Why To-Do Lists are Overrated and What List You Need Instead

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Over a year ago I took this amazing course from Elayna Fernandez, The Positive Mom, called Stepping Into Balance. She really challenged me during the course as she pushed me toward a new way of thinking about goal creation, what a balanced life looks like, what my passions and purpose are, and how to deal with anger and frustrations in new ways. And a whole lot more.

One part that was especially challenging to me was her insistence on getting rid of to-do lists!


I love making a to-do list, feeling the satisfaction that comes with checking off each item once completed. More than anything, it feels great knowing that with my trusty list, I won’t forget something important, giving me a sense of pride and validation! I can easily see what still needs to be done and when. Having a checklist of items to complete helps me focus when it comes time to run errands, clean the house, teach homeschool, fulfill church obligations, and focus when it’s my work time (as I’m my own boss).

Checklists and to-do lists are my nice security blanket in a world of overwhelm, forgetfulness, and chaos of parenting four young kids.

And Elayna told me to trash my to-do lists!

To say that made me a bit annoyed is an understatement.

What do you mean trash them? Why when they make me feel so much more organized?!

why to do lists don't workWhy To-Do Lists Don’t Work

But, as a mom trying to balance my many hats in life, I had bought into the lie that balance is all about how I do it all, how I check off all the items on my list, and remember all the appointments and deadlines.

“But, the issue with the to-do list is that it turns us into list-slaves, placing our value, our worth, and our sanity into what we did or didn’t get done during a given day.” she said. “Trying to DO everything…for everyone leaves moms frustrated, overwhelmed, and depleted. It produces mommy guilt and letdown because ‘checking everything off,’ ‘pleasing everyone,’ or ‘meeting everyone’s needs’ are all unattainable goals. If someone ever told you they achieved any of these, they lied…blatantly and mercilessly.” There is always more to be done, more “pleasing” and needs to come.

But, I am like many moms who rely on to-lists, coffee, or wine to help keep me sane, however, “the truth is that all three of those are detrimental to your productivity, holistic health, and self-esteem. To-do lists can be torturous because we’re always going to feel bad that we didn’t get to everything on our list and end up drained, depressed, and depleted. The guilt, the regret, and the sense of incompleteness is a huge energy sucker, not to mention how stressing it can be” Elayna reminded me.

She also shared the research that shows that around 41% of all to-lists are never completed.

How to Know If Your To-List is Truly Helpful

She said that to-do lists can be effective, and they can work, though!

She said you can know if to-do lists work for you IF you feel the peace, quietness, and assurance of Isaiah 32:17  – “And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever.”

If you don’t, then it isn’t really helping you be more productive, as true productivity, creativity, and progress are only possible in a state of calmness.

But, I still pushed back, because, LISTS! Organization! How can I give up on those? I can’t live a life in chaos! I need order and structure and at least somewhere to keep track of what I’m supposed to be doing as my mommy brain and sleep exhaustion prevent my brain from working at full capacity, especially by the end of the day when I’m supposed to be working.

So, she gave a modified way to do the to-do lists.Digital-vs.-Analog-free-license-CC0-980x652

The (Modified) To-Do List

Step 1: Do a 5-minute brain dump of everything and anything needing to be done in the next few days or weeks in any area of your life on a piece of paper.

Step 2: Prioritize the items. Mark them with Delete, Delegate, and Do. Delete items you don’t really need to do in the next few days or weeks. Delegate tasks to others which can be delegated. Do tasks are the ones that really matter.

Step 3: When you have your final list, use your favorite calendar and schedule them for specific days to be completed. However, each day there can only be THREE items on your list, written in order of importance. Write this list the night before and date it. And do not multi-task.

By discarding, delegating, and calendaring your to-do’s, you can move on and release any anxiety you build up when it is an incomplete on your irritation list, because it’s no longer something you’re putting off or avoiding. She insists that by deciding to do less, you will feel like you did more, because you will be able to be present and to make a difference in the lives of the people in your care and the people you choose to care for.

And in order to become more present at home and more productive at work, learn to monotask, prioritize, and calendar your to-dos, you need to make sure they all complement the list Elayna shouts is of far, far more importance: Your To-Be List.

The To-Be List

Elayna wanted me to focus not on what I did each and every day, but what I was. She wanted me to do less and be more.

As she said, we are all human BEings, not human DOings!

She insisted again and again that life and time are gifts and not things you can control or manage, as they are not ours to manage. Life is a journey, an experience.  And it’s time that we all start focusing not on doing but on BEing!

Each day Elayna sets an intention, says a prayer, and creates her day by asking herself:

  1. Who do I want to help?
  2. What do I want to help them achieve?
  3. Who do I need to BE in order to do that?

Life is most fulfilling when it includes other people, so how we make others feel is extremely important.get-kids-to-smile-for-family-pictures

As Maya Angelou said “People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Most of us want people around us to feel good, to feel loved, to feel appreciated, especially when the people around us are our family members.

When our children look back on their childhoods, do we want them to say “Mom always made sure the dishes were clean right after dinner and the laundry was folded and put away” or for them to say “Mom always made me feel so loved as she took time out from whatever she was doing to listen to me and come play with me.

I will admit that I’ve been defaulting far too much lately to the to-do lists, to checking off all the homemaking duties all day long, to focusing on work when I am attempting to homeschool and raise my children, to prioritizing all the wrong things.

I don’t want my children to remember me for yelling at them to clean their room 15 times, ignoring them when they ask me to play with them or read a book, or rushing our conversations along because we have somewhere to go.  I also don’t want my husband feeling disrespected as I shoot down his ideas because they don’t mesh with my agenda items.

So, I took the time to review the items I put on my To Be list over a year ago.

Items on my “to-be” list are:

  • To be patient.
  • To be kind.
  • To be optimistic and hopeful.
  • To be honest and true.
  • To be thankful and appreciative to God.
  • To be joyous and happy.
  • To be present and engaged.
  • To be a friend.
  • To be an example of faith.
  • To be like Jesus, full of love, compassion, humility, kindness, an understanding heart, and of love unfeigned for all.

I want my family and others around me to feel loved, I need to remember that love is about whom you can BE for the people who matter most to you, and not about what you can do for them.35 Family Motto Ideas from real families! So helpful in knowing how to create a family motto is to see what others use.For my children, I can be a mom who makes them feel good about their everyday accomplishments. I can be a mom who reliable and dependable and trustworthy, keeping my word when I say we’ll go to the park, or I will play with them as soon as I am done wiping down the table. I can be a mom who is patient with them when they are struggling to try something new, instead of throwing up my hands and insisting they let me do it for them instead because we are running late. I can be a joyous and happy mom by viewing my children as God sees them.

For my husband, I can be a friend when he needs to vent and complain. I can be reliable to do the tasks he is counting on me to do as the matriarch and primary caregiver for our children. I can be present and engaged by listening to him without interrupting or browsing on my phone while doing so.

When I take the time to focus more on being the version of myself I know I can be, and the relationships I want to have, I find joy in even the mundane parts of life. While I was taking the course I had a few crazy busy days in a row with lots of “to-do’s.” But, even with the 100 things I did, I felt happy, joy, and balanced. I felt love. And it was because I focused on the “to be’s” instead of the

While I was taking the course I had a few crazy busy days in a row with lots of “to-do’s.” But, even with the 100 things I did, I felt happy, joy, and balanced. I felt love. And it was because I focused on the “to be’s” instead of the to-do’s. The To-Be’s provided me the joy in completing my to-do’s. I know God sustained and supported me over these crazy days, and I feel His love shining down on me for taking the time to connect with my children, with my husband, and with myself.

My To-Be’s provided me the joy in completing my to-do’s. I know God sustained and supported me over these crazy days, and I feel His love shining down on me for taking the time to connect with my children, with my husband, and with myself.

I know God sustained and supported me over these crazy days, and I felt His love shining down on me for taking the time to connect with my children, with my husband, and with myself.to be lists instead of to do lists

I was able to grasp the big picture among all the little things I am doing. And it wass such a wonderful feeling.

And I desire to feel that again, so to remind myself, I requested a T-Shirt from Cents of Style from their Be Series Graphic Tees  which they provided in exchange for this post.

My new Just BE tee is to remind me that my to-do lists are overrated as are my written and mental checklists if I am not working on being the type of person I really want to be remembered as.

I need to be okay with just being and not always doing. I need to let things slide off my back and be more joyful and positive. I need to really be with my children instead of distracted by work, social media, or other things to do.

I need to be. Just be. Not do.Just Be T-shirt Cents of Style Gray

Will you experiment with me and instead of creating a to-do list, intentionally, consciously, and purposely list whom you want to BE?

Elayna promised that it will expand, enlarge, and magnify your life experience and inspire others (including your kids) to do the same!

When you create your To-Be list, identify qualities, virtues, and characteristics you most want to embody.

  • Do you want to be joyful, balanced, engaged, responsive, nurturing?
  • Do you wish to be empowered, serene, and loving?
  • Do you crave feeling passionate, adventurous, and playful?

Whatever you want to be (and not feel you should be), put it in writing, and start your day not so worried about what you will do, but who you will be today. And the next day.

“Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.” Habakkuk 2:2

As much as I hate to admit it, Elayna makes a very good argument against the to-do list. And how thankful I am that she does.

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  1. Robyn Nichols says

    I just love these to be ideas.I have raised my children and now help with my granddaughters.I see things so different now and want to help my daughter learn from my mistakes.I did the best I could or knew how.But have learned to keep quiet,well most of the time,she doesn’t feel she needs my advice.
    I too am LDS and know how special it is to have children.With the girls when they begin to get to me,I step back and take a deep breath and say Thank you Heavenly Father,help me to be a good grandma.
    again thankyou for this post

    • says

      You are so welcome Robyn! I need to take more deep breaths in my life, as well as steps back. Whew. Parenting little ones is challenging, but reminding myself of who I want to BE and how I want them to remember me, makes a big difference in my attitude and approach to parenting and discipline.

  2. says

    I love the idea of a to-be list instead of to-do list. I’ve tried sometimes to limit my to-do list to just 3 items, because often that’s all I can realistically do in a day! Kind of depressing if I can get only 3 things done in a day – but I’m also keeping 6 small people alive, so there’s that…

    • says

      I mean, it’s 3 OTHER things you need to get done in that day beside the normal billion you do each day. Or that’s what I tell myself. I don’t need to write down things I’m gonna do every day regardless, so three things seems more feasible then. This week and last I’ve been trying better to prioritize the items on my list (I still can’t stop writing down the stuff) and it’s been helping me focus too.

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