Why You Shouldn’t Try to Cross Everything Off Your To-do List Before the Break


It’s that time of year – the mad dash of December. We should be winding down, but most of us are going faster than ever as we work out what’s mission critical and what is simply not going to get done before the office closes.

The change of pace in the marketplace around Christmas is felt in New Zealand more so than virtually anywhere else in the world. And the frantic rush feels like a ‘necessary evil’ to precede a period where the country virtually shuts down for a month or more. In December, we feel the pressure to tick every last thing off our list and worry that, only then, will we be able to relax and enjoy our holidays.

However, I’ve got another theory. I think we’re better off getting to the end of the year without necessarily getting to the end of our to-do list. And I don’t think that taking some of the big stuff with us over the holidays is a bad thing. I’ll tell you why…

You can trust in the way you’re wired

The human brain is an answer machine; it’s inherently wired to find the answers. As some of you might have experienced all too readily, our brains will keep processing until we find an answer that we are satisfied with. This happens when we’re asleep as well as when we’re awake, and there have been countless times when I have gone to bed frustrated about something or other and woken up really clear. Sleeping on it really can make all the difference, as when we go to sleep our brains pass the problem to our subconscious to take care of.

But what about those challenges that seemingly go around and around, or that nag at us because we know what we’ve come up with so far is not really good enough? There are two possibilities at play here. One is that we took the lazy option and said “that’ll do” to one of the earlier answers that came along – stopping our brain from processing the problem and killing our ability to see anything better. The other possibility is that we’re not asking the right question.

Why the right question matters

Any of you who have heard me present will have heard an Albert Einstein quote that is one of my favourites. Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem is less than five minutes.”

Einstein was, undoubtedly, a smart man. But we’re also capable of far more than we give our minds credit for. The fact is that most of us don’t spend long enough considering the right questions to ask. Our questions are usually not big enough. And this is important because the question we’re holding determines how we engage our reticular activating system.

We know that our brains are complex; they can (and do!) sift through a phenomenal amount of data at any given time. Our reticular activating system (RAS) is what helps us to not short circuit. Basically a bundle of nerves at the base of our brainstem, the RAS gives us a filter. It filters out unnecessary information, so the important stuff gets through.

You will have seen your reticular activating system in action countless times – possibly without even realising it. A common scenario is when you’ve just bought a new car or made a decision on what vehicle you’re going to purchase, and you start seeing them everywhere. That’s your RAS at work. There wasn’t an influx of them on the road at that time; the difference was that you were attuned.

You can see where I’m going with this surely. Our reticular activating system never shuts off, so holding the right question in our minds focuses this extremely powerful data processing tool on what we actually need.

How this all relates to the holidays

Because our RAS doesn’t go on holiday, this time of the year is perfect for a bit of soul-searching. In fact, whether you plan to or not, you can’t help but reflect over the holidays; the tempo is already there in the transition from one year to the next.

Whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs, there’s a significance to leaving the year we’ve had behind and starting a new one. Our brains will either consciously question whether we achieved what we set out to, or they will more generally or subconsciously consider whether the last year was a good one.

This time is golden and it’s a huge opportunity to stop and proactively consider where you’ve been, what you’d like to change and what you want to achieve in the coming year. This is what I do over the holidays.

What I do: taking a month off

Years and years ago, I heard a theory that stuck with me. The idea was that we all have a natural base level of performance but that most of us operate below this baseline the majority of the time. We go and go and go, burnout a bit and then have a holiday to build ourselves back, but by then we only ever really make it back to our baseline, and then we start dipping down again from there.

It’s for this reason that I’m so committed to structuring my year the way that I do. I take a month off over Christmas and a week off every quarter. For me, this means I am always working fresh, as opposed to tanked. Because one of my values is to ‘stay curious’, I also proactively use my downtime to reflect – consciously deciding what issues I take with me to mull over, and what I want my brain to focus in on.

I always look to come away from Christmas with my goals set for the year and my calendar rhythm (with those weeks off included) locked into place. I used to find myself frustrated as I returned to work, as I hadn’t ever quite nailed it yet. I’ve now realised that, inevitably, in those first couple of days it all falls into place. It could appear that it doesn’t all happen over Christmas, but actually it really has all happened over Christmas – thanks, in part, to my RAS.

Your challenge

So, before you wrap up this year, my suggestion is to drop some of the pressure to finish everything and look out for the “that’ll do” answers that stop your brain from turning something over further.

Give yourself a break from trying to figure out what the answer is – and instead start figuring out a better question to focus your attention. Carry some of the big stuff with you over the holidays and trust the process – and yourself.

Then, when you come back in January, we can start figuring out the answer.


This blog was written by Simon Mundell, Founder and Strategic Advisor at Advisory Works.

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