Updated: Nov 20
Not all to-do lists made equal. Some tasks might feel like obligations, others like a reward. Those that feel like reward we will be happy to jump on and do. Those that feel like a chore, we will do our best to avoid. As a result, we might miss deadlines, opportunities and upset ourselves or others.
It’s not because we are lazy. There is a psychological reason we avoid items on our to-do list that feel like chores. It's called the principle of least effort. We don’t feel a personal connection to things we need to do. They seem like something added by other people. Hence we don’t want to do them. Or deep inside harbour a childish resistance, want to actively rebel against doing anything that does not feel good or requires additional energy.
So how to ensure the tasks that we need to complete are not left abandoned because we resist starting them?
Let's see what happens when we tackle a task that feels good and a task that feels like a chore to understand what techniques we could apply to change our attitude and complete both tasks.
Imagine having two items on your to-do list. One says: do laundry, another says buy your favourite magazine. Which item, you think, will be done first? Of course, those that are infused with the personal interest and promise delightful rewards. Hence, you blink and the magazine is in your hands.
Doing the laundry, on the other hand, feels like an enormous task you want to delay. It's that heavy-duty chore you'd prefer to avoid at all costs. Don't let the boring task fool you, finishing it means you'll have clean clothes that will make you feel confident and comfortable. It's a surprising twist, isn't it? A hated chore, but there is a sweet reward at the end! Hmmmm….
The thing is that both items are important. But no one can deny that they arouse different feelings. One satisfies personal need, another is about basic hygiene and practicality.
But, the trick is, if you call the chore list something else - a “might do list” for example, it stops being an obligation. It becomes an “if I want to do it, I’ll do it list” and it feels fun and liberating.
Because you no longer “have to” do your laundry. You might do it if you have time, if you remember, if you want to.
Might do list was attributed to John Zeratsky, the author of Sprint and Make Time. He admitted that by renaming the list meant important but complex or long-term items were not de-prioritised due to our brain choosing to do the easiest and the quickest thing.
In this article, however, we won't encourage you to choose just one thing that is important to you (this is what John recommends). Instead, we will simply try rewire our brain to choose less exciting activities we need to accomplish merely because we don't have to.
Might do lists make daily tasks more enjoyable and give you control over your schedule.
But then if you don't have to do it, does not it mean you won't do it at all?
Is it a good idea to rename to-do lists to might do lists?
Will accountability suffer?
Some may argue that renaming a chores list into a "might-do list" might lead to a lack of accountability. If tasks become optional, won't important responsibilities like laundry be neglected?
Renaming the list doesn't mean abandoning all responsibilities. It's about changing the perception and mindset around these tasks. While they might become "optional" in phrasing, it's still important to acknowledge that certain chores are essential for maintaining a clean and functional living space. The key is to approach them with a different mindset, one that emphasises choice rather than obligation.
Will I procrastinate more?
Critics may worry that this approach could lead to procrastination. If tasks are only done when you feel like it, won't they pile up and create more stress later?
The idea isn't to encourage procrastination but to reduce the psychological burden of feeling forced to do tasks. By allowing for flexibility, you can adapt your schedule to your energy levels and priorities. It's important to strike a balance between maintaining a functional living space and giving yourself the freedom to choose when to tackle chores.
Will I neglect and miss deadlines?
Some might argue that certain tasks have strict deadlines, and the "might-do list" approach won't work in situations where timeliness is crucial.
You're absolutely right. Not all tasks can be left to chance, especially those with time-sensitive or critical deadlines. The "might-do list" approach is more suited to everyday chores and tasks that allow for flexibility. For tasks with strict deadlines, it's essential to maintain a clear schedule and prioritise them accordingly while still managing the psychological burden associated with less critical tasks.
Benefits of might do lists over to-do lists
Swapping a regular to-do list for a "might do" list has many benefits. It takes away the pressure of strict tasks and gives you more choices. This can make you more excited about doing things and help you focus on what's important now. You'll procrastinate less because you'll pick tasks that fit your mood. Feeling less guilty about unfinished tasks can make you feel better. It also helps when plans change unexpectedly, making it easier to balance work and life. Overall, it makes daily tasks more enjoyable and gives you control over your schedule.
To begin using a "might do" list instead of a to-do list, you can start by changing the way you think about your tasks. Instead of feeling like you must do them, think of them as things you can choose to do if you want to.
I, for example, have 2 bags of unwashed kids' clothes. If I remember that I must do them and put them on my to-do list, I'll feel sad because it's a lot of work. But if I call those bags of laundry "might do if I feel like it", well, excitement rises in my heart as I feel super mischievous! I will do the laundry if I feel like it! Ha! And after a few moments of pure childishness I do it, but it does not feel like a chore. It becomes rather neutral activity that I do. Which is a great result.
So, here is a task for you...
Now, let's move from theorising about our to-do lists to turning them into might do lists.
Choose a few items on your to-do list that you've been procrastinating about.
Move them to might do list.
See what happens by answering these simple questions:
Do you feel more or less inclined to do them?
What feelings does this task or tasks arise in you? (despair, excitement, boredom, laziness)
What would happen if you leave this item without doing nothing about it?
What would happen if you start working on it?
How will your life change if you accomplish this task?
How will your life change if you do nothing about this item?
Also, try writing down tasks you might want to do on your list, and when the time comes, pick the ones that feel right at that moment. This way, you have more freedom and less pressure, and it also can make your daily tasks feel less like chores and more like choices. Give it a try, and you might find it helps you feel more in control of your schedule and happier doing your tasks, fun or not.