One Good Thing: loosen your grip on your to-do list to tackle productivity guilt

Welcome back to One Good Thing, Stylist’s Sunday series that asks experts in mental health for the one good thing we can all do to boost our wellbeing.

This week, we asked Madeleine Dore, author of I Didn’t Do The Thing Today and the interviewer behind Extraordinary Routines, for her One Good Thing. 

Hi, Madeleine! If you could recommend One Good Thing everyone can do to improve their mental health, what would it be?

Have the to-do list, but hold it lightly.

Interesting. Tell us why. 

When we judge ourselves or others by how much we do, what we do is never enough. What we tend to overlook is that the expectations for what can get done in a day are unrealistic – instead of making us more productive, we might feel anxious, overwhelmed and burnt out.

Yet each day is different, and so are we. We are constantly shifting, and the same can be said for our priorities, our environments, our health. We sometimes need a more flexible approach to our days that can create space for inevitable distractions and disruptions.

Yep, you’re spot on there. But we’re not ready to give up our to-do lists entirely, so how does holding it in a ‘lighter’ way work?

In place of aspirational routines, elaborate schedules or exhaustive to-do lists that are difficult to stick to, try creating a flexible checklist of small good things for your own mental health – for example, exercise, reading, learning something, cooking, connecting with someone.

The key is that those tasks don’t have to follow a particular order, nor do they always happen, but when they do, it’s a good day.

How will this make our mental health better?

Having a flexible approach to things helps you become an expectation realist – that is, someone who is kinder to themselves about how the day unfolds. Holding things lightly helps you to set more generous timelines, add more space, embrace downtime and start small.

When we start trying this One Good Thing, what potential pitfalls should we expect? How can we sidestep them?

Like any approach, we can easily compare ourselves and wonder if we’re doing it right –then wind up blaming or doubting ourselves.

It’s important to remember that while we can learn and be inspired by others, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. So, determine your own checklist of small good things for yourself. For example, some people find they feel better when they are busier with lots on their list, whereas others need more space in their schedule to decompress. Others feel better without a list entirely. It’s about finding what works for you.

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Flexibility is key. Got it. Tell us about how you, personally, do this One Good Thing.

Previously, I was obsessed with optimising my routine. I’d draft elaborate schedules for myself where I’d promise to get up at sunrise, meditate, journal, go for a jog, stretch while listening to an inspiring podcast, eat the perfect breakfast – all before sitting down at my desk to start a deep-work session with well-timed breaks. 

Yet, when I’d snooze through my too-early alarm, the entire plan for the day would topple over. Instead of getting on with the day and picking up the next piece, I’d feel guilty and worry about the time I’ve wasted.

But the surest way to waste time is to worry about wasting it! Now, by practising holding things lightly I can aim to be more flexible and accept that our energy, priorities and schedules ebb and flow. We aren’t perfect, but we can pick things up where we left off and keep trying.

Last question: How has doing your One Good Thing changed your life for the better?

It’s helped to reframe what’s left on a to-do list as possibilities, not failures. In turn, I try to focus more on what I did do on a given day, rather than what I didn’t – and sometimes the most worthwhile things weren’t on the list to begin with: a new idea, a conversation with a friend, a solution to a problem that has been bugging you, a moment of joy, even a great nap. This all counts, too.

We’re in. 

I Didn’t Do The Thing Today: On Letting Go Of Productivity Guilt by Madeleine Dore is available now. 

Frame Of Mind is Stylist’s home for all things mental health and the mind. From expert advice on the small changes you can make to improve your wellbeing to first-person essays and features on topics ranging from autism to antidepressants, we’ll be exploring mental health in all its forms. You can check out the series home page to get started.

Image: Getty, Stylist

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