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Navigating the 3 Types of To-Do Lists

My mind loves to think….or I could even say my mind lives to think.

If it doesn’t have something productive to think about, it will find something unproductive to think about.

Over the last few years, I have been working hard to help my mind begin to equate silence, stillness, with thinking. As in, silence is another type of thought. In particular, it is a productive type of thought from which many other productive thoughts may arise.

One productive thought that can arise from a period of thinking-stillness is a certain type of to-do list.

happy cup
A to-do list that arises from your gut is like getting a bunch of unexpected wonderful surprises. If they don’t make you smile now, they definitely will later!

1. Intuitive To Do List (Want To Do List)

I call this type of to-do list my “intuitive to-do list.” It frequently contains new and even surprising information about actions I probably would never have thought to undertake otherwise.

This type of to-do list can be kind of exciting. The best way I can describe it might be if you took all the random “aha moments” you’ve had over the last week or so and wrote them down on a to-do list.

See? Exciting.

Once the period of thinking-stillness is over and our intuitive to-do list has a new item or few added to it, my mind can get back to its regular type of thinking, perhaps planning out how or when to tackle each item.

For obvious reasons, this is the most fun type of to-do list of those I am going to talk about here. These to-do list items feel inspired and full of possibility and potential.

For that reason, I also sometimes call the intuitive to do list my “want to do list.”

But not everything I need to do is something I want to do. Those kind of items end up on a different kind of to-do list.

cockatiel poses on cage
Some to-do list items don’t typically cause stress because they are just a given. Like cleaning a certain feathered family member’s casa each day.

2. Practical To-Do List (Need To Do List)

This is the list most of us are the most familiar with. It is certainly the to-do list I am the most familiar with.

Grocery shopping. Check. Brush teeth. Check. Clean bird cage. Check. Write articles to earn rent money. Check. Pay rent money. Check.

You get the idea.

I may not even write these to-do list items down. Many of them are just that automatic.

At the most fundamental level, my need-to-do list even includes activities like respiring (breathe in, breathe out), which I normally remember to do on my own but occasionally forget when I am very stressed or very surprised by something.

Also, in a sense I do want to do these things, because not doing them can attract very unwelcome things like hunger pangs, cavities, eviction notices, those sorts of things.

The weirdest thing about practical or need to do list items is that they often generate actual written lists.

For example, I can’t remember the last time I wrote down “do grocery shopping” on a list. But every week I keep a running list of the items I need or want to get when I do my grocery shopping.

I sometimes think about my practical to do list like my “small stuff list.” As long as I keep up with these tasks, our little flock’s regular daily life keeps humming along…mostly, anyway.

But just watch what happens when I put a few too many of my small stuff to-do list items off. Stress. Small stuff all piles up into big stuff. It is not pretty.

Speaking of stress….

This is the type of to-do list that the other two types of to-do lists can (hopefully) help you avoid ever having to make.

3. Stress To Do List (Should Do List)

This is my hands-down least favorite list of these three. Not that that isn’t probably already obvious – who would look forward to a should-do list or a stress to-do list?

This list could also be readily subtitled the “shame/guilt to do list.”

If you’ve ever had that thought (and who hasn’t) “I should do this…..fill in the blanks thing” you already understand how this list gets formed.

Unfortunately, at least for me, it is very easy for items on the should-do list to sneak over and hide on the need to do list. And there can be some natural crossover.

Here is an example.

I should go to the dentist. I mean, I need to go because I don’t want the consequences (yellow teeth, cavities, root canals, enormous dental bills, a mouth full of implants). So I kind of want to go – not really but you know what I mean – for the same reasons.

But mostly, any item on the should do list gets there because of shame or guilt.

Still using my dentist example, I might shame myself into doing an item by saying things to myself like “any smart/mature/responsible person would go to the dentist every 12 months.” Never mind that I went 36 months ago and shoot, that counts for something, right? Still…bad, bad me.

But it often takes this kind of internal dialogue to get me there, regardless.

Or I might guilt myself into doing an item by saying “your poor teeth work so hard for you and you don’t do anything to take care of them and imagine what your mom would say if she found out you haven’t been going to the dentist every 12 months.” Sigh. Guilty as charged.

And yet, horrible as they both feel, shame/guilt don’t tend to work very well to get me to actually do that thing I’m shaming or guilting myself about. I might look at my phone, contemplate calling my dentist, even plan to do it later that day. But somehow, most of the time, it still doesn’t get done.

Sometimes the shaming/guilting I give to myself about items sitting on my should do list are a lot less vague than this, too – like when I’m telling myself I should give up my pipe dreams of retiring on a writer’s salary and get a real job already. Or when I’m telling myself that I should get out more or join some online dating site or whatever it is I’m threatening myself with so I won’t be alone for the rest of my life.

I’ve noticed people have all kinds of should do lists – lists about weight management, drinking habits, dietary changes, socializing, changing jobs, relationships, fitness, and so forth and so on.

But the thing I’m learning – and only just oh-so-recently – is this: most if not all of those should do list items will never get done, or at least not done well, until they move to one of the other lists.

By “done well” I mean done with heart. Done with spirit. Done with inspiration, enthusiasm, vision.

Because it is not that there aren’t nuggets of truth embedded in my should do list items. Some could actually be really beneficial for me if I ever actually did them.

It’s just that in order to reap their benefits, the doing needs to be coming from a place of self-love and self-worth. Even the best of intentions won’t amount to much if they arise from a bad inner place of self-loathing, shame, guilt or what some like to call “should-ing myself.”

There is also something to be said for timing. Like trying to plant strawberry seeds in mid-winter, the right action taken at the wrong time isn’t going to bear much fruit, whether real or metaphorical.

I find that when an item on my should do list manages to migrate to my want to do list, that is when the timing is right to actually do it and when it might actually yield some fruit in my life. I know this migration has occurred when that thing I’ve been guilting or shaming myself about not doing becomes an inspired idea I want to do.

This is quite a magical transformation! I have seen it happen a few more times now than what I could chalk up to pure coincidence.

And sometimes the thing I’ve been should-ing myself about actually drops off all of my to-do lists for the exact same reason. It becomes irrelevant, unnecessary or even contraindicated based on some other item that gets added to (or completed from) my practical or want to do lists.

Going back to my dentist example can help me show you how this recently worked in my life.

After nearly a year spent in disputes with the healthcare marketplace over my self-employment health premium subsidy, I found myself particularly cash-poor at the end of last year. I knew I needed to go to the dentist. I just didn’t want to go. And I most especially didn’t want to pay for the visit.

But at the end of last year, I started to get this subtle inner nudge that I needed to go. Like – not a “should do” kind of nudge, but an intuitive nudge. And then one day very early this year, after continuing to ignore both the should do and the intuitive nudge, I caught a glimpse in the mirror of a dark spot on one of my front teeth.

I tried to tell myself it was a food stain. I listened intently when friends told me they were sure it was just a food stain. I tried to brush it off. Then I tried to file it off (with a nail file, no less). No dice.

Then I had a sudden vision of myself, snaggle-toothed, with this enormous gap where my diseased front tooth used to be.

That did it. I headed for my phone and dialed. A week later – and one week after my health premium dispute was resolved and several thousand dollars in withheld subsidy payments was deposited back into my account – I was at the dentist getting that darned black spot drilled and filled.

This whole to-do list thing is not an exact science, by the way. Although you’ve probably already figured that out. And the dentist example is not exactly a very glamorous example of how it can work when items shift between the lists as the energy around them changes.

But I hope you get the general idea and maybe can even start to perceive similar experiences from your own life.

My busy mind is always going to be thinking. It is always going to be coming up with ideas, churning out to-do list items. And I have yet to see it think any of its great ideas about what I should do are less than great.

So it becomes my responsibility to dig down deeper, to wrap in my emotions around an idea or to-do list item, to consult my intuition and to bring all of this information to bear on what to do if or when or ever.

Clear as mud? (Or at least a bit clearer, I hope?)

With great respect and love,


Navigating the 3 Types of To-Do Lists

Shannon Cutts

Freelance writer. Author. Cockatiel, redfoot tortoise & box turtle mama.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2020). Navigating the 3 Types of To-Do Lists. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Aug 2020
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