Can Goals and “To-Do” Lists Actually Lead to Self-Sabotage?

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to-do-list1According to a LinkedIn survey, 11 percent of 6,500 professionals said they regularly complete their “to-do” lists. Meanwhile, less than two-thirds actually create a list in the first place. Do you use lists, and are they helpful? All this time, have we been led astray on how important of lists are to our success?

Entrepreneur, weightlifter and travel photographer James Clear writes how goals ultimately reduce the level of individual happiness because one winds up not feeling good about themself until or unless that goal is accomplished. Clear goes on to point out how goals can often become huge burdens. It makes total sense if you’re hard pressed to complete your to-do list and reach big goals rather than changing your perspective or process. It’s like dieting. I’ve often heard from people who have been fighting to lose weight that when they finally achieved their goal it wasn’t because they went on a diet. They stopped “dieting” and they changed how they ate instead.

Similar to what Clear explains in his article, the focus ought to be on the practice and not on the performance. When you’re goal oriented it truly does become about how much you do, how much you get done and how much you acquire in order to have to feel good about yourself. Your self-esteem and, often, mental health rides on items being checked off your list rather than on the actual accomplishment.

too-much-to-do-too-little-timeSerial entrepreneur George Krueger and veteran radio broadcaster Mary-Lynn Foster also pose the question in their article: Should you stop making a to-do list? They point out that while having lists can keep you on track, perhaps it’s best to make a “to-don’t” list. As soon as I read that, the light bulb in my head illuminated. It makes total sense, and it’s something similar to what I struggled with just the other day. I have a dry-erase board that I use to write down my daily “to-do” list. And I truly started feeling as if attempting to live up to my own list started becoming too big of a burden.

A few days ago I frustratingly exclaimed out loud that, “I did nothing on my list. Nothing!” And then my boyfriend calmly reminded me that while I might not have checked off all that was listed, I did get a lot done that day, regardless. I took the erase board and wiped off my unchecked to-do list and instead started to write down everything that I did accomplish that day. You see, by reverse engineering my day I found out that I had actually done way more things then I originally had planned. I also could more plainly see what I did do and how much time I spent on specific tasks.

I found myself even more energized the following day. I felt more focused on, as James Clear calls it, “the system” and not the goal. “Systems-based thinking is never about hitting a particular number,” Clear points out. “It’s about sticking to the process and not missing workouts.” He used the example of having triggered an old injury while working out. In doing so he had to stop working out that particular muscle.


I know that I have often pushed myself too far and have not listened to my body because of my “goal” minded thinking. If I stopped, then that meant I failed and didn’t reach my goal, or so I reasoned. In other words, I focused so much on not reaching the goal I don’t give myself credit for getting my butt in the gym to begin with. I mean, I have done this a million times about a million different things. It’s extremely defeating to see the cup half empty rather than see what you have done or are currently doing.

Unpredictable things happen that often get in the way of our “to-do” lists and goals. That’s life, and sometimes plans go out the window. No matter how much we want to control every minute of our day, we can’t. It’s nice to have goals to motivate us in the right direction but we need to be realistic. In paraphrasing James Clear, for long-term planning an organized and matured system is most effective.

The Bottom Line:

Having a to-do list can be a very effective motivation tool. Having goals is also just as important. But, maybe, instead of putting the burdensome dozen or so things on our to-do list and on our shoulders we instead write a simple “to-don’t” list to re-focus our minds? This could promote a healthier outlook on life, rather than being so hard pressed to see accomplishments stack up and checked off our bucket lists that we feel defeated or feel like losers when we don’t “accomplish” our goals. Things can happen that fall outside of our control, and we shouldn’t get down on ourselves for things we can’t control. Perhaps if we channel our energy toward fine-tuning an effective self-motivational system that serves as a non-self destructive approach to personal success, we will actually achieve far greater success than we could have ever imagined.

Stephen Covey


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