Do The Last Thing on Your To Do List

Mathematically, it’s an easy equation: the joy you get from getting the To Do task off your list is huge. Even more mind-boggling for the greatest Nobel-prize-winning minds: it often doesn’t take much to get it done. So why doesn’t 1 plus 1 equal 2? Why do we let those tasks linger unfinished (un-started even)? They might bug us every single day, maybe even a few times per day. But yet, we do nothing. Nothing more than wonder why we don’t do them. Or worse, get frustrated with ourselves that we’re not doing them. The solution seems, no, it is so simple: just do the task. Be done with it. But we still don’t do it. What is the mental block?

Accountability

Part of it is often the lack of accountability. If no one knows what we’re supposed to be doing, then probabilities are high that no one will know we haven’t done them. The more people who know, the harder it is to avoid it–that is, if those who know are people whose opinions you respect. I suppose if you told the bank teller that you’re going to quit smoking and then you see the same bank teller in a month and you hadn’t quit smoking you could: (1) go to a different teller, (2) stalk her hours and go another time or (3) tell the teller you didn’t quit. This is why people tell their friends they’re going on a diet or quitting smoking … or it’s why they don’t tell their friends.

But shouldn’t we be strong enough to not need accountability from someone else, but shouldn’t it be enough to be accountable for ourselves? I guess that’s where it comes down to character and inner strength and who you are.

Those Empty Window Frames Downstairs …

The worst (and simultaneously best) part of all this is when you do finally do the task, the reward is almost incomprehensible. Two days ago I ordered greeting cards for the upcoming holiday. I’m not sure what hit me, but I have an inkling. I ordered poster-size prints of 4 photos. It took maybe 15 minutes to find photos that were high enough resolution and, of course, nice shots that I’d want on my wall. The next day, I picked them up. The next morning, my wife and I said, “Let’s do this thing.” We spent maybe 45 minutes measuring, glass cleaning, cutting, and then taping and hanging and we were done. Maybe 2 hours for the whole shebang. These were windows that used to be the windows of my kids’ room. I didn’t know what to do with them for a few years then someone suggested I hang them on the wall and make photo frames out of them. Wonderful idea. Hmm, 3 maybe 4 years ago now we measured the wall, drilled holes, installed strong hanging screws, even a painting-quality wire hanging system to make sure we could adjust the tilt. The window frames have been waiting for photos for years. Now it’s done. Now I walk by and stop and look at them and admire our work. I actually stop and look and admire. Even just for a second. We did it.

Do we need to be challenged to get anything done?

So what happened in the past few days that was different from the past few years? I was challenged. I realize this seems to be my answer for everything lately, but it also happens to be true: I’ve just been experimenting. I’ve been going strong on my Write Every Day challenge for the past 30+ days. I’ve been drinking some form of juice for the past 300+ days. Are these now habits? Will I now do everything on my To Do list only because I think that I can do them? Because “I’ve done the math.”

Do The Math

I was a math major in university. I like math and science. I like that there are definite answers. That’s partly what I’ve been learning through experiments–also because I can’t seem to get anything done otherwise. It’s quite simple actually:

  1. Do the thing you want to do, but in bite-size chunks.
  2. Keep doing it for a while. Say, a month.
  3. See what happens.

The math is quite elementary, my 6-year old can figure it out:

1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1  = 30

If I do one task per day for 30 days, it’s possible I finish 30 tasks. It doesn’t get much simpler. What’s holding us back? Here’s what it is: it’s that big number. It’s the 30 we’re scared of. 30 is a whole lot more than 1. So take 1 at a time. Just one.

Want an added bonus for pure entertainment and (much) delayed gratification? Take the oldest, dust-covered, really annoying item from your To Do and do that. Just do that one. Then when you’re done, stand back and admire it.

4 Responses to Do The Last Thing on Your To Do List

  1. John Muldoon December 9, 2012 at 8:07 am #

    This post is awesome, and I can’t wait to see those things in person.

    The idea of doing the last thing on your list is great. It reminds me of something Tim Ferriss said at a Q&A event at Samovar.

    Someone asked him how to prioritize the huge amount of stuff on their list.

    Tim said he tries to do the thing that makes him anxious. If there is something on your list that scares you a little bit, it’s probably the thing you should do next.

    If you think about that, it makes perfect sense. We all have stuff we could do that would be game-changing for our life or business. But it’s sort of scary to do the game-changing stuff. The stakes are higher so we get nervous. We don’t want to fail at the big stuff, so most people don’t even try.

    Let’s say you have 50 things on your to-do list. If there is one item on your list that could change things for you in a big way, then tear up your list and just do that one thing.

    That’s the difference between being effective and efficient.

    Back to your original point, oftentimes the oldest thing on your list is that BIG thing, but not always.

    The key is to not let the small things keep you from doing the game-changing stuff.

    • Bradley December 10, 2012 at 10:13 am #

      This is really helpful, John. See, the hanging the window frames was on my list forever, but it was actually a really FUN thing to finally do! There are other items on my To Do list that have been there forever that are most decidedly not fun, but I’m also anxious about them (e.g. sending out overdue invoices). I know that if I just hunker down and get it off my list, it’ll be a huge weight from my shoulders.

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Replacing your windows? Here’s an idea for those old ones. « Pass the Sour Cream - December 10, 2012

    [...] idea. OK, I’ll get right on it. It must have been about four years later, but we finally did the last thing on our to do list. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  2. 100 Posts in 100 Days - January 27, 2013

    [...] examined what happened. I wrote a How To on how we plan our vacations. I hung up some photos and built a philosophy around it. I turned a third-grade assignment into an annual challenge. See where I’m going? None of [...]

Leave a Reply

More in Joy, Productivity (73 of 78 articles)
I Am, I Love, I Cry, I Worry, I Try, I Wonder, I Hope


My wife handed me my 9-year old's report card. Looks fine. Better in math than English. Good. Then I saw this large black and white photo of my son ...