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How to reduce your to-do list to ZERO

My advice: do not sit in the front.

When I get onto a bus, like in Hajj, I do NOT like to sit in the front seats. Why? Because my brain sees the road and, whether I like it or not, my brain will turn on and ‘drive’ with the driver. Keep the vehicle in the lane, check blind spot before changing lanes, how much fuel do I have left, how many miles left, and on and on.

I can’t shut my mind off. Even though there is absolutely no benefit for me to be engaging my mind like this, my mind just goes there.

Airplane travel is another story. I love airplane travel. Not necessarily the aches and swollen leg pain of sitting in a chair for 10 hours, but the mental shut off that air travel affords (as compared to bus situation I just described). See on an airplane I can mentally disengage, completely, yet still accomplish my task: arrive at my destination. The airplane and pilot completely managed it, no brain power of mine required. My brain got the rest it needed, completely disengaged AND YET I still accomplished my task.

What’s the secret to reducing your to-do list to ZERO and living a carefree, fulfilling life? AUTOMATION.
Automation is to turn creatively almost every mundane, low value and boring slice of your life on AUTO MODE. Keep your brain space and brain attention available ONLY for high-value activities, those things that bring you joy and fulfillment.

Two words that are NOT the solution: Self-discipline and Willpower. If you ever find yourself googling the words ‘self-discipline’ or ‘willpower’ then you’re chasing the wrong bus. Anything that needs to get done with manual daily/weekly/monthly willpower will ultimately fail. Sure, you can spend some time in the beginning manually figuring out how to best do the action. But once you’ve figured that out, it’s time to automate it.

“I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing,” says President Barack Obama. “Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Manual task list or Automated life: what’s the difference?
Manual tasks are tasks that will require you to remember manually and engage your brain power each time the task needs to be completed. (There’s a popular app called “Remember the Milk,” a painful reminder of the manual life most of us lead by default.)

Automated tasks, on the contrary, are those that you can complete without the need to remember manually; without the need for you to re-engage your brain power at a later time for the task to reach completion.

Before I give you examples of manual vs. automated tasks, let me first share with you this analogy:

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Your brain is a sleeping teenager
Your life is a moving car. Your brain is a sleepy teenager at the wheel. Sometimes the teenager forces himself to wake up and make manual decisions to steer the car in the right direction. But then soon after, the sleepy teenager brain is back asleep, and the car is moving once again in cruise control.

Every hour the sleepy teenager wakes up for only 1 minute and then goes back to sleep. In that 1 minute, if the task you ask of the teenager is mundane and of low value, then teenager will soon go back to sleep and life remains mundane. (Mundane low-value tasks like, ‘worry about the upcoming bill’, Teenager brain is like, OK. The minute is over.)

But in that 1 minute if all the mundane tasks had already been taken care of, you would have that 1 minute to do something high-value that you love, something that brings you joy and fulfillment. (Fulfillment tasks like, ‘let’s slow down and focus a little more in our Salah’, Teenager brain is like, OK. Or, ‘let’s smile at a child of ours, be fully present, and say we love them’. Teenager’s brain is like, OK.) Then the minute is over, and brain goes back to cruise control sleep — this time with a smile of satisfaction.

Summary: Your brain is a sleeping teenager, driving a car on cruise control, only awake 1 minute every hour. You only have 1 minute of full attention. Don’t waste that minute on manual tasks (automate those so that you don’t have to think about them). Use your 1 minute of wakefulness on high-value tasks that bring you fulfillment.

Examples of an Automated life vs. a Manual life
Travel: Boarding a flight is automated: Once you get on the flight, you can disengage your brain and still arrive at your destination.
Vs. Manual Travel: If you pass on the flight and choose to drive yourself instead, your brain will need to be manually engaged the entire trip, resulting in a heavily stressed and exhausted mind upon arrival.

Cooking: Manual is when every meal needs you to engage your mind in asking questions like, what should I eat, how do I prepare it, should I order delivery, etc. Daily meals are a significant example because at least three times a day you’re brain is engaged with this.
Vs. Automated: If you had a meal plan delivery service like these, the food would be delivered automatically to your home. All that brainpower returned to you.

Bills. Manual, you get the bill by snail mail, open it, procrastinate, stress out, finally pay the bill online on the final day. Repeat for all bills. Repeat every month.
Vs. Automated, put your bank info on file with your key service companies and forget about it. All monthly brain power is yours once again.

If you took the 20 or so tasks you need to do in a given week, and creatively automated them, you’d be left with chunks of time and mental capacity to pursue high-value activities.

Can’t I just add the high-value tasks ON TOP OF all the mundane low-value stuff?
Isn’t that what everyone tries to do? That’s the default, that’s where the stress comes from, that’s why everyone’s so exhausted. Everyone’s trying to do more and more, instead of reducing the low-value stuff first.

Plan of action:
Step 1: Make a list of the 20-30 tasks that needs your attention on a weekly basis.
Step 2: Circle those you would like to look into automating.
Step 3: Each week work creatively to automate more and more of your life.

It’s time you started putting YOURSELF and YOUR FULFILLMENT on your todo list! 🙂

About the Author Muhammad Alshareef

Founder and President of DiscoverU, an Islam-based personal development institute. Muhammad Alshareef graduated Islamic Law from Madinah University and holds a Masters Degree from West Virginia University. Canadian, ethnically Egyptian, and a true citizen of the world. He writes about Islamic solutions to popular personal development questions.

Leave a Comment:

6 comments
sk says

Really enjoyed.
I have a teenager son who love to drive so I can picture while reading it & laughing because of its so true.
Great article.very practical,
so brutaly true.
By the way I saw you with your gp at swisotel in Makkah this yr.

Reply
Muhammad Alshareef says

Thank you for your kind words.
You should have came up and said salam in Makkah.
In sha Allah, Hajj Mabroor.

Reply
Fathima Hussain says

Assalamu Alaykum

I would just like to add that, automation works well when you are trying to grow your mailing list too, for example when you are offering an opt-in gift. I used to manually send out the opt-in gift whenever people signed up to my list, but later switched to automation which has made my life a lot easier and now I only check the stats once in a while.

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Mathieu says

Salam aleykum brother Muhammed,
Thank you for this great article.
The problem with To-Do lists, are that you can, in theory, make them ENDLESS.

Great tips, JazakAllahukheiran

Reply
Mubashira says

Assalamualaikum shaykh

I say wearing a hijab or any uniform for that matter really takes d stress off of Wat to wear for today for work!

Having said that most men simply rely on d wife/mom to do most of their manual menial jobs.. It’s time they automated it r help their significant others to automate it..

But while dey r at it, let dem appreciate dos who do d boring tasks everyday without complaining

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Mubashira says

Shaykh as a visionaire student one of my dream duas is to live in a fully furnished n totally serviced villa in a sustainable Muslim community..i picture it having a community kitchen with round d clock in house chef who deliver fresh healthy variety meals n snacks daily 🙂

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