You don’t need a to-do list

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” -Annie Dillard


Do you keep a to-do list? I suggest that you replace it with this:

Step one: Throw away your to-do list.


Once I heard a doctor say that the people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness are the people who live their lives to the fullest. I guess that makes sense, I mean, if you were suddenly told today that you were going to die soon, wouldn’t you also start living as if today were your last, and just cut to the most important thing that you had wanted to do to make a difference, whatever that may be?

I say that we abolish these to-do and bucket lists completely because frankly, if you need to keep a list in order to remember the things you want or have to accomplish, those things must not be all that important. When is the last time you forgot something that is really important to you? Never. If you forgot, then trust me, it wasn’t that important. So let’s not confuse what’s important versus what all of the world’s marketing gurus have convinced us are important when they actually aren’t. Those are just distractions, and they do not deserve a place on your to-do list. Plus, keeping a list of things that you may or not get to do someday equates to spending a significant part of your limited time and energy on imagining some vague future all the while forgetting to make most out of the only moment that you have been guaranteed, which is this moment right now. Your focus and attention would propel you much further if they are spent on your actions today rather than on some fantasy of tomorrow. And perhaps ironically, focusing on today will actually give you a better tomorrow, because every day of your life is significantly shaped by what you have accumulated in all of the “today’s” that came before. So if something is REALLY important and you have the urge to put it on some to-do list with the hopes of getting to it, don’t even bother writing it down, and just take care of it today instead.

I also challenge the notion that there is a correlation between life’s satisfaction and the quantity of things you get to do. There are many wonderfully content people whose lives are centered around just one thing that is important to them. Even though that one thing can morph over time and that is only natural for anybody seeking growth, it’s still one thing at a time. The rest of life is fluff; stuff that will take care of themselves if you focus on your one thing.

This may not just be general life advice; it might even apply to more specific endeavors, such as your art or your work. Success and satisfaction come from not letting the small things get in their way of what’s actually important, so we can all start by figuring out what that thing is. And we surely don’t need a list to remember it, because after all, it’s only one thing. The challenge is not in remembering it, but sticking with it despite all of life’s distractions that constantly surround us.

Published by

Shin Adachi

I am a pianist and composer based in Los Angeles.