I Traded To-Do Lists for “Only-Do Lists,” and Now I Can Finally Relax

published Jun 10, 2024
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I’m not someone who struggles to get going on cleaning tasks. Cluttered, dirty spaces make me uncomfortable and stressed, and my anxiety builds until I’ve had a chance to address the mess. Only then am I able to truly rest in my space. 

Because of this, I’ve developed strategies over the years so my need for a clean space to relax doesn’t usurp the time I have to rest and recharge. For example, I’ve honed my perspective that cleaning routines aren’t for telling me what to do but for telling me what I don’t have to do in the moment. 

Lately, especially as my routine has been turned on its head with my kids out of school for the summer, I’ve adapted this perspective to my to-do lists as well. With a family of seven, my list of to-dos is rarely empty. Home and family admin tasks like making doctors’ appointments, sending proof of residency papers for school, placing grocery orders, and scheduling the carpet cleaners to come out are rotating in and out of my Reminders app. 

Never being able to check off my entire list can make me feel like I’m perpetually behind, even if my to-dos aren’t past “due.” Additionally, having undone items on my list can make it hard for me to stop and recharge, which is so important for avoiding burnout — especially when the to-dos never end! 

So I’ve had to give myself parameters, lines that let me know I’ve completed everything I need to do on any given day. This way, once those items are done, I can take it easy knowing that the rest will get done reliably even if it’s not today. 

To accomplish this, I’ve begun creating a subset of my ongoing to-do list that I like to think of as my “only-do list.” This list gets populated with the tasks that need to be done today. The best part is that once they’re done, I’m done. It’s time to stop and do something that recharges me. 

Just like with my cleaning routines that tell me what I don’t have to do now that I know I’ll get to later, my only-do list is a limitation that creates freedom: freedom from all my undone responsibilities agitating me; freedom to stop once I’ve fulfilled my daily obligations; and, ultimately, freedom to relax even if my big to-do list isn’t empty. 

The concept underlying the only-do list isn’t new. Some people call it their “top priorities,” their day’s “top three,” or something related. I even see similar names printed in daily planners. While the idea is familiar, specifically calling my daily list my “only-do list” reminds me not to do anything else and to avoid working my way down the litany of everything else that’s undone. 

Staying within my “only-dos” allows me to step out of my go-go-go mode where productivity seems like my only worthwhile endeavor. My only-do list helps me be present and gives me the space in my day to enjoy the life that’s happening right in front of me.