Unfinished Tasks Stacking Up? Tackle Them With a ‘Clear the Decks’ List
December 18, 2018
I don’t need to tell you the end of the year is near. You’ve got holiday parties to attend, gift guides to scour, and a few dozen cookies to bake. Things might seem close to bursting! But I’ve got a counter-intuitive suggestion: Think about the you in early 2019, once the “Jingle Bells” have long faded in the distance.
Everything is much, much quieter. The perfect time, people say, for resolutions. And it’s true, setting intentions at the beginning of the year can help reframe where you are—or simply provide a useful check-in.
But it's tougher to do all that if you’re still taking out last year’s trash.
You know the stuff! The emails the need deleting, the little to-dos that never seem urgent enough to do (except actually need to get done), doctor’s appointments to make, flights to book—well, you know what yours are.
That’s why I’m adamant that at the end of the year you have to clear the decks.
What is clearing the decks?
It means cleaning your slate for the new year. Clearing out the to-do list cobwebs—this way, your resolutions aren’t about last year’s lingering tasks. You can be future-focused. Because, let’s be honest, none of the things you’re avoiding now will make you jump for joy in the next year.
Plus, clearing the decks at the end of the year means that you have a set deadline: January 1! (Or I’ll extend it to the end of January if I must, but really, New Year’s Day should give you plenty of time.)
Not gonna sugarcoat it: Most of the things on your list probably aren’t going to be fun. There’s a reason why you’ve been avoiding them, after all.
Here’s how I tackled clearing the decks—and how you can start:
See What’s On Your Deck
When I first tried this idea a few years ago, I grabbed a single 5x7 note card and listed everything I had to do, both major and minor, that didn’t have any real deadlines. Things like: Sign up for a credit card with better travel rewards; email some clients correct financial information; get a haircut before the holidays. They’re non-urgent, yet incredibly annoying things. And it helps to first just list ‘em all out.
Title your list CLEAR THE DECKS 2018 and keep it in a place you see often—there will be things you want to add.
My 2018 list includes things like:
●︎ Call retirement account and roll over 401K
●︎ Return library books
●︎ Take last bag of clothes to Goodwill
These seem boring—because they are! And if it feels overwhelming to see it all listed out—cue the “Why can’t I just finish things?!” negative self-talk—remember: we all procrastinate, and one in five people are chronic procrastinators. So you’re not alone in letting these mini-tasks pile up.
Time It Out
Some of the tasks on your list might be time-intensive, but I’m sure there are a few that you can knock out in a matter of minutes. For me, I know that donating my clothes to Goodwill will only take 20 minutes tops—and I’ve already spent 10x that amount of time side-eyeing the bag that sits in the corner of my apartment.
On your list, write down how long you think each task will take you, building in a little extra time (we tend to underestimate how long tasks will take us). This will help those looming tasks feel more doable. It’s amazing how knowing something will only take you five minutes tops can shift you into action.
Make Little Mini Baby Plans
Once you have your list, see if any of the tasks can be broken down into sub-tasks. Maybe you haven’t done certain things because they seem Too Big and you haven’t had time.
Take my entry of needing to call my retirement account and roll over my 401K—it seemed really easy, but was actually a multi-step process that involved finding my old log-in info, figuring out what kind of account I wanted, reading fine print, and ultimately the website telling me this action had to be performed over the phone. Have I called? No. Because I’ve never put it on my to-do list.
That’s the beauty of the Clear the Decks list—it keeps you honest. Actually looking at the things you’ve been avoiding makes procrastinating even harder. But here’s the secret of the list: Once you do one, you start to gain momentum. You cross it off and it feels good. You want to do another.
Work in Short & Powerful Bursts
Habits master Gretchen Rubin has something called a “power hour”—it’s a dedicated 60 minutes to do all the little things that need to get done that day. A to-do list a mile long is intimidating, but a Power Hour can feel like a game.
Set a timer on your phone or computer (did you know typing into Google “set timer 5 (or however many) minutes” actually sets a timer?). Gather your to-dos, and go forth.
Think About How Future You Will Feel
The tasks on your Clear the Decks list are probably tedious, boring, weirdly complex—that’s why you’ve moonwalked away from them over the past 12 months. But the only thing that sounds better than not doing them? Not having to carry them into 2019.
When it gets tough to tackle my list, I think about how I’ll feel on January 1st with all these monkeys off my back. Our brains hold onto unfinished tasks like a push notification we can’t dismiss—until we finish them. So when you're hanging out with your grandparents or relaxing by watching all those upcoming Oscar movies, do you really want the back of your mind focused on, say, setting up automated savings payments with your bank? Nope—you probably want to relax.
Sprinting to the finish can make your vacation taste that much sweeter. And when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, you can enter 2019 knowing that you did all you could to make this year a success. You’ve cleared the decks, and your reward is the cleanest of to-do list slates.