Balance & Beyond Podcast
#2: Escaping the Chains of the To-Do List
How to escape the clutches of the to-do list...
In this episode, we tackle one of the biggest challenges faced by ambitious women: freeing yourself from the clutches of the to-do list. Brace yourself for a deep dive into the inner workings of your mind and discover the remarkable insights that will revolutionise your approach to productivity and ticking things off the never-ending list.
Unveiling the true nature of the to-do list, we'll unravel its hidden secrets and expose what it has insidiously become a substitute for. But that's not all—we’ll also explore why breaking free from its grip feels like an impossible feat.
As always, we’ll reveal strategies that help you regain control of your time and your sanity, while still getting everything done!
Here's a glimpse of what awaits you in this episode:
- [02.15] Discover the deeper issue that your to-do list signifies in your life. Uncover the profound meaning behind the tasks and obligations that fill your days.
- [03.00] Explore how the prehistoric circuitry of our brains is going haywire in today's modern world. Gain insights into the evolutionary origins of our productivity drive and how it clashes with the demands of our fast-paced, technology-driven society. You'll gain a fresh understanding of why you may feel overwhelmed and trapped in an endless cycle of ticking off tasks.
- [05.48] Unveil the chemical hit that checking things off your list produces and why it's so addictive. Dive into the fascinating realm of neurochemistry and discover why the sense of accomplishment can become an obsession.
- [07.30] Understand the real reason why we feel the need for external organisation, ie a clean kitchen bench, to find internal peace. Explore the psychological connection between our physical environment and our inner state.
- [08.28] Receive the permission slip you need to put your to-do list down and embrace the present moment in a specific area of your life. Learn how to shift your focus from constant productivity to mindful presence.
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Jo: Ah, the to-do list. That never-ending list, or maybe you've got lists of lists, where it never, ever seems to end. I don't know what's on yours, but as a woman, this is something that plagues us so much. Might be crazy sock day coming up, I've got a netball gala day, there's this thing for a boss, there's a million and one things that you've got. And everybody always tells me that this is the one thing that they cannot put down. It's on their minds all the time. And as they're doing one thing, they're now thinking about what's the next thing on my list and what's the next thing and when I do this, I'm going to do this and I'm going to fit this in. And life becomes this crazy frantic mess of trying to tick things off.
You tell yourself little stories like, “When I've got through the list, then I will sit down.” “When I've got through this little bit, then it will be okay.” “I'll play with the kids after I've done all these things.” And I certainly know when my kids were younger, before I did a lot of this work on myself, I would find myself saying, “No, no, no, not just yet. Let me go and put away the washing, and then I'll empty the dishwasher, and then I'll prep this and then I'll do that. And then we'll sit down.” And the kids would come out to me and say, “Mum, that was half an hour ago.” So this to-do list while it feels all-consuming, and it feels necessary, I get we have to function in life, and there is a lot to do. But there are a couple of things you really need to understand about what's really going on here with the to-do list. And it's actually nothing about the list, and it's everything about you.
What the to-do list is really a substitute for, is your need for approval. As an ambitious, high-achieving woman, what has happened is throughout your childhood, it has been conditioned in you that doing, and achieving, whether it's marks, or running, or races, or anything like that, that is what's going to get you the attention of your parents. And believe it or not, we are wired for attention.
Now, this may not come as a surprise when you have a child who's tugging at you going, “Mum, mum, mum.” Of course, we're wired for attention. But it's actually primal and much deeper than that. The reason that we are wired for attention is that as a child we equate attention with love. And if we go right back to our caveman days, knowing that 95%, actually 99%, of our brain was actually evolved on the Savanna. So, this thing walking around inside our noggin every single day was built for caveman times. It was not built for all this technology. It was not built for this speed and sophistication.
Our brain, used to function as was necessary, in a very, very simple life. When we were born, as a child, we're born with these beautiful, big eyes, and these cute little limbs, and everything like that. But as a human, we're pretty useless.
Don't you think back to, if you've had children yourself, those first couple of months? The kids wee, they poo, they cry, and they make you feel like a human cow. And if there was no love there, there's a pretty good chance that you would stick them out on the rock, for the Sabre-Toothed Tiger to come and eat, and be like, “I don't need this. I'm getting nothing back in return. I'm not getting any feedback. All I'm getting is crying and pooping, and yeah, I get a little kind of noise now and then, but that's about it.”
So, we are wired to attach and as children, as newborns, we will do whatever it takes to get that love. And as we start to get older, you know, so that early primary school age, five, six, seven, what starts to happen, is that we start to realize, “Okay, what gets my parents' attention?” Maybe it's achieving, maybe it's doing things. And for many of you, if you listen to this podcast, that is the case for you. That was certainly my upbringing. Bear in mind, a lot of the time this wasn't necessarily explicit. For many people, it is.
But, I know that in my family, what was often considered an insult was to be called “lazy.” And I was never really one to be encouraged to sit around, or to just chill out, and just hang out. I was always somebody who was up and doing things. And so, as this happens, this pattern starts to form. Oh, okay, well, if I am doing things, then I am safe because I'm getting my parents' attention, and then I am loved and if I'm loved, then I'm not gonna die. It sounds incredibly dramatic. However, that is where our caveman brain goes, which means... that we literally tie the to-do list, ticking things off the list, and must do this and must do this, with absolute survival.
Which is nuts, I know, I know, hear me out, but it's also why that compulsion in you to put things on that list is so strong. Bear in mind, every time you tick something off that list, every time you say, “Yes, I did that,” you actually also give yourself a dopamine hit. Which is a hormone in your brain, which is like crack, for the brain. And the brain goes, “Ooh, yes, tick that off! Awesome, well done!” And that is how we measure achievement.
Now, you know you're a bit of a dopamine junkie, if you've ever added something to your list, after you've completed it, simply for the satisfaction of being able to tick it off. Cause in that adding it to the list, and ticking it off, you are granting yourself a dopamine hit, which makes you feel good. Now, what happens is we feel like, if I can just get to the bottom of the list, if I can just be okay with this, if I can get everything done, I need to be more efficient, I need to be better organized. That's the thing. That's the thing. And when I'm better organized, then I will sit down, or then I will rest, or then I will do something for me.
But you and I both know that that list never ever ends. And if you have children, it just gets exponentially longer. Usually, because every time you do something and finish something on the list, that then generates another task, to go on the list. And so this is all about, we've got to stop this train of feeling like I have to wait until the list is done, or I have to wait until I'm through things, in order for me to get what I need. What happens in life is, we do everything for an emotion. We are creatures who are driven by our feelings, despite the fact that we do our best to numb them when we are feeling like this.
So, if we do everything for an emotion, what that means is, we usually spend a lot of time trying to make the house feel organized and clean, so that we can feel calm. Because, we have tied our environment, and our circumstances, to how we feel. I personally, very much put my hands up, love a good, clean kitchen bench. And that's something that I've come to terms with, I've done a lot of work on. But, I've also learned to let go of a lot of other things.
I am certainly not a perfectionist in my house. My mum, I absolutely love-her-to-bits, but she is very perfectionistic. Or very, let's say very tidy, “a neatnik,” as I used to call her. And growing up, my house very much looked like a display home. Beautiful cushions, and glass tables, and everything was white. So, that is where a lot of my challenges have come from. In terms of understanding what it's like to run a home, and doing things my way.
So if we do everything in life for a feeling, what could happen if you actually give yourself permission to do the one thing you want now, without having to go through this: “I'm doing, I'm doing, I've got to do, and when that's done, and that's done, then I'll sit down, or then I'll do this, or then I’ll feel calm.” This is how we detach from the to-do list. And we're not just detaching our feelings from the to-do list, we're actually detaching our sense of self-worth.
We take your sense of self-worth and mean that you're enough, just as you are. You are safe if you sit down on the couch, surrounded by laundry. It's okay! You are enough. You can learn, if you can give yourself a dopamine hit and celebrate that, that is even better, it's how we hack your brain. So this is what's really, really important to understand, is you need to start to do this work on yourself So that your sense of self, and your sense of self-worth, and all this drive for achievement, and all your dopamine, doesn't just come from the to-do list.
I speak to thousands of women, all the time, who are drowning under this. And this is the one thing, whether you call it the to-do list, you may call it the mental load: It's in your head, and it's heavy, and it's overwhelming. And the other thing that the to-do list is doing, is it's stopping you from actually being present in your life. Because you can't be where you are now, because you're thinking about the next thing to be done, “Right, I'm doing this, and then I'm doing this.”
And sometimes I know, because I used to fall into this trap, “So, I got to put the kids to bed, and then I'm back on the laptop.” “Got to read the kids a story.” “All right, let's skip pages, see if they notice, and then we can get back to the laptop.” Then, when I'm on the laptop, “Right, I've got to do this email, and then I've got to do this, and then I've got to do this.” It completely impairs your ability to focus. And despite the fact that you think you're being effective, by doing a million and one things, you are completely ineffective.
You know the stats around multitasking, and yet it's so compelling because of these patterns we've got ourselves into. So this, my friend, is your salvation, and your permission slip to detach your sense of self, and your self-worth, from the to-do list. So, I invite you to have a think about what's something that you're running around now, maybe you're listening to this while you're putting away laundry and cleaning, or when you're driving or doing something else, what's something that you wanna feel right now in this moment?
Maybe, it's calm. Maybe, it's peace. Perhaps, it's confidence. And how can you actually give yourself permission to feel that feeling right now? Without having to do anything, without having to tick anything off, or without there being any conditions on you feeling this thing. It's the reason that we feel like we have to control so much of our world. We're just looking to give ourselves permission to feel. The freedom that comes from knowing that you can give yourself that permission right now. Maybe you need to stop whatever you're doing and sit down? And just take a really, really long, deep breath and settle your nervous system down?
When you accept that you're human, and when you start to believe that you're good enough, that you don't need approval, and that you can sit down and tell that primitive brain in between your ears, that you are not going to die. “I am not going to die, if I sit down just for a minute.” “I am okay.” And this is the beauty of understanding how your brain works. And not just your brain as a human, but there’s a particular programming here and subconscious conditioning that is happening, as an ambitious woman who has been grown up, and groomed for this achievement. Yes, it's got you a huge amount of your success. However, it's also robbing you of joy.
So, my aim here is to help you keep all the good bits. Let's keep the drive. Let's keep the ambition. Let's keep the quest for learning and the results. However, I also want you to detach from the pieces that are keeping you stuck. From the pieces that are burning you out. And from the pieces that are robbing all the joy and fulfillment from life. Because, what the heck is the point of living, if you're just a to-do ticker-offerer, and that's it? Is that what's going to be on your gravestone? Ticked everything off the list.
Well, you probably didn't, because who organised your funeral? Oh wait, maybe you've organised all of that in advance? Like no. We have to find a way to actually step into our lives, and live it. I'm not saying there's not stuff to get done, well aware of that, I've got two kids. However, I want you to detach your self-worth, reduce the suffering, find more joy. And ironically, in detaching from the list, you're actually going to get through it faster. How's that for a spin?
So, that is your challenge for today. I want you to give yourself permission to feel something right now. Don't do anything, simply feel. That is your homework for today. That is what I would love you to take away from this episode. Ask yourself, “What do I need to feel right now?” and “How can I give myself full permission to step into that?” Put the list down, put it to the side, and know that there is more joy, and actual productivity, if you can.