Q. I can't get anything done without making a list. I have to-do lists for short-term goals (do the laundry), long-term goals (get an M.F.A.), and beyond. But these lists have taken over my life. I feel trapped by them, and yet I can't let them go. Any advice?
--Amy B., Boulder, Colorado
A. It sounds as if you're stuck in a constant state of what I like to call "when-then": "When I finish the laundry, then I'll read a novel and relax," or "When I get my M.F.A., then I'll create meaningful art." It's a common but deadly trap in which we use to-do lists to put off the present and focus, instead, on the future -- either waiting for it to begin or hurrying to get there.
Think of your lists as tools by which you learn to live each moment. Start by disciplining yourself to write down only those things you can physically accomplish in a day. An overly ambitious litany that you can't possibly complete will only lead to notions of failure -- "If I had just tried a bit harder or moved a little faster" -- and, ultimately, even more lists.
Next, cast a more realistic eye on the things you have to do. Resist the urge to tack huge tasks ("make a will"; "tile the bathroom") on to an already overbooked afternoon under the misguided notion that "if you have time," you'll get them done. You won't. Instead, jot them down on your next open day on the calendar. By setting up a realistic schedule, you'll find you don't have to prod and poke your life along every minute. You can trust it to unfold naturally.
Last, be realistic about what constitutes a to-do. "Get an M.F.A." doesn't qualify, as it's a huge project that requires numerous steps. Break down larger tasks to a series of distinct actions you can accomplish easily. Instead of "paint living room," for instance, write down "gather paint swatches." On subsequent days, tackle "select sample colors" or "test paint on wall." In this way, your to-do lists fulfill their essential role: to serve as encouragement and inspiring reminders of your talents and the things you'd like to accomplish in the world.
Author, creative catalyst, and coach Jennifer Louden leads retreats around the United States. She has written six books about creating a life you love, including her newest, "The Life Organizer." You can learn more at lifeorganizerbook.com