Try this: Make a possibilities list

Do you hate to-do lists? Do you feel suffocated by deadlines? Try this instead.

Different things work for different people. Over the past two weeks, I’ve been suggesting different strategies that may work for you. If the traditional strategies such as to-do lists, schedules, deadlines, and accountability buddies don’t work for you, then this may be just the right thing for you!

Suffocated by Deadlines

A friend of mine, let’s call her Lisa, hates deadlines. She says they stress her out and stifle her creativity. “The closer the deadline looms, the more I feel paralyzed and unable to work.” As a result, Lisa frequently misses deadlines and afterwards feels disappointed in herself.

Another friend, George, rebels against deadlines. He thinks they are arbitrary and annoying, and he often doesn’t meet them on purpose. “I can work towards a deadline if I want to, but why should I? Someone else has decided to set this arbitrary deadline, and if I don’t agree with it, I simply won’t meet it.”

People may feel similarly about supervisors “breathing down their neck” or to-do and schedules lists feeling oppressive. While these tools are excellent for some people, they are counter-productive for others. The people most likely to feel this way are Questioners and Rebels, according to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework (take the free quiz to discover your tendency).

The Possibilities List

Enter the Possibilities List. This is a list of tasks that the person could do if she felt like it. It’s not as oppressive as a to-do list because these are not immediately impending tasks; rather, they are possibilities. The person has the option to choose which one she wants to tackle at a given moment.

I sometimes do this with my work tasks. I write down e.g. 5 tasks that I’d like to do this week. On Monday morning, I pick one of those tasks that I feel like working on and get started on that one.

Someone also described to me that he “tricks himself” to work on the most important task of the day by adding another task, one that he dislikes more, and then feels like he is “procrastinating” by working on the task that is indeed the one he should be doing. Ingenious.

I have to say that the possibilities list strategy makes me think of a parenting technique for avoiding tantrums. The idea is that you always give the child a choice. Let’s say your child needs to get dressed, so you say, “Hey, it’s time to get dressed! Which shirt would you like to wear today: the red one or the blue one?” Hopefully, your child then doesn’t get upset because you’re telling him to get dressed. Instead, he takes the opportunity to exert his independence by choosing a shirt.

Along the same lines, when you choose a task from your possibilities list, you’re doing useful work. You’re working towards a goal you’ve set for yourself in the past, and now you’re bringing it to fruition. In other words, you get a feeling of freedom while you’re working towards goals you’ve set for yourself. It’s a win-win.

The only issue with the possibilities list is that if you really don’t feel like doing a task, you may never do it. It may sit on your list forever. For instance, we’ve meant to get a treatment for the floor in our apartment… for 5 years now.

So if you find the possibilities list useful overall but struggle with some sneaky tasks that never seem to get done, you may benefit from scheduling a deadline or a related appointment or by creating a source of accountability. And if these things don’t work, you may need to identify the problem. More on that next week!

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