Ask any adult, especially those with children, and they’ll tell you that staying on top of day-to-day responsibilities, or what I call “life tasks,” is difficult.
Desk covered in papers, wardrobe out of shape, inbox full of emails, digital files overflowing with documents, filthy car, garage and closets filled with clutter, overdue promises, checkbook unbalanced, and drawers jammed with junk. Sound familiar?
Yet, these are just a few of the many areas of daily life that can burden the mind with shame and guilt robbing us of our life energy. When it all gets to be too much, we can feel anxious, overwhelmed, perhaps even depressed. “How will I ever get everything done?”
Our ability to exert control over our environment, say experts, is essential to our wellbeing, not only psychological but physiologically too. In other words, when life is out of control, we suffer—both mentally and physically.
And it’s not just you and me. If a guru were to assume an ordinary life—that is to say, a spouse, two kids, a job, mortgage and car payments—they would also have a hard time.
But if such a realized person would also struggle, what does that say for the rest of us? Does that mean we’re doomed to a life of overwhelm?
Hardly. There’s actually a simple tool called Life Tasks that can help you sort out your life so you can breathe easy, knowing that everything within your control is under control. While the idea for Life Tasks isn’t mine, I put it to use, “and that has made all the difference.”
Alfred Adler, the founder of the school of Individual psychology, coined the term “life tasks” to describe three primary tasks in life: work, friendship, and intimacy. For our purposes here, I use the term “life tasks” to describe ideas perhaps more specific, immediate and pressing to our daily lives.
“You have brains in your head, You have feet in your shoes, You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” - Dr. Seuss
Before getting into the details, I’d like to share a story.
In my early 20’s, I was immature, and my life was a mess—kitchen sink full of dirty dishes, unopened past-due bills, expired car registration, even un-filed taxes. Yes, taxes. I was too busy windsurfing and going to concerts and drinking beer with friends.
That was before I lost my job, the power was shut off, and my car was impounded for expired tabs on the way to a night out with my girlfriend. As my car disappeared into the evening summer light behind a tow truck, I wondered how I would explain this to her. “Hi, uh, Staci…you know how I, uh…sometimes test the laws of rebellion? Well…”
They say it isn’t until we hit bottom that we’re willing to admit that we have a problem. Apparently, I hadn’t because the very next morning, I ditched—and did not pay—the immigrant taxi driver who drove me to reclaim my car. And I would have told you I was a nice guy.
The police called the following morning as I was getting to work. “You’re in trouble, Ryan,” said my co-worker as he handed me the receiver.
They also say a man’s prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until he’s twenty-five. While I was only twenty-four, I needed to get it together now, and the Life Tasks would be my blueprint and benchmark.
Life Tasks is a tool for sorting, organizing and bringing order to your life. It contains twenty-three daily life tasks broken out by category: Cleaning, Personal Finance, Communication, Physical Wellbeing and Emotional Wellbeing. While there are many approaches to the list, I share the ideas that work for me.
What makes the Life Tasks valuable is its totality and shared concepts between tasks. And remember, an idea is only useful to the degree that you put it into practice in your life.
All right, let’s dive in!
Rather than resenting spending your weekends cleaning, a better way is to clean as you go. When your garbage is full, you empty it. When your clothes are dirty, you wash them. So why not apply this same method to the rest of your household cleaning?
When you have a minute here or five minutes there, instead of scrolling your phone looking for something interesting, why not do something tangible like vacuuming the hall, shaking out the bath mats, or starting a load of laundry? “Chunking” life tasks like this lets you get more done, more efficiently, and more sustainably. And your weekends will be free for relaxing, not cleaning.
Some people feel more productive in a messy office. Not me. My desk is an old teak drafting table with two small drawers from Denmark. An iMac, lamp, pen, timer, and plant sit on the desk because no desk would be complete without a succulent.
In the top desk drawer, I keep AirPods, iPhone (out of sight), small scrap paper, and two micro cloths—one for eyeglasses, the other for the computer screen. In the bottom drawer is a coaster, earplugs, yoga toes, and a toothpick, which I like to use in the middle of Zoom calls.
There’s an Ikea filing cabinet with hanging files for work and personal items—receipts, auto, banking, investments, insurance, medical, taxes, projects, and ideas. Since hanging files tend to expand with time, occasionally, I sort and purge the contents. The top drawer has an insert for organizing the usual office supplies—pens, pencils, markers, erasers, paperclips, scissors, tape, stapler, sticky notes, calculator, ruler and small tape measure. The bottom drawer holds printer and scrap paper separated by a divider.
I keep my computer files simple too. I store everything digitally in a 200GB iCloud, and the Apple Desktop is used only for temporary files like screen captures. I keep two folders in Documents—“Active” and “Non-Active.” That lets me find the document I need. In my experience, digital files expand even faster than physical ones, so I occasionally sort and purge electronic files too.
Unless you thrive in chaos, for most people, the life task of keeping a simple workspace supports a clear, focused and productive mind.
My dad is fond of saying, “A clean car just drives better,” and we all know the joy of driving a car that’s clean. Rather than making car cleaning an all-day affair, it’s easier, faster, and more convenient to “chunk” tasks and clean as you go just like with your house.
When you fill up with gas, throw out any trash that may have accumulated. You’re holding a pump handle that’s going to stop automatically anyway. While waiting at a stoplight, wipe down the dashboard with a towel and then shake it out the car window. You may have seen me at stoplights waving a green towel. I keep a microfiber towel in my glovebox for this purpose.
If you have a block of time, shake out the mats, vacuum, or wash your car. By the way, forget about perfection because a red-breasted nuthatch is going to poop on your precious car as soon as you’re done anyway.
When it comes to stuff, less is more. As projects tend to fill the time allowed, stuff fills the space available. Thankfully for this life task, there’s decluttering.
If you’re like me, you probably hang onto things for one of five reasons. First is sentiment, like the hand-sewn wool sport coat that I found at a Goodwill store in Fort Collins, made in France when the fabric was still matched up. It’s too big, but I just can’t give it away.
Another reason is that it’s paid for. The concept of sunk costs is easy to remember in business but hard to remember at home. The third is to keep something in new condition like the new wood cutting board from Hawaii in my cupboard. Fourth, we never know when we might need it. And lastly, we have a negative attachment to it.
Let me share a story. One Sunday, while at my local library, I happened upon a book titled “Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back.” Figuring it was a sign, I read the book and emailed Brooks Palmer. He would be coming to town in a few days for his wife’s speaking engagement, so I booked him for three hours for help with the dreaded storage closet.
Some things were easy to get rid of, like the new Tommy Bahama beach chair. Other things, like a glass trophy, were more difficult to part with. Here’s how it went: I would pick up an item, and Brooks would ask me how I felt about it, and then he would mirror back what he was witnessing.
For example, I would say something like, “This came from a club we belonged to where I used to play tennis.” And he would say gently and compassionately, “It seems like you have mixed feelings about it.”
I would then realize how much anger and/or sadness would be associated with the item. And he would say reassuringly, “Great, someone else will appreciate it. Put it in the donation box. Next.” Some things even caused me to cry.
I had never forgiven myself for what these things represented. So after the storage close was emptied, I felt infinitely lighter, more spacious, even high. The proverbial emotional weight had been lifted, and it was beautiful. I guess it’s true what they say—our possessions really do possess us.
Eventually, you will regret getting rid of something, but in my experience with this life task that only happens for about one in ten items. For items not easily replaced, say like that Kurt Cobain cardigan, you’re just going to have to visit your local thrift store again.
Broken items tend to stick around because fixing them requires time and money. Say like the three bikes in various forms of disrepair hanging in my garage. Of course, that may have more to do with not yet getting over losing my celeste green Bianchi Alloro with Campagnolo parts to theft several years ago.
When you’re ready to fix something, set aside a block of time. Next, set out the item to fix along with any tools or parts you will need. You can start fixing the object when you are ready rather than hunting down tools or visiting your local hardware store for parts.
The best way to keep a paper-free home is by handling it only once. For this life task, that means processing it, saving it for scrap paper, or recycling it the first time you touch it.
Ninety percent of mail is junk, and as with house and car cleaning, the easiest way is to deal with mail as you go.
I. When you collect your mail, immediately separate the junk mail from the mail you want to keep. I keep a recycling box under the mailbox in the garage for this purpose.
II. Open every remaining envelope with a letter opener. Then pull out the contents while creating two piles—keep and recycling.
III. Handle the mail. If it’s a bill, write the check, stick it in a stamped envelope and walk it back out to the mailbox. Easy, right?
IV. If you need to keep a piece of paper, file it or scan it to your computer.
This applies to any kind of paper, but in my experience, mainly mail as described above. Whether it needs to be filled out and sent back, filed, scanned to PDF, or recycled, see every piece of paper through to completion the first time you touch it.
I don’t like accounting, so I’ve never balanced my checkbook. I have, however, balanced the checkbooks for an entrepreneur that resulted in recovering hundreds of dollars. If you enjoy details, then balancing your checkbook may be worth the effort. And you may even get money back from that self-satisfied banker down the street.
The only thing worse than paying your rent, utility, or credit card bill is not paying them.
Whenever you get a bill, instead of pinning it to your corkboard hoping it will magically go away on its own, write the check then and there and put it back in the mail. You will sleep better knowing that you are always up to date with this life task.
During my second year of grad school, I didn’t earn money and assumed I didn’t need to file taxes. Later, I discovered that not only did I still have to file taxes, but I owed the IRS fines, penalties and interest. If you think owing creditors is bad, owing money to the IRS is worse. Don’t do what I did; file your taxes every year and on time.
People generally expect phone call replies—business and personal—within twenty-four hours. But if you’re like me, you probably screen your calls.
When you do, add that person immediately to your to-do list. I use the app Things 3 for my to-do list, which is worth every penny. For close friends, I call them back the same day. For everyone else, I message them to schedule a time to chat so I can spend more time with friends and less time coordinating.
Every unreturned text, email, or invitation regularly interrupts our thinking until it’s resolved. It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect, which states that we remember uncompleted and interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. So if you want a clear and focused mind, be impeccable; your friends, and mind, will thank you.
The human body is meant to move a lot. But many people would prefer to look like they work out rather than exercise. So they wear Nike to their local coffee shop and a Patagonia vest to work meetings. Apparently, the mental pain of feeling bad about oneself is less than the physical pain of exercising.
Others handle the exercise life task by doing it anyway despite disliking or even hating exercise. Hitting the gym beats taking a hit to their self-esteem. When a friend confided that she hates running, I asked why she still runs, and without hesitation, she replied, “Because I don’t want to get fat.” Few are as honest—with themselves or others.
Some people like exercising. For them, working out is a joy, a way to care for themselves, relieve stress, feel alive in their body and reap the rewards of physical exertion. They are deliberate, schedule their workouts, stay present, acknowledge themselves for working out, and remind themselves why they do it.
If you hate the gym, then don’t go. Instead, move your body in whatever way you enjoy. It could be walking (the most underrated form of exercise in America), stretching, dancing, gardening, housecleaning, hiking, playing with kids, even wiggling your toes. Any movement is infinitely better than no movement. Let me say that again, any movement is infinitely better than no movement.
So regardless of how much or how little, make it a daily habit of moving your body. And if you think exercise is good for your body, you should see what it does for your mind.
“Leaving New York, a pilot who corrects the course of a 747 only a few degrees will arrive either in Europe or Africa. So we, with even minor correctives, can effect huge changes in our lives.” ~ James Hollis, The Middle Passage
A wardrobe lets you be ready for any occasion—work, working out, sporting event, happy hour, cocktail party, wedding, etc. And there’s a benefit to dressing well. The author of Dress Success found that people who dress well get treated better, with more respect and are smiled at more often.
First off, rather than buying stand-alone outfits, buy clothes you can mix and match. Next, choose clothes that complement your skin tone. If your skin is lighter, avoid colors like orange, yellow, or tan that will make you look like you never leave your house. Instead, go for contrasting colors like black or charcoal gray.
If your skin is darker, vibrant colors like orange, pink, or yellow look fantastic, leaving those who don’t look good in those colors envious. And sticking with more solids and fewer prints will help simplify your wardrobe and your life.
I once met a ninety-two-year-old woman who smoked two packs a day and hadn’t been to the hospital since her last son was born over fifty years ago, and yet she was still active.
Unless you were born with such world-class genes, taking care of the life task of good health should be a top priority. Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep nightly, eat the right foods—whole foods, primarily vegetables, and fats, and limit the amount of carbs and sugar—move your body daily, visit your doctor regularly, and avoid drinking, smoking, vaping or other intoxicants. But you already knew all that.
We’ve all experienced the frustration of loaning out something and not getting it back or feeling bad about not returning something we borrowed. A Couchsurfer once loaned the book Many Masters, Many Lives and moved away before I could return it. Though she said to keep the book, my mind still contracts each time I see it on my bookshelf.
Be impeccable and return whatever things you’ve borrowed, and either get back any things you’ve loaned or let them go and forgive the offending party once and for all.
If you’re like many people, being hard on yourself comes easy so forgiving yourself will likely be one of the more challenging life tasks. But continuing to beat yourself up isn’t benefitting anyone.
The easiest way to forgive yourself, whether your missteps were unintentional or intentional, is by working through your misgivings one at a time. Don’t wait, do it now. I recently went to a college reunion and apologized to several people for my past immature behavior. I felt an immediate sense of relief as years of tension dissolved from my body and mind.
Afterward, I acknowledged and forgave myself, which also helps to raise our self-esteem. As a friend of mine can attest, Kristin Neff is a terrific resource for learning to be more kind and compassionate with ourselves.
The harder we are on ourselves, the harder we will be on others. So the more you learn to forgive yourself, the easier it will be to forgive others. As Jesus reminds us, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” In this way, we are learning to sublimate anger with compassion. As the old saying goes, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
As with many of the life tasks above, overdue promises burden the mind. So only make promises you can keep. For all past-due promises, either complete them, resolve them, or break them while forgiving yourself in the process. Things happen; none of us are perfect.
That said, as David Deida cautions, “you must end your involvement impeccably, however, making sure there are no loose ends and that you do not burden anybody’s life by stopping your involvement. This might take some time, but it is important that this layer of your purpose ends cleanly and does not create any new karma, or obligation, that will burden you or others in the future.”
If you’re like many people, unfinished projects may leave you feeling anxious and incomplete. There was a time when I would skip bathroom breaks, meals and sleep to finish projects so I could relax.
Efficiency is not the point but learning to be whole while in progress. That said, there are times when you may need to push to see a project through to completion, or perhaps even abandon a project altogether, so you can move on to the next, more important one.
Fortune magazine found that focus is the most common trait among successful companies. “Organize and execute around priorities” (Quadrant II activities) writes Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Or, as David Deida writes in The Way of the Superior Man, “If you know your purpose, your deepest desire, then the secret of success is to discipline your life so that you support your deepest purpose and cut distractions and detours.”
However you define it, success requires ruthlessly eliminating all unnecessary distractions and lesser interests for that which is most meaningful and fulfilling for you.
Instead of saying “yes” to every invitation, practice saying “no” or “I’ll get back to you on that.” Derek Sivers has his own take: every invitation is either a “Hell yeah” or “No.”
As a recovering “yes” person, I find strength in Stephen Covey’s story about his wife. When a friend asked her to volunteer, she replied to the effect, ‘While I won’t be participating, I know your event will be successful without me.’ That’s it. She said “no” in a supportive way without explaining herself or getting defensive. And you know what? It works.
The key concepts are chunking tasks, doing things as you go, simplifying as much as possible, and being impeccable with your word. While working through this list takes time and discipline, I’m confident that you will be rewarded for your efforts—psychologically, emotionally, and yes, physically too.
You will begin to feel more empowered and develop a greater sense of agency. Your mind will become clearer and more focused, and new habits and behavior patterns will form to support your emerging priorities and values. But don’t try to tackle the list all at once. Instead, just as Benjamin Franklin advises in his autobiography, focus on one area of life at a time.
Of course, life happens, and plans fall apart despite our best intentions. I have yet to complete every item on this list. That’s okay because Life Tasks is meant to be a framework, not a rigid guideline. In other words, don’t be that guy washing your car at ten o’clock on a Saturday night underneath a bright light just so you can check it off your list.
How will you know if you are successful? When you can work through your own life tasks while remaining kind and compassionate with yourself.