To Do, or Not To Do?

Posted by suevenman on Feb 28, 2014  

My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.      Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Back in my hurried and harried days, I judged my importance by the number of keys hanging from my key chain and how many Xeroxed pages I was toting around in my backpack. Sad? Sad. Whether keys or copied documents or yet another meeting, I now get it: more is not always better, sometimes it is just more.

Listchecklist-154274_150 Scenario: You have 15 things on today’s to-do list; everything from picking up cat food to talking to a colleague about the new product idea you’ve been pondering. At the end of the day, you accomplished 14 of the tasks. Work well done? Perhaps. But what if the remaining task was the most important and time sensitive of the lot? Work well done? Maybe not.

Leading a less harried life and reducing the “more” to less takes commitment and courage. Because prioritizing isn’t just about deciding what to do. It’s also about deciding what not to do; and we’ve all found out that saying, “No” takes a strong spine.

So how do you decide when to say, “Yes” to and when to say, “No?”

To make a sound decision, you need criteria. Have you ever seen one of those egg-size sorters? The egg rolls down a shoot with graduating holes, smallest to largest. If the egg’s the right size, it drops through the hole (presumably onto something soft), leaving the larger eggs to keep rolling. Task criteria are like sizing eggs: well thought through criteria will objectively sort the least important tasks (the smallest eggs) from the most import (the duck eggs).

To develop sound criteria, consider:

  • Consequences
  • Risk, and
  • The human element


  • What will be lost or gained as a result of choosing to work on one task versus another?
  • For example, not paying a credit card on time has a costly consequence; but there is little consequence if you postpone planning your summer vacation when it’s still the beginning of January.


  • Is there the risk of a negative outcome if any one of the tasks is not accomplished?
  • For example, if you delay ordering the rare book you finally found after a 10 year search, will someone else snap it up?

The human element:

  • Who will care about your decision if you do or don’t do this task, and how important are their feelings?
  • For example, if you insist on finishing every last task on your to-do list, you’ll be late for your child’s birthday party. Does it matter? Maybe not to you; but your child will be crushed if you don’t show up.

Lesson: there are times when you need to put down the to-do list and take up the more important things in life. Chances are, the list will still be there when you return.

Here’s to making your to-do list a playground, not a prison.


I remember a time period when my mom would regularly ask me whether I was getting “caught up” with everything I had to do. I still think she meant it as a loving, motherly way of caring. And yet, her question also became a powerful teaching lesson for me – as I began to discover that I would / will NEVER get “all” caught up AND that this could be an OK thing [’cause it means that I am still alive!]. On the other hand, I can always pare down the list as you so beautifully demonstrate while also learning how to “be with” the tasks that remain….That is, reframing them into what I “choose” and “get” to do–rather than what I “have” to get done.

February 28th, 2014 | 5:51 pm
jill bromberg:

…lOVE the Alice in Wonderland quote. It’s so funny (and so sad). Once again, great reminders…thanks Sue!

February 28th, 2014 | 6:25 pm

Beautifully written Sue — and 100% appropriate. Thank you so much for your wisdom and perseverance!

March 14th, 2014 | 2:26 am
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