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Marching Band

It can be hard to move beyond familiar cadences.

Arriving on K-State’s campus for class every Thursday I’m greeted by the sounds of the K-State marching band. A familiar cadence — rhythmic beats matching a steady tempo.

Predictable. Much like the amount of items on my to-do list.

‘Tis the season, right?

I love to-do lists. Truly I do. Each day begins with the same routine of outlining the items I feel compelled to complete. Sometimes I’ll even add things I’ve already completed just for the satisfaction of crossing them off.

I didn’t realize until recently these lists are a problem for me, and not one to easily overcome.

This list-defining life could easily get in the way of meaningful work yearning for attention, closing me off from opportunities to exercise leadership.

Here’s how:

First, technical tasks are prime for lists. Technical items still must be done — bills paid, emails sent, presents purchased and wrapped, food prepared and parties planned. The problem becomes when we fail to think through the purpose of placing tasks on a list. Life quickly becomes a steady stream of things to do, not allowing space for bigger challenges potentially not requiring a do, but space to allow an intentional don’t.

Second, adaptive challenges go beyond to-do lists. When’s the last time you thought to place an item like increase school retention or decrease poverty directly on your to-do list? The magnitude of these challenges feels too overwhelming to place on a list when we know it’s not something to easily cross off. Progress still needs to happen. However, it will look different. Elements of intervening, experimenting, standing up and speaking out may be present and not easily quantifiable to place on a list.  

Third, it’s difficult to exit a treadmill with no ‘off’ switch. The steady repetition of making lists quickly leads to a habit, potentially an obsession. By constantly feeling like you must rapidly produce you might find you’re not actually producing anything beyond stress. When you have no idea what the goal is for your productivity, you travel 1,000 miles per minute headed nowhere, abandoning the ability to take care of yourself.

Fourth, lists never end. Even after crossing something off a list there will always be more items to add. Living in the reality of this basic fact should be freeing, not overwhelming. Becoming smarter about managing lists will allow space to focus on challenges you care about, not tasks you feel obligated to complete.

Fifth, lists leave little room to change direction. Being tied to a list leaves little room for the courageous conversation your family needed you to have, the project you knew you were equipped to tackle at work or the civic meeting you desperately wanted to attend. These moments when you’re living and dying by a to-do list lead to missed opportunities of directions you actually wanted to go.

In writing this I’ve created another item for my list, this time, a plea for myself and others to rework the steady familiar cadence, allowing space for challenges begging for more than the completion of an easy task. Challenges beyond crossed-out lines.

Amy Nichols2

Amy Nichols is a communications associate at the Kansas Leadership Center.