The Importance of Including Down Time in your To-Do List

By Lindsey Antin, MA, MFT

The to-do list is a constant companion of busy students, working parents, and everyone in between. Have you ever noticed how it never really goes away?

You cross out the last thing on your list on the best of days and think of something to add an hour later. If you’re lucky, your to-do list is a productive tool that alleviates stress and tackles problems. But the to-do list can also hold you hostage, doomed to revisit items every day that you’d rather avoid.

For the best approach to all you have to get done, learn how to make your to-do list more effective—and how to train yourself to be more productive by doing nothing at all.

The other day, I was talking with a friend who is also self-employed, and recently back to work after the birth of her second child. We were trading the pleasures of parenthood and updates to our businesses, all while trying to figure out how to keep up hobbies, household duties, and personal endeavors. She said to me, “It just never stops.” Without much thought, I replied, “Since it never stops, we’ve got to stop!” We agreed to step away at some point that day from our email and calendars, leave the dishes in the sink and toys on the floor, and just read a book for 15 minutes.

While this isn’t too ambitious, it takes a decidedly different mind-set to choose to press “pause.” It’s one thing to try to figure out when we can get to the grocery store or make time to exercise. But deliberately deciding to sit and do something that doesn’t involve checking off our usual boxes is unusual. Many of us value a work ethic, but then also complain we have no time to stop and smell the roses. Some people discover this about themselves while trying to incorporate a simple meditation or self-care practice; figuring out 10 minutes to set aside to just sit or relax can be incredibly difficult.

So how can we make our to-do lists work for us and still take the breaks we need?

As a first step, it’s good to acknowledge the reality of the never-ending to-do list. While we should feel good about accomplishing things—and I recommend taking 10 seconds every time we check something off to pat ourselves on the back, literally or figuratively—we can also laugh about how something else will get added on soon. In changing our concept of the to-do list to be one of a tool that stores ideas and actions, we can see it as a valuable ally and not a formidable foe.

Your dishwasher is a useful tool to get a task done, but it doesn’t mean you won’t have to load it and unload it again. It does allow you to set it and forget it, though—you know where the dishes will go, that they’ll get cleaned, and then they’ll be used again. A to-do list should operate similarly—as a tool that gets a nagging idea out of your brain to somewhere it will get done. It is not a destination you’re hoping to reach.

Once you’ve come to see your to-do list as a companion to help you, make some changes to make it more useful. A to-do list, according to David Allen and his excellent program Getting Things Done, is an action plan. Allen advises breaking tasks down so that only the “next action” regarding something makes it to your to-do list. Then, when you scan it for something to complete, it feels (and is) easier to accomplish.

For example, if you have “Research doctor for knee surgery” on your list, because it’s so broad you might develop overwhelm or an aversion to that task and bypass it every time you see it. However, if you have “Ask my coworker who performed her knee surgery and if she recommends him or her,” that is much easier to accomplish as a first step. Try to be specific when you add something to your to-do list.

If you think taking a break makes it less likely you’ll get things done that need getting done, think again. There’s ample research to suggest taking frequent breaks actually increases a person’s productivity.

So what of the times when you’re taking care of business, going through the cycles as usual, but realize it’s been days or weeks since you read a magazine or made a cup of tea to watch the rain?

There is no magical switch you can flip. I recommend experimenting with going to the place in your home or office which has the fewest triggers for activity. Don’t sit at your kitchen island, facing a bunch of dishes, and try to read a magazine. Similarly, if you’re taking a break at work to do some fun Internet surfing, quit your email program and put on some headphones (if possible) so notifications and office noise don’t distract you. Choose a location that will develop a “down time” association with it—a specific armchair or spot in the break room can become its own kind of welcome siren call to press pause. Just as we (hopefully) have a strong association to sleep with our beds or a feeling of hunger and happiness when we enter a favorite restaurant, certain locations or times of day can cue us to take a break.

If you think taking a break makes it less likely you’ll get things done that need getting done, think again. There’s ample research to suggest taking frequent breaks actually increases a person’s productivity.

For those of you who are especially reluctant to stop working on your to-do lists to sleep, play, or daydream, set up post-it notes or reminders that you can accomplish more—with less stress—by allowing your brain and body to rest. Look no further than a young child who is refreshed by nap time, free play outdoors, or who naturally stares out the window at mealtimes. Structured activity is necessary to grow and learn, and unstructured time is just as important.

Sending you all wishes for a better relationship with your to-do lists, and time this season to stare out a window for 10 minutes a day.