by Marty Johnson
It’s been a little over a year now since our world changed. It seems like yesterday that we all had to begin adapting to conditions like we’d never seen before. So much has happened. So much has been accomplished. And so much more still needs to be done.
I’m one of those people that often focuses on the latter: on what needs to be done. I have big dreams and big plans, which is all fine and dandy, but along with those big ideas comes a big obsession to maintain a to-do list—a never ending, always growing, outrageously out of control (however meticulously laid out, if I do say so myself) OneNote file with seven main tabs (for my seven main hats and responsibilities—businesses, side hustles, organizations, etc.), each complete with sub tabs, and each sub tab full of countless bullet points, sub bullet points, and sub sub bullet points.
I stare at my to-do list every day. It mocks me. It reminds me daily about all of the big ideas and big plans that I’ve had that I just haven’t had the oomph to tackle yet. Honestly, it makes me depressed sometimes, causing me to focus on what I haven’t done rather than what I have.
I realize fully that this is a completely self-imposed struggle. I could easily choose to not keep a to-do list and therefore not have it taunt me every day. But, that’s just not in the cards for someone like me—someone fully distrustful of his pulled-in-entirely-too-many-directions brain’s ability to keep track of anything on its own.
I think it’s safe to say that I’m probably preaching to the choir here; that many of my fellow small business owners and entrepreneurs face a similar struggle to keep up with all of the things that they feel need to be done, and all of the things that they dream of doing “someday, when there’s time.” I know many of you, like me, have entirely too many irons in the fire and feel the weight of responsibilities that come with them. The businesses we run, people we employ, organizations we guide, families we care for, and relationships we fight to protect all come with their fair share of stuff that takes time, energy, and chutzpah to get done.
So, how do we deal with this? How do we dig out from under our to-do list? How do we take care of everyone and everything we need to and still manage to maintain some modicum of sanity for ourselves?
To start, we must remember how important it is for us to first and foremost take care of ourselves. It may sound selfish, but like oxygen masks on an airplane, we must first put ours on before helping others. It’s essential that we make time to eat right, exercise our bodies and our brains, and breathe. I’m sure many of you, like me, have neglected to do that at times and suffered the consequences. It’s a hard lesson to learn. If you struggle with this, as I often do, I recommend reading the book I just finished: Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s a game changer!
Next, I recommend unplugging from time to time. Too much time spent obsessing over things is wickedly unhealthy. A while ago—perhaps a couple of years ago now (in retrospect, I wish I had marked the date)—I made the decision to not bring my work home (when at all possible). That meant leaving my laptop on my desk at the office, rather than packing it up each evening to “try to catch up” that night. It also meant not responding to texts, Facebook messages, or anything else that was work related until the next day when I was back at the office. Unless it was an emergency, people could wait.
The change I’ve seen in myself from unplugging at home has been wonderful. Sure, if you ask one of my co-workers I’m sure they’d tell you that I’m often still a ball of stress … and that’s a fair assessment. But it used to be much worse. And my system isn’t perfect; I still have to make exceptions from time to time. In fact, as I write this article I'm sitting at my dining room table at home on a Sunday afternoon … but deadlines are deadlines, and hey, nobody's perfect.
Now, taking care of number one and unplugging from time to time certainly don’t make a to-do list any smaller. In fact, one might argue that those things would cut into our time to do the things on that to-do list. And that’s true, but what those things accomplish—for me, at least—is that they give us a break from that to-do list, which in turn takes away some of its power and control over us. It puts it into perspective.
One more thing that I’ve found very helpful is to balance my to-do list out with another list of things that I’ve actually done. I call it my “did-it list.” To be fair and transparent, my own did-it list is more conceptual than actually a written-down list (but give me a few minutes and I’ll change that … and it will be meticulously organized, of course.) Though, I do keep a tally of each time I’ve had an article or photograph published, of milestones I’ve reach, of places I’ve traveled, of bucket list items I’ve checked off, and of various other small and large accomplishments. But, I wonder what it would look like if my did-it list included much more.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear uses the example of keeping a calendar of workouts. Simply marking off a day on a wall calendar gives us a visual record of how far we’ve come. He makes the point that just showing up, even if the workout is barely more than sitting down for five minutes on an exercise bike, is so much more beneficial than letting a day slide—because one day leads to two, which leads to three, and before we know it we’re back to where we started. But if we mark each day we at least show up on a calendar (a type of did-it list, if you think about it) and see the visual of the chain of days it creates, we’re much more inclined to keep showing up again and again so we don’t break that chain.
So, what if we all kept a did-it list. What if we were to write down a continuous chain of accomplishments: programs we’ve started, relationships we’ve cared for, businesses we’ve built, clients we’ve helped, team members we’ve employed, people we’ve mentored, services we’ve provided to our communities, organizations we’ve sponsored and supported, and smiles we’ve shared. Wouldn’t that do wonders for our self-esteem? Wouldn’t that do wonders to motivate us to keep getting things done? Wouldn’t a did-it list make our to-do list look less daunting—more of a record of things we “get to do” rather than things we “need to do?” I think it would.
I also think that, more important than all the lists we may create, the most salient point to remember is that we’re all only human … and we can’t do it all. Sure, there are an endless number of programs we’d like to start, services we’d like to add, after-hours activities we’d love to enjoy, training we wish to attend and/or provide to our team, and so much more. As much as we wish we had the time, energy, and focus to flush out all of our big ideas, not everything can—or will—get done. And that’s OK! It’s good to dream; it’s good to hope.
I hope we can all begin to reconcile our aspirations with our accomplishments. I hope we can celebrate what we’ve done so we don’t fret so much about what we haven’t done yet. In acknowledging that and understanding both our limitations and self-expectations, we can find some fresh inspiration—coupled, I hope, with a healthy dose of gratitude—that can propel us into our next chapter.
Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication and Advisor to the Board for AMBC and is Editor of MBC Today. Marty owns and operates Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at askunclemarty.com. #AskUncleMarty
This article was published in MBC Today Volume 23 Issue 2 on March 3, 2021.