31st January, 2023

Think Differently About Your To-Do List

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

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On this episode

Do you constantly feel guilty about unfinished tasks at the end of the day? Do you keep finding yourself wanting to improve how you manage your time?

Your to-do list is not a fixed and immovable bucket. It’s a river of opportunities that you have a choice and control over. How would you choose what things to fish out of this river wisely?

In this quick dip episode, we discuss shifting our mindset about our to-do list from a bucket to a river. We only have a limited amount of time in the world. Instead of trying to do the impossible of managing our time, we need to start learning how to manage the opportunities we take. We have the power to choose what we take out of that river. So think differently about what you want to pull out, and choose wisely.

If you want to know how to think differently about your to-do list, stay tuned to this episode.

Show links

Reasons to listen

  1. Understand why it’s impossible to manage time.
  2. Learn why you should think differently about your bucket list.
  3. Start applying the Four F’s Method in your life.

Episode highlights


_Four Thousand Weeks_


Think Differently About Your To-Do List


The Problem with Thinking of Your To-Do List as a Bucket


Shifting Your Mindset About To-Do Lists


How to Choose What to Pick Up Out of the River


Four F’s Method


Choosing Wisely

Episode transcript

Rachel Morris: This is a You are Not a Frog Quick Dip, a tiny taster of the kinds of things we talk about on our full podcast episodes. I’ve chosen today’s topic to give you a helpful boost in the time it takes to have a cup of tea, so you can return to whatever else you’re up to feeling energised and inspired. For more tools, tips and insights to help you thrive at work, don’t forget to subscribe to You are Not a Frog wherever you get your podcasts.

Today, I want to talk about how to think differently about your to-do list. Now, I listen to a lot of different podcasts, and what I love doing is sharing the ideas that I hear with my friends. Now often, I’m listening to podcasts in the car, and I text Siri. I say, text Rachel Morris, this idea, and I’ll say what the idea is, and then I try them out on people. The other day I was meeting up with some people that came on the retreat in September.

We had a lovely reunion, and I shared this idea that I’d come across in a podcast called Wild with Sarah Wilson, and she was talking to Oliver Burkeman. Now, those of you who’ve been listening to the podcast or who’ve attended any of my training will know that I’m a huge fan of Oliver Burkeman. He’s a bit of an anti self help guru. But anyway, Oliver Burkeman’s written this book called 4000 Weeks, which has just completely changed the way that I think about time management.

In fact, Oliver Burkeman says in 4000 weeks, that we can’t manage time. We only ever have 24 hours a day. So the thought that we can actually manage the amount of time we have just isn’t true. What we can manage is the opportunities that we take and what we decide to give our attention to. Now, Oliver Burkeman was talking about books that he’d like to read, and things that he’d like to do in the world, places that he’d like to visit, and they were talking about their bucket list, i.e., the things that you want to do before you die that you absolutely have to do.

He was saying that he had realised that actually, his bucket for his bucket list, the books that he wanted to read or the places that he wanted to go to need, it’s been more like a river than a bucket. There were so many opportunities, so many opportunities that he was not going to be able to take up. So if you view these things as things that you’ve got to get to the bottom of it, you’ve got to do all of them, then you can only be disappointed because we only have a finite amount of time.

In fact, 4000 weeks is more or less the amount of weeks you have on this planet, which is ridiculously short and really quite worrying. I am definitely well over 2000 weeks already. When he said, ‘We need to start thinking of maybe the books he wants to read, rather than a bucket as more of a river,’ it was like an epiphany for me.

I thought, oh my goodness, that’s exactly how we need to manage our to do list, look on it not as a bucket, as a finite list of things that we have to get to the end of that actually a river of opportunities and obligations and other people stuff that actually we need to decide what things we pluck out of that river. Side note, on my wall over here, I have got a post it note that says to me, ‘Opportunities are just obligations wearing a different mask.’

I’ve really tried to internalise that because I’m the sort of person that hates to miss out. I have the biggest FOMO of anybody that I know, and I find it really difficult to say no to stuff, not because I’m particularly worried about upsetting people, but because I genuinely want to do everything. So I’ll often agree to do something, just because it sounds fun, it sounds interesting, not thinking down the line about how much obligation, how much pressure that’s going to put on my time.

So this phrase, ‘Opportunities are just obligations wearing a different mask’ has been very helpful to me. So let’s return to this idea that your to-do list should be a river, not a bucket and why is this important. Well, firstly, many people, as I’ve talked about so many times on the podcast, just work harder and harder when they’ve got more and more to do, and we are saturated at the moment, but we still feel guilty when we can’t get to everything on our to-do list.

Actually, I know that if there are things that I feel I should or I ought to be doing, and I’m not, I have that nagging guilt, which is not a nice feeling and often that just stops me from being able to totally relax. It’s the thing that keeps me awake at night, that nagging thought that I might have missed something or not done something that I really, really should do, and I’m sure many of you listening to this podcast will I be able to identify with those feelings of, oh my goodness, I’ve got so much on that.

Surely, I’m going to make a massive mistake or something’s going to go drastically wrong if I don’t just power through and get everything done. Interestingly, one of the issues with emails is that even if you ignore a lot of your emails, and you don’t read them, that nagging thing in our psyche that there are unread emails or unanswered emails sitting in our inbox does something to us, particularly if you are very, very conscientious.

So having unfinished tasks, having things that we think we ought to get to is quite mentally taxing on us. Here’s the problem with all of this, the faster you get through stuff on your to do list, the more stuff fills in at the other end. So even though you might be treating your to-do list like a bucket, unfortunately, nobody else is. Actually, it is acting like a river. There’s this ridiculous statistic, that for every email that you send, you’ll generate, I think, it’s 1.3 extra emails.

So the more you do, the more you’ll get. There’s that old saying, ask a busy person, and you’ll get something done. If you’re capable, if you’re getting through everything, you’ll find that your to-do list just keeps building and building in this weird sort of exponential vicious cycle. The problem of being in this mindset that I just had to power through my to do list means that what happens is that we end up focusing on just the really urgent stuff, the things that are shouting the loudest at us.

We just keep on putting the important stuff that might not be urgent to the bottom of our list. Here’s the thing, if you shift your mindset to seeing your to-do list, not as a bucket, but as a river of opportunities, obligations, and other people’s stuff, then you’ll lose the guilt of not being able to do everything. What you’ll find is you start to see all these things that are coming along at you, not as obligations, but as opportunities.

You know that if you do fish those opportunities out of the river that they may well become obligations, and it starts to make you really think about what is it that you are going to pick up out of that river, because that river will always be flowing. There will always be far too many things that you could do, rather than things that you actually can do or that you want to do.

My question now is okay, so if we’re going to treat our to-do list as a river, rather than a bucket, how do we choose what we pick up out of that river and how do we choose then what to leave just to flow past us? Well, I’ve had a few thoughts. By the way, those of you that know me will know that every time I release a podcast like this, this is the stuff that I’m really working on myself at the moment, so this is really life for me.

I’m finding myself feeling overwhelmed by everything in the river, and I’m working out how can I start to just do the things that are in my zone of genius, that I want to do without feeling guilty about everything else. So there are many ways to decide what to pull out of the river. You can use the urgent-important matrix. I talk about that all the time, and we’ve certainly talked about that on the podcast before.

One of the other ways that you could decide what you decide to pull out of that river is to use the four Fs method. Now, I have just come up with this, so I would love to have some feedback from you on if it works or not. The first principle is big rocks first, and the question you need to ask yourself is this really important to me? Now, those of you that have come across the big rocks concept before will know that it’s a little demonstration.

You can see you basically get a big jar, and you get several big rocks. You get a few pebbles. You get lots of tiny pebbles, and you get loads of sand. What you do is you say, ‘Can I fit all this into the jar?’ You start by putting the big rocks in the jar. You then fit some of the smaller pebbles around it. You then fill it up with the gravel, and then you put the sand in. The answer is yes, you can get everything into that jar.

What you then do is you take the whole thing out and you get your jar, and you put the sand in first, then the gravel, then the smaller rocks, then the sort of larger pebbles, and then you try and put the big rocks in, and you’ll find that you cannot fit those big rocks into your jar. That is exactly how it is with time, unless we get the big rocks in first, we will never ever get to them. So the big rocks in your life are the things that are really important to you.

I was listening to another podcast with Marshall Goldsmith, who’s a very famous coach, and he was saying, actually, there are really only three things that are important in life. Number one, your health. Number two, your purpose. What are you here to do? What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning to do stuff? Number three, relationships. Okay, health purpose, relationships.

If you’re doing well on all those fronts, you are generally happy, contented and satisfied. Of course, we know that you need time to put into all of those things. So can I suggest that those three things are a good start for your big rocks, and you can really only have I think between three and five big rocks. They might be your family. They might be your faith. They might be a particular aspect of your work or another relationship.

I don’t know, it’s up to you, but you need to decide what your big rocks are. So first principle, big rocks first. The second principle, which I found quite helpful, is F it or finish it. Now, those of you that have been listening to the podcast know that I’m a massive fan of John C Park, who wrote the F It books. This is all about relaxing our hold on what the outcome of things are, because actually, we have no control over that anyway.

The question you need to ask here is, does this really matter? Now, it is surprising how many things I’m really anxious about, and I hold on to and then when I stop and go, ‘Does it really matter?’ I can go, ‘No, you know what, F it, let’s just let it go.’ You know, the times when I will obsess about did I say the wrong thing there? Did I offend somebody? What if I didn’t do enough of that? Or what if I did too much of the other thing? Does it really matter?

If it doesn’t matter, you can just say, F it and let it go. Now, there are some things that are really important that you can’t say F it to, like going to visit that emergency patient or dealing with that urgent financial crisis or things that you are paid to do. If you don’t deliver what you’ve contractually agreed to do, then you’re going to get into trouble. So there are things that you just need to do, and you need to get them finished, and you need to get them done.

So either it doesn’t matter, in which case you say F it, or it does matter in which case you finish it, so F it or finish it. The question to ask there is does it really matter. Actually, one of the mantras that John C. Parkin talks about a lot is the mantra F it, it doesn’t matter so much. If you want to hear more from John, then check out his podcast. We’ll put the links in the show notes. Another way to decide what you’re going to take out of the river is to think, how’s this going to make me feel in the long run?

If I take this on, am I going to feel very, very stressed and anxious, because I need to do it, or will it actually make me feel much calmer, much happier? I think that’s a great way to make decisions about things. Because if we are stressed and anxious, and actually, we are not going to be a very nice person, but if we are feeling calm and happy, I know I’m much more empathetic and much more compassionate.

So thinking in the long run about how I’m going to feel if I take that thing out of the river and get it on my to do list is much more helpful than just so I want to achieve that. We know that people who are relaxed and calm with space in their lives perform a lot better, are happier and let’s face it, just a lot nicer to be around. The final principle that you can use to work out if you take that thing out of your to do river or not is asking, ‘Will this fit in my diary? Can I find space for it?’

Because one of the big mistakes people make is keeping just a very linear to-do list without finding the time to do stuff. Now, I don’t know about you, but in my diary, I have all my commitments for evenings after work. So when I go to choir, that’s a two hour slot. If I go to the gym, to a class, that’s a 45 minute slot, or if I’m out with my friends, that’s booked in for all evening.

But if you’re not doing, say, a surgery or clinic or a shift, often we just have work booked in, and we don’t actually time block those activities that we do at work. We just sort of had this list and think we’re gonna just get through it somehow, and that if we put more things on our to do list, everything just gonna contract to fit everything in. But we know things don’t work like this. We know often tasks take, I would say, at least double the time that I think they’re going to take.

So one very effective technique is when you’ve got something to do, you time block it. You put it in your diary in the amount of time you think it’s going to take you and then the next task in your diary and then the next task and soon your diary will be fill up. When more opportunities or obligations come along, the question isn’t, ‘Do I want to do this or not?’ It’s, ‘Can I fit this into my diary?’

If I really want to do it, what else can I move so that I can put this block of time in to do this task because there’s absolutely no point in agreeing to do something if you don’t have enough time to do it. I’ve seen this time and time again, especially in healthcare, that professionals just take on one role after another after another, and they’re doing it in their lunch breaks. They haven’t actually got enough time free in their day to do it.

So stop taking on roles for set amounts of time that you haven’t actually got. You’re gonna get really, really stressed. So asking yourself these four questions is really important. Firstly, is it one of my big rocks? Can I put my big rocks in first? Secondly, does this thing really matter to me? Can I say, F it, or will I finish it? Thirdly, how will this make me feel? Fourthly, will this fit into my diary, or can I find space in my diary for this?

So start to see your to-do list as a river, rather than a bucket, a river that is constantly flowing with opportunities, obligations, and other people’s stuff. Now, sometimes the river is going to be flowing really, really fast, and you aren’t going to be able to do very many things that are in that river. But sometimes, it will be much slower, and you’ll be able to do many, many more things. But realise that you have that choice about what you take on, and that there will always be more to do than you can actually fit into your time available, and it’s up to you to choose wisely.

Finally, just embrace the JOMO, the joy of missing out on stuff knowing that you have chosen the things that are important to you, that will make you feel good, be a better person, knowing that you actually have time to do what you’ve chosen to do. We’re going to return to this idea of managing our time in future episodes because it’s the one thing that none of us really have right. So email me, let me know how you got on, and I’ll see you again for another episode.