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How can you face down your to-do list — and should you even try?
Steph learns why mastering your to-do list is the wrong approach
I’m the proud owner of five to-do lists. There’s the one on Google Keep that’s a running brain dump of tasks that aren’t urgent enough to find their way into my productivity diary’s to-do list, nor have been entered into my Asana to-do list for semi-urgent tasks. Then, there are my two separate inboxes, hosting their own “Need to do it” folders and “Needs a response”.
Basically, I’m addicted to to-do lists. I’m probably at the extreme end of the spectrum, but I wager that most of us have at least one to-do list that’s either wilfully ignored or the first thing you look at every morning before starting work. And, I can wager that your to-do list contributes to a feeling of working overwhelm.
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As travel writers, the very precariousness of the industry creates a whirlwind of hustling. We need to squeeze as much efficiency and productivity out of every last minute so that we can file both enough articles to meet our financial goals and pitch sufficient ideas to ensure a constant supply of future earnings, too. But, despite the evidence to the contrary, we remain confident that one day, we’ll step off this pitching-press-trip-writing-pitching treadmill and finally be able to take a breath. Financial security will be in sight and the to-do list vanquished.
But will that ever be possible? In the pursuit of procrastinating on my own to-do list, I sought out some answers to how we can find more balance in our lives in the brilliant book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. It’s authored by Oliver Burke, the writer of The Guardian’s This Column Will Change Your Life, where he sought to pursue every possible means of reaching the ultimate echelons of productivity. However, in his book, he recognises how the whole exercise left him feeling, in fact, more stressed and unable to reach the sense of calm he was sure awaited if only he could master his to-do list.
“When you’re faced with too many demands, it’s easy to assume that the only answer must be to make better use of time by becoming more efficient, driving yourself harder, or working for longer,” Burke says. However, what we should be asking, he thinks, is “whether the demands themselves might be unreasonable.”
He describes how our present sense of time as something from which we should extract as much efficiency has origins in the Industrial Revolution when it became a commodity, “something to be bought and sold and used as efficiently as possible.” But this perspective makes us forget the importance of appreciating the here and now; instead, we value every moment “according to [its] usefulness for some future goal, or some future oasis of relaxation you hope to reach once your tasks are finally ‘out of the way’.”
The crux of his book is that the perfect work-life balance is a fallacy; the only way to attain peace of mind is to recognise our mortality and our lack of control over the world and our lives. Helpfully, he also suggests some ways you can “embrace your finitude”. These include keeping one ‘open’ to-do list that covers every last task you need to do, and one ‘closed’, with just ten tasks allowed in the latter; you can only move tasks to the closed lists once you’ve ticked something off. He also suggests deciding what things you’re going to fail at, by “nominating in advance whole areas of life in which you won’t expect excellence of yourself”. There are plenty more, but I highly recommend you read the book yourself.
Burke also touches on the fact that productivity has become a measure of our self-worth, with society to blame for this maelstrom of self-destroying anxiety. It’s an argument that Anne Helen Petersen, in her 2019 article How Millennials Because the Burnout Generation, throws into clearer relief. She describes her inability to tick certain, mundane tasks off her to-do list as “errand paralysis”: they are “high-effort, low-reward tasks, and they paralyze me”. She argues that millennials in particular are experiencing the “millennial condition” of burnout. The cause? “I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time…because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly.”
Petersen’s argument is that economic conditions have forced us to continually optimise ourselves in order to meet the demands of increasingly efficient, profit-turning companies, while the influence of social media has placed us under further pressure. Couple this with precarious — or non-existent — financial security (a fact of life for us freelance travel writers experiencing stagnant rates and the increasing difficulty of landing pitches at a declining number of publications) and it’s no wonder we’re all burned out.
While she’s writing from a US perspective, a lot of it rings true. She concludes with the fact that there are no solutions to burnout: they’re an inevitable symptom of a patriarchal, capitalist system. In lieu of overthrowing this system, the only option is being kind to yourself — and recognising that seeking to live life, rather than squeeze every last minute of productivity from it, is a means of coming to terms with this.
This idea dovetails with the concept of being present, a proposition that far predates any even vague notion of productivity: Chinese Taoist and Indian Buddhist monks have been practising it for thousands of years. While meditation is never going to dismantle the power structures that are making us feel exhausted, connecting with life right here at this very moment in time remains, in my experience, a crucial way of retaining your sanity.
If meditation isn’t your bag — although I would highly recommend a trial subscription for Headspace to find out — there are other ways to be more present. Even just a walk where you pause to concentrate on the sights and smells around you or spending an evening with loved ones where you leave your phone at the door and refuse to be consumed by the distraction of modern technology — all can bring a sense of grounding.
This is one place where self-care, boundary-setting and recognising your own right to downtime can have an impact, Dr Audrey Tang, a chartered member of the British Psychology Society, says. “I switch off my notifications…at night,” because, “there is something in me that says, well, if somebody is demanding my attention and time at one o'clock in the morning, how much do I really need that particular job?”
Scheduling time to practice self-care is also a good way to ensure you do it, whether it’s blocking out time in your calendar to have lunch away from your desk, take a walk or meet a friend. “You're the freelancer, you're the one in charge of that diary,” she points out. “And we need to remember that self-care can be about re-energising as well as relaxing.” Finding activities that boost your energy, whether through the intellectual stimulation of reading a book or learning something new or embarking on a new hobby, “can be just as beneficial to us. Giving ourselves a recharge is as beneficial as relaxing.”
It’s a strong argument for why us travel writers should go on holidays, not just press trips. Research by IPSE, a non-profit association dedicated to the self-employed, shows that the average freelancer takes just 24 days of holiday each year, which is four less than mandated for employees. My Very Scientific poll on Twitter showed that 34% of the 161 respondents had not taken a real holiday — a non-comped trip about which they had no intention to write — in the past twelve months.
I also asked on Twitter how freelancers find ways to switch off and was inundated with replies. From joking recommendations to have a baby to force you to take time off to a ‘closing the office’ ritual at the end of the day, and being aware of your body and brains’ natural rhythms whereby you stop work when your creativity is all out, they make for some useful suggestions if you’re battling your to-do list or simply struggling to turn off your working brain at the end of the day.
A key way of managing our boundaries and the feeling of overwhelm also comes down to the types of assignments we take on. Sian-Meades-Williams, whose weekly Freelance Writing Jobs is a great place to find commissions that excite you is driven by this philosophy: “I’m really careful about where I direct my energy now. I do much less, but I’m so focussed on the things I care about and what makes me happy. I'm lucky I can afford to choose.” Tang also thinks this is a vital part of staving off burnout and supporting our mental health. “I have a little label in my email box called ‘Not today, Satan’,” she says, where she puts potential clients who “even if they're going to pay me…either their values don't align with mine, or they're really unreliable.”
She thinks that aligning work with our values is critical to our well-being, pointing out how we should choose who we work with not only on how they fit with our values but by asking: is the work in “meaningful alignment with my life goals?” and “does it play to my strengths?”
This can be challenging in our industry, where it’s hard not to submit to the FOMO (fear of missing out) with which we’re continually confronted in our industry. My Twitter feed is an unending stream of photos of other travel journalists on glitzy press trips or sharing features published by the world’s largest travel media. But facing down comparisonitis is possible — it just requires self-compassion. Whereas “we tend to have been brought up on self-esteem…[which] focuses on praise and validation from other people,” self-compassion is much more about celebrating your own achievements, Dr Tang explains. Self-compassion is “nothing to do with other people; you're proud of what you are doing yourself. It's a very subtle difference.”
We ultimately might have little impact on challenging the systems in which we operate, but we can modify the ways we respond to them. So go read through your favourite writing clips and tell yourself how brilliant you are; lounge in the sunshine with a book; take your kids on a bike ride; and plan that holiday you’ve been putting off. Relax, re-energise and implement boundaries in your life; life is finite, something to be treasured and lived, after all.
And for Lottie and I, it would be churlish of us not to follow our own advice. We’re taking June off from publishing this newsletter and all subscriptions will be paused, so you won’t be paying for our hiatus. Don’t worry: we’ll be back with renewed vigour in July.
This an extra free newsletter to say thanks to our subscribers and celebrate there being five Tuesdays in May! We’d love for you to share this newsletter far and wide with other writers who you think might find it helpful — and then go do something fun.