband didn’t go to work (cue: spontaneous moment!). So I thought I would use the opportunity to get my hair done, and got my passport photos done and collected a passport application form. I also dropped off a donation of rice to a local charity. Then I got home and cooked dinner, before it was time to collect the kids from school and then I went to work. After work, I spent an hour studying for my University exam before reading a book and then going to sleep.

I enjoyed my day, because I did something for myself and I also did something for others. The satisfaction I received from these two tasks outweighed any satisfaction I have ever felt spending 6 hours straight doing housework.

I didn’t vacuum the rug. I didn’t do a load of washing. Even the beds were unmade. But that didn’t matter, because all five of my family were happy and healthy, and that’s all that matters.

Part of being unbusy is lowering your expectations of yourself and others around you. You don’t need to have a house that is 100% spotless when you have children in the house. You don’t need to pack 27 tasks into your day just to feel like you have been productive or achieved something.

You are allowed to be spontaneous and do something fun or different each day. That’s what living is all about!

So I encourage you to throw away your to-do lists and focus on completing 3-4 tasks that are absolutely essential each day and anything else you manage to complete is an added bonus. Let me know how you go and whether you notice anything different about how you feel each day!

Nat xx

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  1. This multiblogging mum has ditched the lists as I kept forgetting to write them!
    I really do need a way to keep on top of things, but short of having a personal assistant, a nanny, a maid & a chauffeur I don’t think it will happen overnight.
    Do the “must do’s” and we’ll be right….
    As you say: the family has to be fed & clothed & kept healthy, so doing those things are a must.
    Anything else done is a bonus!!

    • Great to read someone else ditching the lists, I’m sure you are doing quite well despite being without a team of helpers- everything always falls into place in the end! Thanks for reading!

  2. I love this blog post. Honestly, the first thing I thought when I looked at that long to-do list was ‘I’d rather be in prison!’ I’m a big list maker, but I rarely get anywhere with them and it creates pointless guilt. And space for spontaneity is so essential. Thanks, Natalie!

  3. I write weekly to-do lists instead of daily ones. That allows me room for spontaneity while still allowing me to know what it is I want to accomplish for the week. For a minimalist, I’m weird in that I prefer writing to-do lists that are possibilities rather than musts. I think of three or four different ways my week could go in terms of priorities, and focus on them one at a time.

    And now that I have a daughter around, I try to allow myself significantly more leeway during the hours I have her (she’s in daycare with my mom while I work), because my relationship with her is far more important than any writing or cleaning I could get done, and I know my editing side business can wait until she’s gone to bed.

    • Hi Rochelle,
      Love your idea of a weekly list! Now that’s something I could live with, as it still gives you lots of flexibility (important for your daughter) but allows you to steer your days in a certain direction.


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