’Tis the Season to Triage Your To-Do List

Photo: Nicky Lloyd/Getty Images

SSometimes a to-do list can be a life raft. How else would you remember by 7 p.m. that when you left the house at 7 a.m. there was nary a square of toilet paper in the whole place? (Asking for a friend.)

But there are also times when even the most well-intentioned to-do list can start feeling like a burden. Or a rude reminder of your own failures. Or even a disruptive source of stress and anxiety.

That’s especially true at the end of the year, which has a way of ratcheting up the frenzy factor. The mundane chores of everyday life are suddenly joined by an armada of holiday prep action items. There are gift lists to manage and precarious gingerbread houses to engineer and knobs of wax to dig out of the Hanukkah menorah while cursing under your breath, as tradition demands. You have to figure out what a bough of holly even is and what you’re supposed to do with it. And then there are the end-of-year deadlines and accountings of various sorts, as well as things you meant to do ages ago that are suddenly, urgently overdue. (Whose idea was it to put fall and Christmas and New Year’s all right next to each other, anyway?)

Repeat after me: You are not going to get it all done. It’s too late. And you know what? It’s fine. Here’s a four-step guide to triaging your to-do list so you can start the new year with a clean slate — and, more importantly, a clean conscience.

Knock out your most urgent chores

The first step is to identify the things that absolutely need to be done immediately and do them poorly. Yes, I said “poorly.”

As a former boss of mine used to say, “Perfect is the enemy of done.” Studies have shown that what people call perfectionism is often veiled procrastination. And procrastination is a form of self-sabotage. Don’t sabotage yourself! That’s your scheming next-door neighbor’s job, and taking away Karen’s main source of pleasure would not be very merry of you!

So, look around: What really, truly needs to happen right now? Maybe you need to submit those overdue work expenses before the quarter’s end. Do it, even if you have to endure a lecture from accounting. (Though they may not bother: You’re probably far from the only one who’s tardy.) If you or family members are overdue for medical checkups, pick up the phone and make appointments, even if they’re weeks or months from now — or delegate that task to someone else.

Outsource what you can

Here lie the chores that you’ve been waiting to tackle until you, I guess, become a different person.

Like, yes, there is a gossamer cocoon of fabric in your hall closet that has been waiting since June to be transformed into beautiful bathroom curtains. Yes, you bookmarked a YouTube video on sewing curtains. But look, if it’s six months later and you still don’t even know how to sew, it’s time for plan B.

There is literally an entire economy full of people who know how to make and do things. If you have some extra dollars, use them to pay people to do this skilled work that you aren’t equipped (or emotionally able) to do.

If money is tight at this expensive time of year, consider arranging a barter. I once babysat a crafty friend’s son for an afternoon in exchange for her mending a family heirloom quilt that I was, realistically, never going to figure out how to fix. The quilt looks great, and the kid survived. Win-win.

Or there’s also plan C: You are allowed to Kondo that lingering to-do right out of your brain. This isn’t Little House on the Prairie. No one actually needs hand-sewn curtains. Donate the fabric. Buy new curtains. Put them up. Boom.

Shift the big goals onto the Someday List

Then there are the things that should be done at some point but not right now. Take a look at your list and prioritize. What does not absolutely need to happen in this jingly season of nonstop holiday parties and last-gasp-of-Q4 work and endless, endless school recitals?

Maybe it’s a bigger goal, like organizing the entire garage or basement. Maybe it’s something a bit loftier, like planning a family trip or digitizing old family photos. These things can go on what the time-management guru Laura Vanderkam calls the Someday List.

A word of warning about the Someday List: It has a secret self-destruct mechanism. If these things aren’t done in about six months, they usually just slip off into the to-do ether and never get done at all.

To prevent this, Vanderkam suggests, “It might help to designate a handful of days per year when you actively tackle the Someday List. Maybe it’s a day you have off from work but the kids are still in school… After you choose that day, pick a handful of items from the Someday List. Maybe three to five. Make a plan.”

Then, Vanderkam says, “On the auspicious day, work through the list and reward yourself for each item done.” My go-to rewards are true crime podcasts and off-brand jelly beans, but listen, you do you.

“Of course, you won’t get to everything on the Someday List, which can be instructive,” Vanderkam notes. “If you find yourself continually not choosing something from the Someday List, that’s a pretty good indication that it should be dropped entirely.”

Declare chore bankruptcy on the rest

This brings us to the last and most important section of to-dos: the ones you need to just ditch.

These tasks are often mental flotsam and jetsam that aren’t easily categorized—the random things that accumulate in the bottom of the tote bag of your life. Perhaps you have rendered them impossible by waiting too long, and yet still they nudge you awake in the middle of the night, whispering in your ear, “You forgot to submit the FSA reimbursement form for that Pilates class you took in May.”

Look, it’s time to admit you’re never going to make the photo album of the baby who is now in college or darn the elbow of that sweater you don’t even like anymore. You didn’t finish the thank-you cards for your wedding even though you’re on your aluminum anniversary? It’s fine. It’s really, really fine.

It is now time to declare chore bankruptcy. Throw up your hands! Surrender, Dorothy! Crumple up that list and smash it right in the trash.

Then: Forgive yourself. Life is short.

Next: Do something else. Take a walk, read a book, talk to your favorite people. Stare at some Christmas lights. Be here now. Maybe you’ll get through more of your to-do list next year. Maybe not. And you know what? That’s okay.

Topic Lead for Writing @ Medium // Editor of Human Parts // Novels: Unseen City; The Mermaid of Brooklyn; How Far Is The Ocean From Here

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