THE BLOG
11/17/2014 12:47 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

The Day I Stopped Seeing a To-Do List Everywhere I Turned

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A while back, I was experimenting with a mindfulness technique from A Course in Miracles. I had to quietly look around the room I was sitting in and simply label things and people without judgment. For example, "bed," "mirror," "rug" -- to notice these things and myself with an underlying understanding that none were better or worse than any others.

Here is what happened:

• "Rug" - Ugh, I can't believe we haven't gotten those stains removed, it looks awful, I really need to call the carpet cleaner.

• "Bed" - I wonder what happened to that extra set of sheets? Maybe we are due to order some new ones, the current ones are looking a little frayed.

• "Mirror" - Now that Eva's older, we probably need to nail that mirror to the wall to make sure it doesn't fall on her.

And on and on my mind went, mentally assigning a "to-do" list for each and every thing I looked at. And I wasn't even at work! I was just sitting in my bedroom. It was fascinating, and scary, to witness.

Suddenly, and in stark detail, I saw how I was moving through the world. Everywhere I looked, all I saw was a to-do list. Things that must be done, people to call, emails to send, things to be cleaned, reminders to be remembered. I wasn't present because I was too busy thinking about the future... and sadly, I wasn't even enjoying the future by daydreaming; no, I was planning what needed to be done.

I realized that I was constantly missing the moment, plus I felt stressed out thinking about these tasks all the time.

As I shared this story with friends and some of the women in our MBA Program, I learned that this is the reality for many people, especially women. We have a belief that our worth is dependent on what we DO, what we accomplish, rather than who we inherently are, and this is causing us to exhaust ourselves trying to DO everything, with everyone, all the time.

I decided that my constant sense of urgency, busyness, exhaustion and to-do List obsession needed to stop, or at least be curbed. Ironically, my new #1 thing to do was to do less. And I learned that this is actually harder than doing it all.

Here are a few things that have helped me start to shift away from constant to-do list mania.These tools have enabled me to slow down and take time to appreciate the flowers instead of worrying about trimming them and changing their water (oh, and maybe getting some new plant food?).

3 Simple Steps To Let Go Of To-Do List Mania:

1. Shift from to-do to gratitude.
The next time you catch yourself looking around the room and thinking about what needs to be done, see if you can pause in that moment right when you catch yourself labeling a to-do item and shift to gratitude instead. For example, as I'm writing this, I looked down on the floor to see sheets of paper with my daughter's artwork scattered all around her little desk. Part of me wants to pick up the mess; instead, I'm shifting to gratitude. One of the pieces of paper has a sticker she got from a policeman recently. I'm remembering the happy memory of how, when she got the sticker, she was completely obsessed with this painter she was watching. I now have a big smile on my face. Suddenly, the anxiety about having a messy house is gone. In its place is a calm joy remembering my daughter's innocent enthusiasm.

2. Let it GO. Let it go. Let it go.
Repeat this often, because it's easier said than done. When you notice all of these things that "need" to be done, see if you can let them go. Cross things off your to-do list by deciding NOT to do them. When you embrace this new philosophy, it's a truly liberating experience. Do you absolutely have to email that person back today? Can it wait a day or two? Deadlines are often self-imposed and we can usually push back more than we think. For personal errands or things around the house, again, we are usually pushing ourselves unnecessarily to get things done. Take a breath, pause, and ask yourself "Does this absolutely need to be done right now?" If the answer is no or even maybe, let it go. If you have a hard time letting things go, you may find it helpful to get clear on your top values using this free Values Assessment Tool.

3. Prioritize ruthlessly
This ties in with #2. It's much easier to let things go when you've decided exactly what does need to be done. Prioritizing allows you to let go of everything else. The most successful people I've met limit their to-do list to three things on any given day. That's it. Think of the three things that will give your business or your life the biggest push forward and that will give you the most satisfaction; put THOSE three things on your to-do list for the day. When I teach this to people, they always push back with "but I have WAY MORE than three things to do, people make 20 requests of me every day." Here's my response: "Imagine you had a family emergency; you need to take someone to the hospital because they are really sick. You only have one hour to do anything else, what would you do?" If a family emergency came up, I guarantee that you would let a lot of things go. Trick your mind into thinking you only have one-two hours to get things done today and see how you would prioritize. Try this out as an experiment for one day and see how it goes. Whenever I do this, I notice that I get the most important things done first, and then I almost always end up with extra time to do other things as well -- but I feel more relaxed completing those tasks. Rather than feeling as though I'll never get everything done on my To Do list, I knock out the three top priorities and feel great about myself, and everything I do after that is like gravy!

If you too, struggle from to-do list tunnel vision, make a commitment to shift out of this state of being by trying these three techniques. Let me know how it goes in the comments below.

Vanessa Loder is an entrepreneur, executive coach and writer whose company, Akoya Power, supports women in creating fulfilling lives aligned with their passions and values.

Join our Free 30 Day Meditation Challenge, to receive a short 5 minute guided meditation every day for 30 days. Starts Jan 6th.

Vanessa received her MBA from Stanford University and is the Co-Founder of Mindfulness Based Achievement, the New MBA, which teaches high potential women leaders how to lean in without burning out. You can read more at Vanessa's blog, Akoya Power or find her on twitter @akoyapower.