When a list overwhelms, you might think the trouble is the work itself. But that’s not always the case.

On my first days as a resident physician, I worked on the inpatient medical floor. It was a terribly overwhelming experience. Something goes wrong somewhere, all eyes turn to you, and it doesn’t matter that you did well on some book exam. Now, it’s real.

A patient of mine spiked a fever.

The impulse, even encouraged my some of the staff, was to give acetaminophen. Doing so would likely decrease the fever.

However, there are a couple of troubles with this:

  1. There are many ways to get a fever. Getting rid of it won’t solve the problem.
  2. A fever, in the right window, can actually help fight what’s ailing the body. Getting rid of the fever would actually work against the patient.

We don’t know what’s causing the fever and whether it’s helping a problem. The fever is a downstream sign. The trouble is somewhere upstream.

The same thing can happen with how we approach our work. When lost amongst email numbers growing into the thousands, chat demands pile up from Slack or whatever the chat manager du jour is, our own tasks start spilling out of the Inbox, and we’ve resorted to writing on the backs of our hands, we are under pressure.

Maybe you reach for a new app. Maybe you declare “Inbox bankruptcy”. Maybe you scream.

Any of these can be useful, but consider that the issue might be upstream. How you make the decisions of managing your intentions, how you filter and manage the inflow of information, how you do or don’t respect Future You in these decisions, whether you can honor the past you that wrote your tasks, whether you can acknowledge your current wants and needs all have something to do with it.

Doing any and all of these may seem like an impossibility or some fluffy idea without meaning. But they are deeply meaningful and possible. They are all practiced skills.

The work of a list, the work of *managing our stored intentions* is the practice of simultaneously:

  • Caring for Future You
  • Honoring Past You
  • Respecting Present You