The To-Do List That Doesn’t Get Done

So you decided to climb Mount Everest.  (Don’t worry, you didn’t really decide to climb Mount Everest and then somehow forget you made the declaration.  This is the beginning of an analogy.)

You almost made it to the top, and then you slipped and fell. 

Let’s be dramatic, you fell 8,000 feet onto some rocks.  And you’re hurt. Nothing fatal.  But your legs are broken in 31 places, your arms are broken in 10 places, and your Mountain Equipment Co-op jacket is ruined!  Just ruined.

Oh, and one pinky finger is dislocated.

Now, it makes sense to start by getting your legs fixed, and perhaps one arm.  Which hand do you write with?  Good, choose that one… 

Before worrying much about the oddly angled pinky, right?  Even though the pinky would just take a few minutes to straighten out and fix up.

If you are wondering where I am going with this, relax, it’s not to Nepal to climb Everest.  Or to fall off of it either.


A few summers ago I  had a painful fall at my mom’s cottage.  I wish someone had been around to see it. 

I went from vertical to flat on my face in an instant, tripping loudly and hard over a cinder-block that has been sitting in the center of the 40 foot dock for the past 3 years.  Why was it there?  I have no idea.  It got moved right after I hurt myself.


Here’s my problem.  When I have 1 or 2 big things that need doing, something that’s overdue, important, with people waiting… 

I’ll convince myself that I need to have a few successes first, to build up some ‘momentum’ so I can tackle the big task that’s so important.

I’ll tidy up the room.  Put out the recycling.  Adjust the height of the computer so it’s more ergonomic. Make a funny meme… 

By doing a bunch of small things, quick tasks, I’ll get some momentum! It sort of makes sense. It seems like a clever strategy. And I do it all the time.

With decidedly mixed results.

I do get momentum.  But usually it’s the momentum to keep doing quick tasks.  No-brainers.  Physical tasks that will get me up and moving and… 

I can come up with a hundred reasons as to why sorting my underwear drawer is an important step in finishing the rewrite of that script that is overdue.

Because what tends to happen is that after a dozen little victories… the big task never even gets started. 

Why?  It’s not because the many little tasks took too long.  They didn’t.  It’s not that there isn’t enough time left in the day to start on that script rewrite. 

There is plenty of time to get started.

But not enough time to finish.  In my mind, I’m thinking I don’t have enough time left to do the whole thing.


For some reason, the idea that I could at least get started seems… inefficient, exhausting, wasteful… I can’t quite put my finger on it. Hmm?

Oh, I think I know…

Maybe it’s because I’ve just done a bunch of things that each had a clear end.  I have a whole bunch of little completions.  And the incompletion of a script half rewritten and put off until tomorrow feels stressful.

Does that make sense?

Somehow I can’t bring myself to start something knowing it won’t get fully done.  Completed.  Does anyone else have this experience?

I have a script to rewrite.  The shoot date is booked.  The location and equipment lined up.  It’s due!  The rewrite will take least 5 hours.  Or so I estimate.

It’s daunting. I’m feeling daunted. I’m covered in a layer of daunt.

‘I know!  I’ll do some quick, easy, tasks that will produce dramatic results, like picking up all the dirty laundry in the bedroom, hallway, bathroom, stairs, and driveway.’ 

(This would be one of those days where Ava is out of town seeing her mom and I’m alone with food and a remote control.)


ADHD List, ADHDGetting that done feels good. 

I’m on a roll!  I’ll go quickly load the dishwasher, start a load of laundry, pick up the pieces from the game of Puerto Rico we were playing with the kids last night…

After what feels like 35 minutes or so, I’ll realize 95 minutes has passed, and it’s almost lunch, in less than an hour, so I might as well do a couple of other small jobs and get started after lunch… and so it goes.

A hundred To-Do’s checked off at the end of the day.  (I swear, I’ve actually put BRUSH TEETH on the list just so I can feel like I’m being incredibly productive.)

A hundred check-marks beside everything… except the big one, the one that’s urgent.  (Not yet a crisis. Then I’d get it done.)

To return to my mountain climbing analogy, my pinkie is beautifully bandaged.  But my legs are still a broken heap.  And the sun is setting on Mount Everest.

I’ll still be around tomorrow to finally get started on that rewrite. And if not, well, I could do it the day after in a pinch.  Or I could write on the weekend and have it for Monday morning…


Rick Green

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10 Replies to “The To-Do List That Doesn’t Get Done”

  1. I have been explaining exactly this to somebody (my manager) last week, that I have trouble starting things when I know that I won’t be able to finish them in one go.

    For me, I think it has a lot to do with knowing that I will have to break my focus (the super kind), and will have to pick up the same job again in the next session. But in many cases, the second session will be a lot harder, because the initial newness of the little project has already worn off in the first session. So my super-mega-turbo-curiosity-rocket may not function to get me the focus I need to get through the second session.

    Without something that triggers my focus, either I am going to have a very very hard time, where the same work will take a lot longer to finish, or… I may not get it going again, at all. Which means, another skeleton in my started-but-not-finished-projects-closet.

    I’m grown up now, but as a child this burned me so often… And the fear that it might happen again still holds me back when I suspect that I won’t be able to finish something in one go.

    I try to deal with it by chopping up projects. Not so much in “doable chunks” like everybody else, but in “curiosity-chunks”. Which part of the job is interesting enough to keep me going, without spoiling the rest of it? And can I finish that chunk in one go? And can I keep the best part of the job for last, so that I will not have too much trouble to get back to it the next day?

    Of course, more often than not I forget that I should use this tactic, and yet another half-finished project will have to wait for the magic deadline rush to help me get it done.

  2. I put brush teeth on the list because I would forget to do it if I didn’t. Also shower, eat breakfast, drink water… and NO INTERNET! Which was actually the plan for today, No internet, not even going to check my email… and here I am, because I did check my email, saw a funny thing about to-do lists and Mount Everest, read it, decided to comment on it…. And yep, there goes the 10 minutes where I was planning to squeeze in that shower, even though in my mind it only takes 2 minutes to read a blog entry and comment on it.

    I totally get the sense of acomplishment from doing those little taste. I feel great after I finish washing all the dishes, even the pots and pans, and settle on for a well deserved break, sipping my coffee and surfing the ‘net. I am having a great day! I’m so proud of myself for getting those dishes done. Never mind that the only thing I accomplished was washing the dishes and there are still 100 things left to be done. There’s no point in doing them now, might as well leave them until tomorrow….

    Just one more thing: Writing “PRIORITY” at the top of the list and underlining it really doesn’t help. I’ll still convince myself that something else needs to be done first, or that it would be better to leave that one until tomorrow.

  3. Gah! Typos!

    * “… those little TASKS”

    * “…settle IN for a well deserved break”

    And there goes the last 2 minutes where I was planning to squeeze in an extra super quick shower. If only human bodies were self cleaning…

  4. Thank you for posting this. I go through similar hoops, rationalizing about all the stuff that “needs” to get done before I can concentrate on a major project. Happened yesterday. Told myself I HAD to get something done, but suddenly it was 6 PM and the day was gone. While it’s nice to have company in this, does anyone have strategies to help manage procrastination? For me it would start with avoiding Facebook until my to-do list is finished.

  5. Thank you, Rick, for spelling out my Life and helping me to see it is “not just me”. My lists even include “Wake up” because I know if I can’t check that one off I won’t feel guilty about getting to the other things in the list! Keep up the great work: you personally have affected my life in a positive manner. Also: I LOVE the Friday Funnies! They give me outright laughs when I am getting ready for work and remind me to focus on the important things….like brush my teeth! (check!”). Thank you, Ken.

  6. Rick, you do have a way of seeing into and describing these daily challenges we all face in a way that few can put into words. And with humour (though the dislocated pinky finger image was a bit disturbing. 😉

    Thanks for letting us know we’re not alone, and making observations that we can use to improve our daily lives. (even if we may need them repeated a couple times. Perhaps a couple dozen times. 🙂

  7. HA_HA-HA-HA! Yes, and then I’ll start kicking myself for being such a lazy procrastinator and fixing the arms is going to hurt more tomorrow because I left them so long and I’m so tired right now and the leg is really going to hurt from being very broken and uncared for and then I’ll have to walk out of here and then…
    Oh yeah! Now I’m wasting time creating future disasters.

  8. You have an amazing way of explaining my life. Seriously, so often I wonder just why I make the choice to arrange the shirts in my closet by color when I have a major project with looming deadline staring me in the eye.

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