Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Michelle Rapkin: The Endless To-Do List and Priorities

Like many of you, I have been chronically overwhelmed lately, and am in the process of trying to come up with a better system for my to-do list. I rely on friends and mentors to guide me, and one bright friend, Michelle Rapkin, has especially wise words to share, so I asked her to write them down for you all, to read, too.
One of my favorite jobs ever was the waitressing gig I had in high school. Sure, it was great to scoop up dollar bills after a customer left; but the best part was that when my shift was over, it was completely done. No “to do” list waiting for me the next day. I could go home, get out of that awful white uniform and orthopedic white shoes and get on with my life. My list of tasks for the day was completely done.
I also love to iron. Because of the magic of it all. The process is elegant: wrinkle, no wrinkle; wrinkle, no wrinkle. It works like a charm every time, and for me it defines ‘instant gratification’.
So what does all this have to do with priorities? The answer has to do with clean slates.
First, most of the time your list of priorities never goes away. No clean slate. One task is barely finished when another takes it’s place…if you’re lucky. These days, by the time I’ve crossed one task off my list, two more have taken it’s place. Blame e-mail, reduced work forces or FedEx, the result is the same. At the end of the day, my list of priorities is usually much bigger than it was that morning, despite my constant efforts. Sound familiar?
After too many years of exploding priorities, one day I had an epiphany. It was so simple and foolproof that I couldn’t believe I’d never read it in a “get it done” self-help book.
Here is it: there is no top priority without a bottom priority. Yep, that’s it.


Let’s face it: in this day of instant messaging and e-mail that’s attached at the hip, it’s virtually impossible to get everything done. Something has to go. And you have two choices: you can make your list willy-nilly and plow through (some of) it, or you can prioritize. Because something isn’t going to get done. In fact, maybe a few somethings aren’t going to get done.
Do you want those things to be the ones that won’t go away, that will get worse the longer they wait? Or do you want to walk into your day knowing that while you may not be able to please everyone, you will be able to accomplish the most important things. While somebody is going to be annoyed that you didn’t do that favor for them (by their deadline), chances are your boss, or – more important, you – can end your day knowing that you finished things that were high on your list.
Just think, you can actually go to sleep feeling a sense of achievement rather than guilt!
Speaking of guilt, there’s another big bonus in this for you: slowly, or maybe quickly, you’ll begin to lose the guilt. Will everybody like you? Probably not. Will the people who are most important to you like you? Absolutely.
Please remember: there is no top priority without a bottom priority. This is true in the office, at home and in your relationships.
Try it; you’ll like it.


Click here to subscribe to Beyond Blue and click here to follow Therese on Twitter and click here to join Group Beyond Blue, a depression support group. Now stop clicking.

  • Lacey

    Try reading Steven Covey’s 7 Habits for Highly Effective People in which discusses the same theme. Franklin Covey planners offer a planning system that embraces the concepts in Steven Covey’s books. It’s worth the investment.

  • james

    This idea is an epiphany for me too. I normally have 100+ items on my to do list. From now on, whenever I finish and delete a top priority task I will also delete and completely forget about a bottom priority one. I just checked my number 5’s and lots of them are expendable. Double the sense of achievement!

  • Richard

    Therese, I have a nightmare type memory of an event from several years back. My boss called from out of town to give me a top priority project. During the course of the conversation I mentioned other projects in my queue. There was the briefest moment of silence and then in absolute seriousness he exclaimed that *everything* I was working on was a top priority. It was a moment where you can laugh or cry and both are appropriate. If everything is rated number one, that is the same as having them rated number nine-hundred-ninety-nine. It was a long miserable experience, more than enough to help jump start my depression.
    I am so thankful that I am no longer there.

  • Mike Leach

    Wisdom from Michelle Rapkin, one of the best editors who ever lived. Thanks, Therese.

  • Curiosity

    That picture feels SO much like my life right now.

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