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If You Don’t Do This On Purpose, It’ll Make You Miserable By Accident

Imagine:  You start a project at your computer.  You work and work and get 92% of it done…

…but then you have to stop.  You’re so close, but can’t hit “publish” or “send” or “export.”

How do you feel as you close your laptop?

I don’t know about you, but this drives me batty.  As I walk away from my desk, it can almost like I didn’t get anything done.

The human need for closure is strong.  Last time we talked about the Ovsiankina Effect: When we leave a task unfinished, we create a mental pull to come back to it. 

You can use the Ovsiankina Effect to your advantage – by starting even a tiny first step of a procrastinated task, you create a built-in tug to come back.

But we’d make a mistake not to mention this: 

If you fail to use the Ovsiankina Effect on purpose, it can make you miserable by accident.

Symptoms might include:  You work hard but often feel like you haven’t accomplished anything.  You find yourself harried by how much is ‘still left to do.’  You glance at the clock during dinner, wondering if you’ll have time to go back and finish that one thing.  You feel like you’re drowning, despite working all the time.

Did you know these can simply be symptoms of a poorly-written to-do list?

Yep.  It can be that simple.

Take a look at your list.  Does it contain any items like this? 

  • Blog post
  • Email Jane
  • Update Website

When something on your list is a multi-step project masquerading as a task, you’re setting yourself up to feel like you’re always working and never finishing. 

For me, I’ve learned never to put “Blog Post” on my task list.  Instead, I write this:

  • Outline Post
  • Draft Post
  • Edit Post
  • Format & Schedule Post

As soon as I learned to do this, I went from constantly feeling behind to, “oh wow, look how far I got today.  Yesssss!”

No more getting 87% done and having the unfinished part harass me in the afternoon while I’m trying to focus on my kids. I’m calm. 

Nothing is ‘unfinished’ – I completed some self-contained bullet points on my list.  Yes I might have one or two to finish in the morning, but that’s okay – tomorrow always has a list.  I’ll get to it then.

(FYI: If “drafting post” is a sticking point for you, Irresistible Words teaches how to get the writing for a photo blog post done in 20 mins.)

Recently I came across a post by Christina Willner that described how to write a good to-do list, and was thrilled to see that she lists two of the things I had stumbled on by accident. 

The first was to start each task with a verb. 

Instead of “Blog post,” you put outline, draft, edit, or schedule blog post.  

To her note, I mentally add:  Avoid “masking” verbs. 

“Write blog post” starts with a verb, but it masks several smaller tasks. 

No one just “writes,” they brainstorm, outline, draft, edit, and publish.  You don’t have to list every step (“open WordPress”) but make sure the verb isn’t mushing a bunch of separate steps together.

Even items like “Email Jane” can disguise multiple steps that sink your well-being for the day.

Is it one of those emails that you have to go ask Tyrone for some info first, then word the email super carefully, and reread before you send it?  Alert!  Alert!  That’s a masking verb that you need to unmask on your list:

  • Ask Tyrone how much X is
  • Draft email to Jane about Y
  • Revise email to Jane (10 minutes max)

See the favor you’re doing yourself? 

You’re setting it up so if your kids spill in the door at 3:00 and you’re still waiting to hear back from Tyrone, you don’t have this unchecked item hanging over you all evening.  You’ve completed the first step.  Bask in the accomplishment!  Hooray!

Another item that Christina Willner mentioned was giving open-ended stuff a time limit. 

I can agonize over an important email for a half hour, easily.  Limiting it to 10 minutes gives me an ‘out’ – welp, that’s all the to-do list said I could do!  Have to hit send now!

Let’s put this all together:

Say you have “update website” on your list (and most creative people do).

Let’s unmask the verb first:  Maybe you need to recover your platform password, brainstorm a new tagline, outline the points you make on the home page, draft and edit that text, and export and upload your recent work.

If you look at that list, some parts still feel overwhelming.  So what if you made it:

  • Recover platform password
  • Brainstorm new tagline (30 minutes)
  • Outline the home page
  • Draft home page (1 hour)
  • Edit home page (30 minutes)
  • Export and upload new portfolio work (1 hour)

Give yourself time limits for the stuff you’d agonize over. 

You’ll find yourself a whole lot more willing to brainstorm new tagline for 30 minutes (simple! clear deadline! yay!) than to write a new tagline (vague!  lots of pressure! makes you want to run away! boo.) 

If you need more time, you can always put “brainstorm for 30 minutes” again the next day. You still get credit for doing the brainstorming and can check it off your list. 

Basically the entirety of this post can be summed up as follows:

Be kind to yourself.  Set yourself up for success.  Write a good to-do list (use verbs and time frames) that create natural pause points, and you’ll find yourself much less harried.

Try this and let me know what changes, okay?


P.S.  If “update website” is on your list, I might just be giving my beloved and most popular course a refresh to align with all these principles.  Just a heads up – something fun is coming.  😉

P.P.S.  If you read last week’s post, here you go.  Airplane costume success:


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  1. msn on November 7, 2019 at 7:12 pm

    Airplane costume: Nailed it!!
    Blog post: So helpful, as always.
    Looking forward to seeing what fabulousness you are cooking up! 😀

    • Jenika on November 7, 2019 at 7:57 pm

      Thank you so much dear friend!! (He loved the costume, did get sick of bumping into things though. LOL. Noted for next time…)

  2. Autumn Macarthur on November 7, 2019 at 7:48 pm

    Wonderful post, thank you! I want to share it will all the creatives I know. Most of us are beating ourselves up over those unfinished To Do list items.
    Fab airplane costume, too!

    • Jenika on November 7, 2019 at 7:57 pm

      Aww thanks Autumn! I appreciate the kindness. And definitely stop beating yourself up would you…you’re doing GREAT. Sending hugs.

  3. Linda Kaun on November 8, 2019 at 1:17 pm

    This is SO helpful. I’ve read about creating more productive To-Do Lists before – not to write those big catch all things like “write blog post” – but I never heard the idea of putting the verb first and then the time you want to devote to it. When these tasks are broken down into such clear steps, it also feels so much easier to gauge the time it might take. Thanks!! Love the airplane costume!

  4. Mattie Tucker on November 8, 2019 at 9:12 pm

    I’m a questioner by nature and I can’t believe I never before questioned why my to-do lists were so often unhelpful and frustrating. Your answer to my unasked question is incredibly helpful! But then, every post of yours that I have read so far (I’ve been avidly devouring your past posts) builds my confidence and gives me great ideas & thoughts to chew on. Thank You! May the blessings your wonderful posts give others come back to you ten-fold! 🙂

  5. Mattie Tucker on November 8, 2019 at 9:16 pm

    P.S. Love the title of this post – it’s fun and so true!

  6. Maayan on November 29, 2019 at 8:51 am

    Adding verbs to a to-do list makes it so much more concrete! Thanks for the tip about „unmasking“ verbs, this was very helpful! Another thing I started doing recently is adding pleasure/recreational/positive tasks to my to-do list. That way it is no long „the list of things I have to do“ but rather a list of all my activities for the week (plus I get to tick off more items, 🙂

  7. Eric Etchart on December 19, 2019 at 2:27 pm

    Really loved this article, I can certainly keep some useful tips and try them on! Not to mention the airplane costume 🙂 Thank you again!

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