My To-Do List Made Me Feel Like I Failure. Here’s What I Do Instead.


I once was a fan of to-do lists. They helped keep my chaotic thoughts organized into specific tasks, and the sense of accomplishment when I crossed something off felt invigorating. But as the responsibilities pilled on, they became overwhelming. It was so much easier to add to the list than to cross things off.

I tried to start with something easy.

Make dinner. But wait… we need food to make dinner. Go grocery shopping. But wait… we need to decide what’s for dinner. Look up recipes. The doctor said I should reduce sodium, and my jeans say I should replace junk food with vegetables. Look up healthy recipes. But wait… there are also 14.6 errands to run between now and dinner. Look up quick, healthy recipes. Then buy food. Then go to the post office, the car repair shop, the bank, the gas station, and the pharmacy, before coming home to make dinner.

Will I have time to buy less judgmental jeans in between? I suppose I should take the car in first, and then walk across the street to the post office. Where is that coupon for the repairs that I got in the mail? Was that for the location by the post office? Which medications does my husband need again? Did his doctor put in the order?

Hold up… I never figured out what to make for dinner. How can I not even manage to do the simplest task on the list? Probably the same reason that I can’t ever keep my house clean. I can’t organize my thoughts, I can’t organize my house, heck, I can’t even organize this list! My handwriting is terrible, too. My fridge is empty, my gas tank is empty, and too often, my life runs on empty. My hair’s a mess, my kitchen’s a mess, and my life is the messiest of all.

This is the problem that I have with to-do lists. They like to tell me all the things I haven’t done.

I sometimes make lists on my phone, and those are even worse. When I complete a task, I can completely erase it from my list, as if it was never there. Only the things that I haven’t done remain.

The things that I haven’t done make me feel like a failure. I start to gauge my worth based on my success with the to-do list. But it’s an unfair game from the start, because I know I can always add more things to it, and I will hardly notice the things that I erase.

So I’ve decided to abandon the to-do list.

Sure, I will still write down a few reminders now and then so that I don’t forget things. But I am shifting my focus.

I am making a “Have Done” list.

This list won’t have space for things that I haven’t accomplished. This list will only remind me of my successes. This list will include items ranging from “cleaned the bathrooms” to “got out of bed,” depending on the day. I will highlight more than just tasks, recognizing the intangibles of love, kindness, and compassion. I can write “laughed with my husband,” “smiled at a neighbor,” or “tucked my kid into bed.” This list will build me up instead of tear me down. This list will be proud of me and fight the self-doubt.

This list will tell me that I am doing more than I realize.

This list will tell me that I do measure up.

This list will tell me that I am enough.

My “Have Done” list will always be my friend. It will focus on the positives, reminding me of my strengths, my valiant efforts, and my successes- both big and small. It won’t care about the things that I wasn’t able to get done today. It will tell me that each day I am doing something meaningful. Each day, I took some action to make a difference- whether it improved the world, my community, my family, or myself.

Each day, I can find a reason to be proud of myself.

Each day, I will give myself positive feedback, which will motivate me to move forward.

Each day, I will be kind to myself instead of being my own harshest critic.

I’m turning the to-do list inside out. From now on, my only “to-do” will be to focus on what I have done.



Julieann Selden is a graduate student, mom, and non-profit volunteer. On her blog,, she gives a unique life perspective as she explores the thoughts and emotions that come from facing her husband’s cancer diagnosis.







  1. Years ago, while I was a busy mother of two young boys, my husband habitually asked me what I did all day. I was busy every second of the day, but I really couldn’t tell him what I had done….and I felt like I’d really accomplished so little, besides taking care of the boys. So, one day, in order to answer his question, I made an “Is-Done” list, listing every load of laundry, every story book read, every small task completed, one after another as I went about my day. By the time he came home, I was genuinely shocked at how much I’d accomplished. And so was he!
    Ever since then, every time I feel low or overwhelmed by the burdens of the day, I chuck my to-do list and make an “Is-Done” list instead.


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