Todo lists causing your stress? Try this out

The most dangerous of all behaviors may consist of doing things “because we are supposed to” — Marshall Rosenburg

I’m sure all of us would like to reduce stress in our lives. Often a cause of stress is the endless todo lists we have at work and at home. Sometimes they are on pieces of paper, in various productivity applications, tagged for follow-up in email and sometimes most insidious of all, just bouncing around inside our head. One of the most stressful words in all of this is ‘should’. We should spend more time with kids, we should lose weight, we should produce that report at work, we should connect with our friends more often. The list goes on. That one word creates a sense of nagging obligations that just won’t go away. Let’s look at how to change our mindset by removing ‘should’ from our lives replacing it with words that will reduce stress, and make us more productive as described in the book NonViolent Communication: A Language for Life by Marshall Rosenburg.

In his book, Rosenburg suggests replacing ‘should’ (he actually uses “have to” not ‘should’) with “choose to…because”. Let’s pick an example of how this might sound. Instead of “I should lose weight” it would be “I choose to lose weight because I want to have more energy through the day”. There are two things happening here that make this a powerful change in language.

The first is introducing choice. When we choose to do something rather than feeling obligated our mindset changes and we are much better able to follow through. Mark Muraven explains in Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, “ When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons-if they feel like it’s a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else-it’s much less taxing. If they feel like they have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster.”

The second key in the approach is when we add ‘because’ it forces us to understand the ‘why’. Be exploring the why we may discover we actually aren’t fully committed to the activity. In fact, it might have us remove it from our todo list. Simon Sinek explores the importance of the why both in his book Start with Why and in his TED Talk. As humans, being emotionally engaged and tying into our belief system is a strong motivator. That’s what understanding the why does. Rosenburg says to avoid the why for any of these reasons: money, approval, escape punishment, avoid shame and avoid guilt or to satisfy a sense of duty. These lead to extrinsic not intrinsic motivations. To stay aligned with our own beliefs and values, it should be an intrinsic motivation.

Ok, want to give it a try? Dig out one of your todo lists or get the items bouncing around your head down on a piece of paper. List any activity you dread but do anyway because you feel you have no choice. For each item, insert the words “I choose to…”. Get in touch with the intention behind your choice. Finish the other portion of the phrase with “…because…”. Let me list another example, this time a personal one. “I choose to write blog articles because I hope I can help others through insights that have helped me.” You might find some things be taken off the list, others you must find some new found motivation.

Going through the exercise hopefully clarifies for you what is most important, understanding that it is a choice and why you are doing it. With that some of the noise and stress of todo lists should start to fade.

Originally published at




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Craig McQueen

Craig McQueen

Lifelong exploration and teaching of Leadership, Technology and Finance.

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