Why You Need to Rethink Your To-Do List for Life in the Pandemic

May 12, 2020 | Dealing with COVID-19 | 0 comments

Photo by Shahadat Rahman on Unsplash

Crises make you reevaluate your life. One thing I’ve learned from the Covid-19 pandemic is how out of whack my expectations of myself tend to be.

In the first weeks of the pandemic, I pushed hard to get things done. My paid work had slowed down to a trickle, but I felt driven to be productive anyway. With essential workers risking their lives, it felt unacceptable to be couch surfing. I expected to get lots done and unknowingly set up this win-lose proposition: finish every task you’ve wanted to do and more or you’ve lost.

For the first few days of this productivity sprint I was going strong. Then the quicksand set in. My mind drifted off. I made simple mistakes, forgot where I was in a project and had to start over. I sent emails without attachments. I got more and more frustrated and got less and less done. “What’s wrong with me?” I lamented to friends.

For most of my adult life I have relied heavily on my to-do list to keep the overwhelm of life at bay. Making a list is a great tool for remembering tasks that might otherwise slip, like making my son’s annual well visit appointment in time for summer sports and camp season. And the feeling of accomplishment, even if just returning a phone call, has been a hit that reinforced forward motion.

The pandemic has revealed that the effectiveness of my list is conditional. It doesn’t work well when I’m not at 100 percent, because—though residency training and my innate personality would deny it—I am not a machine. There have always been downsides to my to-do list: disappointment and stress that I accomplished so little of what I expected, denial of the reality that every day there are more items for the list, forgetting that life is about more than finishing tasks.

The pandemic forced me to take a hard look at my relationship with my to-do list and more broadly with my expectations of myself. I talked it through with friends and my coach. I imagined what a new approach might look like. A friend shared some wisdom that really resonated. She said, “Having time does not equal having capacity.” Here’s what came home to me: 1) I am not a machine 2) The emotional drain of the pandemic limits my ability to get things done 3) It is magical thinking and just plain mean to myself to continue acting as if I’m at my best.

I now begin my day with a brief pause to remind myself that I am human and to create a kinder, shorter, more realistic list of tasks for the day. I build in some time for joy—Saturday it was a videocall with a dear friend from college, yesterday it was 20 minutes watching dance videos on YouTube.

I’m finding that when I really embrace a compassionate plan for the day, everything seems to go better. I’m more efficient. I have more energy. I am less irritated with myself (and therefore less irritable with others). I’m more content. My attachment to pushing myself hard, and unrealistically, is old. It’s not going to change overnight. But reminding myself daily that I am human seems to be a good place to start—and perhaps an especially valuable lesson in these uncertain times.

Photo credit: Shahadat Rahman on Unsplash


Diane W. Shannon


Diane Shannon is an award-winning writer, author, and coach. Since leaving practice as a primary care physician due to burnout, she has worked to support physicians in achieving their personal and professional goals and to highlight the changes needed to reduce burnout, improve career satisfaction, and protect the bidirectional healing power of the patient-physician relationship.

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