Addicted to the to-do list: How productivity became my drug of choice

Katy Sunshine

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I don’t know how much you believe in astrology. It’s a bit tricky, to buy into predictions that are just vague enough to feel universal, to make you feel known.

But the one thing that makes me believe: a lot of my friends — and most of the people I consider similar to me — are Capricorns.

Why does that matter? Because we’re all workaholics. We are ambitious, driven, determined, with tunnel vision and a tendency to obsess over minute details.

I’ve always been that way, running businesses for as long as I can remember. From selling purses made of scraps to being a lemonade entrepreneur (it started at a young age!), the grind has been constant. As a social media influencer, I had to be razor-sharp about my goals and how to get there. Work ethic is my number one trait and priority.

I have approximately five to-do lists going at once, one for each sector of my life. I’m constantly thinking of new categories and new items to go underneath them. And I’ve got myself tricked into this idea that if only I buckle down and grind hard enough, eventually I will get everything done. I’m constantly working towards this magical day when my to-do list is empty, and I can finally breathe. I can finally go enjoy my life.

But here’s the problem: the to-do list is never done. As soon as I cross off one item, I’ll think of five more. And it’s easy to get attached to the slash marks, to the addictive rush of crossing an item off the list. It’s like heroin.

Eventually I was trying so hard, running around frantically trying to accomplish as many things as possible as quickly as possible. Then at the end of the day, still feeling overwhelmed by the amount of items staring back at me from the never ending list. My life was revolving around how much I got done on my list, yet regardless if I had accomplished 2 things or 20 things, I was still never satisfied.

Society especially promotes this constant productivity and accomplishment. We worship billionaires (and hyper-capitalist ideas) for the pursuit of that feeling. We follow success quote pages encouraging eighty hour work weeks as the standard for entrepreneurship. We focus on getting to the end goal as quickly as possible rather than enjoying the process.

Everyone wants to hear a rags to riches story but only after you’ve achieved the “riches.” We aim to convert all of our emotion — all of our natural human experience — into something we can sell or use, without honoring it simply for what it is. There’s a quote I love about this actually, an example that perfectly captures the struggle:



“It always seems both horrifying and perfectly natural that whenever I write something personal about suicidal thinking or hating and wanting to hurt myself, as soon as I feel the slightest bit better, I turn around and start working on turning that suffering into poetry or fiction that I can share/sell to others. But I guess this is another thing that capitalism does – I can’t even feel something without worrying how I can make enough to afford to feel it. Without even having to think about it, I ask myself, How can I make up for my lost productivity? How can this pain be leveraged to improve my social status? How can I turn my pain into a product?” — Jamie Berrout, from Incomplete Short Stories and Essays


Beginning the New Year, I’ve heard a lot of people ask, “what did you accomplish during 2020?” or brag about their own pursuits. For some, productivity is a coping mechanism. And if that was you during the coronavirus, props to you. But everyone handles it differently and one mode (rest vs. hyperproductivity) is not necessarily better than the other. Especially in 2020, you have accomplished so much! You’ve survived and kept afloat during a pandemic. We’re underestimating how much grit that’s taken.

If you feel the rush of checking something off the to do list, that’s nothing to be ashamed of, and you should never feel guilty for working towards your goals.

But if it’s making you miserable, or you’re missing out on other aspects of your life that you care about, I encourage you to consider what you’re working for.

Are you working because it’s a habit?
Are you working because you genuinely believe it will help you reach a threshold in which you can better use your time and energy?

Knowing the ‘why’ will help keep you from burning out. If you’re working for the process rather than the end result of a cross-out on a to-do list, you’ll probably be a lot happier. And if you’re putting in the hours to reach a big long term goal that you believe will transform your life, you can impose restrictions that give you balance. And you can properly evaluate whether it’s actually giving you the life you want.

Instead of “one hour every day trying a new recipe,” try substituting “think about a new recipe every day.” That way, if you know that you don’t have the bandwidth, or you’ve been offered an opportunity that looks like more fun, you can cross it off your to do list. You thought about it. You reaffirmed your commitment. And you have the flexibility to decide whether it’s a task for today or not.

Celebrate the small wins. Crossed out one? Great. You don’t have to worry about the twenty others. Did nothing? Great. You rested and those days are so important. My life revolved around my to-do list — not even the content of them! — for way too long. No matter what, I assure you that you are loved and valued no matter what you accomplish. That mentality is easier said than done, however.

Remember the power of now. Not to be cheesy, but life is confusing and unpredictable (like 2020 has so aptly displayed!) so you should make sure that your lifestyle aligns with the trajectory of how you want to live, not only working constantly for “one day.” Being passionate about my job, and where I am, has illustrated that truth to me more than anything else. It’s truly possible to have what you want, although that by no means ensures that life will be perfect.

After all, the way you spend your day is the way you spend your life.

For more about how to achieve the ultimate life-work balance, and to make the most of your wellness in all ways, stay tuned for upcoming posts. I deeply value sharing what I’ve learned with you, and hope it can be helpful.

Sound familiar? Drop a comment below.

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

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I write about mental health, holistic living, and how to find joy and meaning in your life.

Honolulu, HI
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