Tear Up Your Pandemic To-Do List

When you start thinking “I’m not ready for quarantine to end,” you might have a problem

Young man sitting on veranda of a wood house, playing the ukulele.
Young man sitting on veranda of a wood house, playing the ukulele.
Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

At the beginning of quarantine, as my family holed up at home, I thought I finally would have the time to tackle my Life To-Do’s. You know the ones: All those big, ugly projects lurking guiltily on various lists from over the years that can weigh heavily on the mind and leave you feeling “behind.”

I dove in with weirdly gleeful gusto — cleaning out the jam-packed basement, finishing my taxes, and even making it to the end of Moby-Dick a decade after I started it. I was driven by the quest for To-Do List Zero. I spurred myself on by imagining the peace of mind I would feel when I was finally “done.”

As I slogged through, checking things off my list, I jealously watched my neighbor sitting on his front porch one afternoon playing the ukulele. Just a few more tasks, I thought, and maybe I could do something joyful like that!

But instead of shrinking, my list kept getting longer. I began to worry, crazily, that the quarantine would be lifted before I got to the end of it. That’s when I knew I needed help. I called Terry Monaghan, a time and productivity guru, who helped me when I was working on my book Overwhelmed: World, Love, and Play When No One Has The Time. Here’s what I learned:

Don’t delude yourself about time

Time is finite. Even in quarantine. Let go of the expectation that there is a bonus gift of time in a pandemic. Every choice you make for how to spend your time is still a trade-off. If you choose to clean out the basement, then you may not have time to play the ukulele on your front porch.

“It’s an illusion that we have all of this time now,” Monaghan told me. Work, for those of us lucky enough to be able to do it remotely, seeps into most of the hours in a day, and leisure is close to impossible for those juggling caregiving as well. Essential workers are struggling to stay healthy. For furloughed and laid-off workers, finding benefits and looking for work is an anxiety-provoking full-time job in itself. Though the commute may be gone and the social calendar cleared, time is no more plentiful.

Focus on your basics

It’s totally okay if your quarantine to-do list is simply: Sleep. Eat. Take breaks. Connect with people you love. Be kind.

“It’s small actions that are going to have the biggest impact right now, because it’s going to bring back a semblance of normalcy in a situation that’s completely abnormal,” Monaghan said. Getting through a day in these difficult times is enough.

Of course many of us want more out of life than just survival, even amid a pandemic. But a to-do list should help you live the kind of life you want, not serve as a catalog of personal failings. So ask yourself some questions before making your list: Do you really want to clean out the basement? Or finish Moby-Dick? Jennifer Louden, the author of Why Bother? Discover the Desire for What’s Next, suggests taking time to get curious about what you really want first, then making your list. “We get reanimated and refocused when we have time and space for what we enjoy, what we desire,” she said.

Draw from your brain dump

Our brain is wired to fixate on unfinished tasks and items that linger on to-do lists. It’s called the Zeigarnik effect. To keep those tasks from weighing so heavily on the mind, Monaghan suggests writing them all down.

The key is to think of this not as your to-do list, but as your “brain dump” — a technique pioneered by productivity guru David Allen. This involves essentially writing down all the unfinished flotsam and jetsam floating around your head, so that they’re not taking up psychic space. You can draw from your brain dump when building a to-do list…or you can store it away.

Remember that you’ll never be “done”

“There’s always going to be more to do than you’re ever going to be able to get done,” Monaghan told me. “Today. This week. In this pandemic. On the day you die. Once you realize that, you can begin to relax.”

That’s a lesson that I will need to keep learning until I learn it. That there really is no such thing as “behind.” You don’t need to “clear the decks” now in order to feel ease or make time for joy. And no self-imposed task in the world should get in the way of doing something like playing the ukulele on your front porch on a beautiful afternoon.

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