My to-do list and my wish list.

My to-do list and my wish list.

A month ago I was whining (let’s be honest) to Will about having too much to do and feeling a bit overwhelmed with it all.

Will said, write it all down. 

(A little you may need to know about our household yin/yang: he has project management experience; I am an INFP who needs managing even though I’ve come a long way. I frequently say “project manage me” like that’s a verb. It is NOT a verb, which one could read as an indication of how desperately I need help in this area.)

Usually when I put the swirling thoughts in my head down on paper it makes me feel much better. In my head, it feels unmanageable, but on paper, the list is short. And doable. Usually.

This list wasn’t short.

I showed it to Will, who said, Oh. And then: That explains a lot.

The section for work-related tasks was on the long side (lots of shiny fun projects in this season) but we were both most surprised at the section for normal life stuff. That list kept going and going and going. Even though we keep a schedule that feels pretty low-key compared to many of our peers, we do have four kids, and the upkeep on a family of six isn’t exactly minimal.

This time, seeing my list of current responsibilities set out on paper didn’t lead to any sort of epiphany or magical fix. But even though I didn’t like the way it looked on paper, it was still enormously helpful to see it on paper.

Having an actual written list of what’s going on in my life right now is helping Will and I (and, to a lesser extent, the kids) be realistic about life right now, and see how we might need to shift responsibilities around between the two of us, and to the kids, in this season.

A month later, it’s helping.

Also helping: I told all this to a friend recently—another woman who has a big family, and similarly big responsibilities right now—and she said Are you sure you made a to-do list? Because it sounds like what you might have is a wish list. 

Sure enough, when I looked back over my list (because you better believe I kept that list), there were a few things on it that weren’t essential right now. They were things I wanted to be doing, but not things I needed to be doing—at least not right now.

As we move forward, we’re striving to be realistic about what we want to do, and what we need to do. We’re shifting responsibilities around, and will continue to do so. We’re saying “no” a lot.

And while I’m still keeping a wish list, I’m being careful not to confuse it with my to-do list.

It’s hard, every day—but I’m learning.

I’d love to hear YOUR thoughts on your to-do list vs. your wish list, and if you’re likewise inclined to confuse the two. 

P.S. Two big-picture concepts that help me plan my days/weeks/months, and the fab four habits for a better life.

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50 comments

  1. Jessica says:

    I’ve come to learn that a daily to-do list doesn’t work for me. In this baby-toddler season I can easily feel like a failure on a day I cross nothing off the list, whereas a weekly to-do list gives me a little more time to play with. I keep a big master to-do list/wishlist in my journal and then move them onto my weekly list when I have the time.

    • Ashley says:

      I love this. Just had baby #2 last week. I need to remember this great lesson which took awhile to sink in after #1. To-do’s are great, but in my current season I need them spread over a bigger chunk of time. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Tana says:

    Using my bullet journal for 8 months now has really helped me get a better handle on this. The evening before as I make my list for the next day, I’ll have things I want to write down but when I look at my list, I’ll realize they simply aren’t going to happen. The first 4 months of using a bullet journal were really rough as I’d write down all these things I wanted to do and I’d do them but my time for rest & relaxation totally disappeared. I’ve gotten much better at finding balance and letting go of things that ought to be on the wish list rather than the to-do list.

  3. I don’t keep a to-do list on paper (it’s all in my head or alarms in my phone), but I do have a wish list. I’ve been using the Swipes app to keep track of things I want to do at some point – get my son a passport, have my engagement ring assessed so I can add it to my home insurance, etc. It’s been helpful to keep those items on a list somewhere, so I don’t forget them, and so they don’t overwhelm me along with my regular day to day stuff.

  4. Judy LeValley says:

    A friend helped me out with this one: when I can’t sleep at night, thinking of all the things I want to remember for the next day, keep a pen with a little flashlight in it and a notepad at your bedside. When something pops into my mind, I write it down. Then go to sleep. It’s there for me the next day!

  5. When I became a new mom, I started to call my ‘to do’ list my wish list. There were many days on which I wasn’t able to get through the entire list by the end of the day, and I needed to go easy on myself. These days, as an INFP working mom, I keep a realistic weekly ‘to do’ list of items that I prioritize. The items that are lower on my priority list can be pushed to the following week, and I have learned to let go of the guilt that I once felt at seeing items on the list that haven’t been crossed off. My priority is to do my work honestly, focusing on my and my family’s health and well being. The dust bunnies can always wait another day (or two).

  6. Rebecca says:

    Ahhh…the to do list! I finally had to switch to a master list (wish list) and a daily to do list written on an a.m.(3 hours cuz of homeschooling), p.m.(3 hours), a.d. (after dinner–1-1/2 hour) grid. I like to overestimate my own awesomeness and forget that I have to plan 10 hours of housework per week per family member–40 hours a week for me now that I have 1 in college. That works out to 7 hours a day since I take Sunday off. That 10 hour estimate assumes that the family member is able to bathe & dress themselves as well as keep their own spaces and belongings neat…if you have kids under 5, it can be way more than 10 hours.

  7. Heidi says:

    Whenever I’m feeling panicky and overwhelmed, writing it all down usually helps, although, like you, sometimes my list is actually as long as it feels in my head! I’ve gotten good at not doing the things I don’t want to do, but still frequently feel too busy. A couple years ago, I was working through the difference between serving freely and serving from obligation, and I determined three categories the helped me say no to good things more easily: things I have to do for my own sanity (exercise, etc.), things I don’t really have to do but that I value and no one else will do for me (cook from scratch, homeschool, knit), and things that I value but that I’m not personally required to do (lead a Bible study, participate in my CSA). It made it much easier to sort through my obligations, and feel empowered to choose which activities made the cut.

  8. Megan says:

    Thank you for writing this, Anne! I’ve definitely been experiencing this exact thing, especially as I’ve entered into a new season of marriage. We’ve only been married 10 months and I deal with this on a day-to-day basis, especially since we both work full-time outside of the home. And I know this will all change and look differently when we go to have little ones. I’ll have a whole new to-do list/wish list. Thank you for sharing! What an encouraging post for all of us who are facing this struggle in life and trying to learn balance.

  9. Ooh, I love that distinction! I definitely have a hard time drawing the line between to-do things and wish list type things. Especially when things aren’t as busy, I start to transfer less necessary things over to my to-do list and then feel like a failure when I didn’t cross off the 25 things I meant to do this week! I’ll have to start remembering the difference between needs and wishes as I work on my weekly list!

  10. Christa says:

    I listed out my to-dos and wishes the other day and was so completely overwhelmed that I retreated to last season’s episodes of Call the Midwife while I tried to make sense of it all. It is so hard to decide which responsibilities matter most in which season. It helped to divide my list according to what role the jobs go with (wife, home educating parent, tutor, writer, housekeeper/cook, event planner, church member/pianist, friend, support group leader). It feels like a juggling act. As long as I don’t try to juggle too many of the roles at once things seems to come out ok.

  11. Aubrey says:

    Like someone mentioned above, as a mom of two toddlers, I often find it less discouraging to keep a weekly list instead of a daily. I’m naturally both a major list writer and a big dreamer so even these weekly list are a little more wish than reality. I was told once when feeling overwhelmed that one should write down only what MUST be done, then draw a line across the paper, and then go crazy with the should/want to category below. I do this all the time now and if I only complete the top portion of my list, I can still feel at ease with my day/week. And if I get a few “below the line” projects complete well, yippee! The line has been saving my sanity this year! Sometimes this looks like a “brain dump” on one page of my bullet journal and an actual list with a line on another but it’s worth it!

  12. Cassie says:

    This year I “splurged” on a Passion Planner. While it doesn’t designate between to do and wish list, there are plenty of places you could shift them out on both the weekly spread and monthly. I LOVE it. As a new mommy of a 6 month old and SEVERE mommy brain, I have to write EVERY thing down or I will hopelessly forget. Add in that my husband and I are trying to buy a house, and things would simple not get done otherwise.

  13. Bridgett says:

    Have you read “Getting Things Done” by David Allen? He advocates a master project list (with just the projects named) and a separate list for each project with the items you need to accomplish that project (Like a Project would be Spring Cleaning, but the break down would be – take down curtains and wash, wipe down crown molding, etc.) He also says to have a “Maybe/Someday list” for things you’d like to do, but can’t right now for various reasons, or that just aren’t urgent enough to make it onto your project list. Since I’ve started doing that, my frustration has gone way down. (Oh, you’re to review all lists at least once a week to re-evaluate and check that you’re making progress).

  14. Alyssa says:

    The past few weeks I have used the blank space across from my to-do list and schedule to write down a few “intentions”. This is about who I want to be in this season or to remind me why what I’m choosing to prioritize is important. It helps me have a better mindset about the list not being a measure of my value! For example, this is a season where I have determined 2 things are very important: my health, and my son’s therapies/home school. If I’m not taking care of these then something needs to go. I have reminders that the baby steps are worth it, that I set the tone for our days: I want my son to feel my support, I need to remember to be playful with him, I need to remember that this is a Season that will change and someday there will be time for the less important things.

  15. Andrea says:

    Ah, I can relate so well. I daydream about having my own personal project manager to figure out how to make all my big dreams and plans a reality. Maybe my daydreaming is part of the problem? 🙂 But I appreciate this reminder about the need to distinguish between my to-do items and my wish-list items. Sometimes they’re very different, and seeing the disparity between the two might be useful in helping me prioritize a little better (so that wish-list items can eventually move over to the to-do list). Thanks for the post!

  16. JerryT says:

    I don’t understand how you can be an INFP when you do such an outstanding job of writing a regular, excellent blog.

  17. Jennifer H says:

    I started a bullet journal after reading your post on yours. I am using the same one for personal and work. I can definitely look at my monthly task list and tell that some things are wish list items. But I do think the daily list has helped me stay accountable, even though I usually migrate at least one task on that list to another day.

  18. Ashley says:

    Sometimes there is one “to-do” and it’s to do whatever it takes to get through a season with grace. We just had baby #2, my husband leaves next month for military training, returns and we move our entire lives to a different base 20 hours away the next week. And we have a 2 year old. I feel like my whole list is “wish” right now. And I’m trying to take it slow and be OK with getting the basics done and not much else. Because this season isn’t forever. My normal to-do stuff will all filter back in. But that is so hard for an INTJ!!

  19. Liz says:

    Oh my! The idea of a Wish List in conjunction with, but superset from, a To Do List. Your friend’s comment just blew my mind. Lightening strike, my avid list making will be drastically changing. Starting TODAY! Thanks for awesome post.

  20. Leanne says:

    What a great reminder that part of my “to do list” is really a “wish list”. Working two part-time jobs that sometimes equals over 40 hours a week, I usually expect too much of myself. After all, I have to have time for reading too!!

  21. Gail says:

    I use a small notebook idea that I got from an article from
    Jenn Lifford – Clean and Scentsible. It’s a small notebook that is divided into 4 sections, the first section is the daily have to’s, second section is what needs to be done in the next week or so, the third section is monthly to do’s and then I use the 4th section for long term ideas. I make sure I get my have to’s done before I move any of the weekly ones over. She explains it quite well and I have adjusted it for me.

  22. Kathryn H. says:

    I also find it very helpful to get things on paper–and then to have the satisfaction of crossing them off. You’ve often mentioned (or linked to articles about) writing down three things (just three) that are most important each day, and I’ve started doing this. I make lists for several days out, which helps me get things off my mind. If it’s Tuesday, and something is on the list for Thursday, I can let it go for now. So, yes, putting things down on paper is really important for decreasing my mental clutter!

  23. Amy says:

    Oh my gosh, I’m an INFP, and my husband has project management experience, too. I can’t tell you how often I ask him to project manage me! He’s very linear and structured, so it always helps to have another perspective on my swirling. And sometimes I like to swirl up his structure, just cuz. We make a good team. 🙂

  24. Andi says:

    I loved this post, especially since it really echoes a conversation my husband and I had (and seem to keep having) this past year when our “To-Do” lists got overwhelming and burdensome. We are both crazy list makers and almost obsessively over-zealous about the things we want to do (and ridiculously over-confident in our ability to do EVERYTHING). After having our youngest son, I really struggled with my list that seemed to never get checked off. After wrestling in the deep tides of discouragement, disappointment and disgruntled expectations, I got a grip and made some changes to my list.
    Firstly – as you do, I make sure to list the everyday things I need to do every day so that I have a realistic idea of what’s on my plate. Dishes, laundry, sewing that button back on Alex’s uniform, bathing the toddler… all the tiny things get accounted for so that I can see that even though I didn’t get anything earth-shattering accomplished, I still made the day ‘count’ and got my ‘daily-dos’ done. And I make sure to take satisfaction from that!!
    Secondly – my bullet journal has several lists running through it that I continually add to; my ‘Wish Lists’, ‘Wants Lists’, ‘Plans Lists’, and so on. I have them organized in the big divisions of my life (child development, marriage, school, knitting, garden, house projects, books to read, etc.) and then list away – anything and everything I want, hope, need or would like to do. That way – even if I never get to it, I feel as though I’ve made the first step, which is to record it!
    Thirdly- I continually revise my standard of “Necessary”. My husband is a great help with this!! As we have super busy seasons, or sick seasons, or dad-works-a-lot-of-overtime-this-week seasons, or ‘baby won’t sleep more than forty-five minutes at a time’ seasons, I really try to simplify my list to essentials. What are they? 1) cleanish clothes for each person for this day (not folded, not put away, not for tomorrow – just clean, just today) 2) Food, for each person, for this day (not planned, not fancy, not for the next week, just sound nourishment that can sustain life for today – and milk for the baby, which I have to make)
    Yuppers- that’s the list. Amazing how much I *don’t* have to do when you narrow it all down like that. I found that even things like ‘Showering’ and ‘putting socks on the toddler’ could be knocked off the list for a day to give us some more wiggle room if we needed it – and yes, that’s happened. My Essential Standard got me through the first few months of our newborn’s life last summer… i know it wouldn’t be able to be that sparse for some (especially if you work outside the home, or have older children), but for us it really worked.
    Again, let me say how much I love this blog. Yours is the only one I read with any real faithfulness and I always find something timely and encouraging! Thank you for sharing 🙂

  25. Casey says:

    There is so much great insight here in the main blog post and also the comments! It’s so nice to see that others struggle with a “wish list”. I follow Getting Things Done (GTD) using the Wunderlist app, but lately my Someday/Maybe list isn’t getting much use, and my other lists are overflowing. This is probably a symptom of my giving short shrift to my Weekly Review. I’ve been working OT, have a toddler, and just exited a rough first trimester with baby #2. I need to be gentler with myself 🙂

  26. Ines says:

    The discernment between a wish and a must is enlightening. My lists are typically a mix and I often feel discouraged when items are not crossed out. Sometimes I throw a wish into my list as a hint to the hubby of something I want done. Rarely has that worked, but when I break out the tools and start to shut water or electricity off to the house . . . that is when he jumps in.

  27. Gosh, this gets so muddy for me in the age of knowing your personality type, number, strengths, etc because now I know that some of the stuff I don’t *have* to do are the things that keep me sane. So I have the hardest time decifering between what’s just a wish and what keeps me a healthy human.

  28. Erin says:

    Anne
    I recently had an epiphany, not in regards ‘to do and wish lists’ but that feeling of being overwhelmed. My life is going to continue to be full for the foreseeable future, with 10 children that is a given. However amongst the ‘busyness of life’ we can find quiet, a peace. Currently I’m in town daily, ferrying children to various after school activities, I’ve taken to walking in that time period, taking my camera along, listening to podcasts (yours;-) and reading books. Those hours waiting; by the poolside, in the library, walking, waiting in the car I’ve come to treasure, they are the quiet within the busy.

  29. Lauren says:

    Thanks for making this distinction between to-do and wish list! I tend to be hard on myself at the end of the week if I feel like I haven’t crossed off enough on my to-do list. I’m going to start a wish list instead!

  30. Janene says:

    …what’s going on in my life right now is helping Will and ME — not Will and I. 🙂 This grammatical mistake is so prevalent and it kind of drives me crazy.

  31. Abbey says:

    I totally get it. I don’t write as many lists down on paper but I definitely do in my head. It’s hard to keep up with all of them. I’m such a non-planner in the way that I absolutely cannot make decisions without considering every single alternative and then I sometimes back out of them (if possible). I’m an infp too, so that explains a lot in my case. I am definitely good at confusing the two.

  32. I can’t keep up with a daily list, but yes – fellow INFP and I think I might need managed. I try to keep everything in my head, but when I start to panic my husband makes me write it down. And then I realize it’s 5 things and I can probably manage. I am pregnant with my 4th now, and I find I just don’t have the capacity to keep everything in my brain right now. I at least have to put things on my phone calendar. 😀

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