It doesn't matter if you use an app, old school pen and paper or miraculous mental accounting. Your to-do list probably is the length of a marathon, plus a walk around the block for giggles.

But as we ought to know by now, just because something is normal doesn't mean it's that great for us. And having a massive to-do list actually can backfire if you want to feel joyful and as though you're getting anywhere.

The dark side of the list

On the one hand, we know from neuroscience that the brain releases dopamine--a feel good hormone linked to both motivation and happiness--in anticipation of reward. And so, if you have something to look forward to after you finish a to-do list item, even if it's just being able to cross the item off the list, you'll feel better and be more likely to keep going.

But the trouble is, most of us actually don't prioritize all that well. We make our to-do list based on three things, namely

  • An ideal of what we'd like to finish barring no complicating factors (including personal errors),
  • The standard we feel pressured to hold to compete, prove our worth and earn stability and inclusion, and
  • What we are exposed and feel we must react to (e.g., incoming email).

So then what happens?

Do you cross some items off your list? Sure. But at the end of the day, you still have a list of things that didn't get done. And for a lot of people, those items are psychological tar. They blacken or even erase all the feelings of accomplishment you try to build up and make you feel like you're behind.

Like you'll never finish.

Like it's hopeless.

Depression, anxiety and insomnia all become familiar bedfellows.

How to cut the fluff and finally feel good enough

The solution to the above issue is to tighten up the to-do list. How many items you'll tolerate ultimately is a personal decision, but tons of people swear by the three-item rule. And lots of talented, successful people combine the three-item rule with a habit of writing down those top priorities before they hit the hay for the night. Sharon Hurley Hall identifies a handful of benefits of limiting tasks and noting them before bed, including

  • Goal clarity
  • Mental relaxation and better sleep due to transferring task from mind to paper
  • Greater efficiency and effectiveness due to better rest
  • A greater sense of purpose
  • Reduced tendency to procrastinate
  • Improved ease deciding what to do first

So it's not rocket science. But to tighten up the to-do list, you have to look all kinds of internal and social rules and biases in the face. You have to tell yourself that doing less really is more, that you're not going to risk everything just by saying no, and that what you need to do genuinely can take precedence over what other people want without a loss of respect.

That. Is. Hard.

To start, connect with history. Learn and remind yourself how our culture has grown more demanding over time. If you can understand right down to race and economics how our systems fuel burnout, you'll be less likely to put all the blame of deficiency on your own shoulders. You'll have clearer reasons to create a new, better norm by modeling different behavior for others.

Second, self-assess and get feedback. While you should of course work on your weaknesses, knowing your strengths and reflecting on them lets you positively define yourself in terms of what you bring to the world, not how many boxes you've been able to check. It contributes to a healthy sense of identity essential for feeling courageous and competent, both of which tie back to setting and tackling priorities.

Third, reframe. A short to-do list isn't about all the things you suddenly can't accomplish. It's about having just a few truly meaningful things that you're saying yes to. These are the things that really can make a difference and propel you forward. Ask yourself every time you write your list if the item you're inking is something you can be proud of and crow about later. If it isn't, it's probably not worth your time.

As a last nugget of advice, remember the neuroscience rule about the brain releasing dopamine. Anticipation is a good thing for continued joy, and you probably will see the tasks that take more time as being more valuable. Both these elements can have a positive influence on how much dopamine you squeeze out. And if the task ends up being more fulfilling or fruitful than you originally thought it would, your brain will take that into account and learn to release dopamine more easily for it in the future.

All this said, there's only one question left to ask.

What are your three things?

Published on: May 2, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.