All the tricks that are supposed to make your to-do list easier to handle — like tackling the worst things first, drawing your tasks instead of writing them, or even making it a public document — still don’t do much to mask its fundamental unpleasantness: A to-do list is, quite simply, a collection of stuff that you don’t want to do, but have to do anyway. Sure, it keeps you on task, but starting each morning staring down a page full of onerous tasks is also one easy way to start hating your job.
But as psychologist Art Markman, a professor at the University of Texas, recently wrote in Fast Company, maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. After all, the to-do list is a tool — it works for you, not the other way around. So why not use it in a way that doesn’t fill you with dread, and maybe even makes you a little bit happier?
The problem with the typical to-do list, Markman writes, is that it reduces your job to its most tedious parts — schedule this meeting, send this email — without leaving room for the bigger-picture items that help you find purpose in your work. “A big part of seeing your job as a calling is recognizing the significant contributions you make over the days, weeks, and months that make up your career,” he explains. However, “We frame our most important goals abstractly. So while you might really want to get promoted, finish a big project, or improve the lives of customers, these broad objectives rarely make it onto your to-do list because it isn’t always clear what specific actions are required to make them happen.”
This is a problem with an easy fix: Just add in those larger, more long-term goals, broken into bite-sized, achievable pieces. That way, “when you look at the list, you’ll recognize several items each week that relate to your core goals, which can help put the more boring tasks into perspective,” he writes. “That gives you a daily reminder that your job is more than just a sequence of small, boring, urgent duties to execute — because you’ve planned it to be.” It’s another form of job crafting, or making the job you have into a job you love: If your day is already broken up into a series of small obligations, you may as well inject meaning into as many as you can.