A few months ago, I was feeling majorly stressed. There was just a lot going on and I felt like I wasn’t keeping up well with all of the (mostly self-imposed) expectations. On one of these days, I was standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes with my jaw clenched. My mind was racing through a mega list of to-do’s, and the thought suddenly occurred to me: I am working way harder than I have to right now.
I don’t mean that I should have been slacking off, or that I shouldn’t really be doing the dishes – it was just that at the same time as I was doing the dishes, I was wasting TONS of additional energy just thinking about all of the other stuff that needed to happen next, how I was going to get it done on time, and what obstacles were going to be in my way.
It’s a checklist mentality. I think for most of us, the root of this way of thinking is good. We want to be responsible, productive people who accomplish their goals. And we should. These are good, meaningful aspirations. But the truth is, if your checklist mentality is sneaking into too much of your day, it can be pretty unhealthy.
Why is it Bad?
I think the appeal to checklist thinking is the ability to be consistently a step ahead. It feels like ultimate productivity. While I’m washing the dishes, I’m thinking about the email I need to send. While I’m emailing, I’m thinking about how to get the kids down for simultaneous naps. While putting the kids down for their naps, I’m thinking about how to best spend their nap time. It feels really good in a way, but the truth is that you’re missing out on what’s in front of you when you’re constantly thinking a step ahead. Not only this, but checklist thinking is crazy stressful, it hinders your productivity rather than increasing it, and it can actually be really selfish.
Plain and simple: Living a step ahead means missing out on the now. Practically, the implications of this will vary depending on what your task is.
At work: Not enough focus is going into the task in front of you. If you’re emailing a client while thinking about next week’s presentation, you are not giving your client the attention she deserves.
At home: You’re missing out on the people you love the most. If you’re staring down a looming pile of laundry while talking to your spouse about his day, or thinking about the cabinets that need sorting while playing with your kids, you’re missing an opportunity to connect.
When work and home are intertwined: All of the above, plus some extra chaos. You’re on the Crazy Train. (Can I sit with you?!?).
How to Cut it Out
If you commonly find yourself trying to think too many steps ahead, here are some simple action steps you can take to slow it down – and, SURPRISE! – increase your productivity.
- Be honest with yourself and remember that THINKING is not DOING. You’re not actually accomplishing a single thing by thinking ahead. No matter how hard you think about the disheveled bookshelf… the disheveled bookshelf will not tidy itself. It just won’t. You are simply adding stress to the moment you are living in right now by thinking about the next thing on your list. Remembering this simple fact is really helpful.
- Plan ahead. This is a really important preventative step. Identify the things that are most likely to creep into your mental checklist and make a plan to accomplish them. I highly recommend a list format like this one when you have a lot on your mental checklist – turning it into an ACTUAL checklist can release a lot of the pressure. Depending on whether you are a morning or night person, make/modify your list at either the beginning or the end of each day. Then don’t think about the task again until it’s time to do it.
- If you’re in the middle of a simple task, give your brain something else to do. If you’re doing a menial task like washing dishes or folding laundry, use that as permission to take a mental break. Meditate on a phrase (“Breathe in grace, Breathe out praise” is my go-to), listen to music, or just allow yourself to zone out. Your brain needs space.
*If you’re feeling rested and relaxed, you can use this time for brain WORK, like listening to a podcast or watching a show on Netflix. And YES, I’m calling Netflix brain WORK – it may feel relaxing, but it is not soul-level restorative.*
- Focus very intentionally on the task at hand. Whatever the task requires (brainpower for work, empathy in conversations, speed in simple tasks), give it 100%. If you’re giving your current task all of your attention, your mental checklist will be far less likely to pop into mind.
- The same thing goes if you’re in the middle of something non-work related. Give all of your focus to what you’re doing NOW. Playing with your kids? Get into it. They will think you are the coolest (sidebar: I suck at this). Having a conversation with a friend or family member? Give them your full attention and ask meaningful questions.
My kitchen-sink revelation has impacted my life hugely in the past few months. I started implementing these strategies this summer in order to bring a greater sense of rest to my busy life. I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) to find that I actually became more productive, too.
I was seeking REST and PEACE when I started implementing these strategies, but the reality is that you will see PRACTICAL benefits as well as soul-level benefits when you eliminate your checklist mentality.
In my work, I’ve seen greater accuracy, growth, and enjoyment. Living in the moment gives me permission to challenge myself as an educator and enjoy my work more fully.
In my home, I’ve experienced more joy in my roles as mom and wife. I’ve been more okay with letting a pile of dishes sit for a few hours because I know I will get to them when I have time. I’ve also gotten quicker at my housework because I’m not sidetracked by 100 other thoughts.
Most significantly, I’ve felt peace in place of stress. Fulfillment in place of complacency. I’ve witnessed moments with my kids that I would have otherwise missed. I’ve listened to God’s voice instead of blocking it out with my ever-growing lists.
Say yes to peace AND productivity today. Let me know how it goes.