The Anti-list

In the frenzied, high-pressure world of productivity, business and time management, everyone takes it as a given that we’ve got to have something called a “To-Do List.” Without such a guiding document, we’re told, our lives will surely fall into a state of chaos, confusion, anxiety and premature cognitive decline. The message is simple: Write a To-Do List or die. Never mind that our Paleolithic ancestors never had such a device and would have considered it preposterous beyond words. After all, when you live in a natural habitat, your body knows its priorities full well: don’t get eaten, find some food and water and stay in touch with your tribe. No one needs a list to manage these things; habitat makes everything obvious.

Not only that, we’ve probably got it backwards anyway. To-Do lists have been around for a few decades now and people are more stressed out than ever before. Our To-Do lists are now digitized and capable of handling gigabytes of tasks, but our cortisol levels continue to skyrocket as do stress-related diseases such as heart disease, depression, neurological disorders and general unhappiness.

The very fact that we need a To-Do list suggests that maybe, just maybe, we’re biting off more than we can chew. In this sense, the List isn’t a solution, it’s a symptom of a larger problem. Reliance on a To-Do list means we’ve exceeded our natural cognitive capacity. The list may serve as an short-term stop-gap measure to help manage a temporary surge in our work loads, but it doesn’t address the fundamental problem of an over-active ambition. Maybe we just need to do less in the first place.

So how about if we turn the whole enterprise around and see what it does for our stress levels? I propose a “Things I Don’t Have to Do List.” Such a list might look like this:

You can construct your own list of course, but in any case, see what this exercise does for your state of mind and body. If you’re like me, this anti-list will liberate you from that onerous compulsion that you have to do everything and be everything. The mere act of turning things around should decrease your stress level. Your body and your friends will thank you for it.

See also the new book Stresscraft: A Whole-Life Approach to Health and Performance by Frank Forencich