Ask the Resourceress #2: What To Do Next? The Magic of Random

Dear Resourceress,

I am constantly seeking new ways to manage my to do list. It can regularly throw me into a panic.

Even when I write down all the things, there are so many. Should I prioritize my side writing project? Or something for work? Or maybe call a friend I haven’t talked to in ages? Ugh, I can’t even see the top of my desk – perhaps I should clean that off first. Crap, I also need to clean the bathroom!

It doesn’t take long for me to start spinning. Which means I’m getting exactly nothing done.

What helps you juggle all the things?

Eternal Juggler


Dear Juggler,

I find myself in this swirl often, with many things to do and several ways to identify the priority. The number of choices I make day-by-day is astounding, from what to wear and eat, how to respond to a text, or whether I’m going to say yes to a new job offer.

While some people may find these decisions straightforward, many of us find the pile up of choices leads to decision fatigue. Any challenges withexecutive functioning make starting, prioritizing, and switching tasks a particularly stressful mental process. (As a side note, I sometimes find myself drawn to crisis work because I find comfort in the clear priorities for the work. But I digress).

When I notice myself stressed about making a choice between many different things, I drop the juggling and turn to my trusty decision making support tool: pick at random.

Not Sure What’s Next? Pick at Random

It seems so obvious in retrospect.* If I can’t find a good reason for choosing the next right thing, and if it’s not intuitively clear, the best option is to do something. Anything. And trust that even if it isn’t exactly the right next thing to work on, I’ve at least done one thing instead of getting stuck in an endless loop of stuck. Plus it’s likely that working on one thing actually helps mework on all the other things too.

Numbered to do list, with first and last items crossed off

How To Randomize a To Do List

Step 1: Write down all the things you have to do. Only include ones you can actually do right now.

Step 2: Label each item with a number, starting with 1.

Step 3: Use a random number generator and enter the minimum (1) and maximum for your list, the maximum being the total number of things you have listed. If you’ve listed 7 things, the maximum will be 7.

Step 4: Click “Generate” to receive a random number. If you get #4, you are invited to do the 4th thing on your list.

Step 5: Do the thing. 

Step 6: Cross the thing off and re-number your list.

Step 7: Repeat as long as you want. Building in some breaks is advised.

Feel the Magic Happen

I am consistently amazed at which tasks randomly get picked for me. If I’m avoiding an important phone call or errand? That’s one of the first things that gets picked. For me, that’s making a doctor’s appointment or clearing out my never-ending email inbox.

If it’s something that I’m anxious about, but it really could benefit from a few days where I’m *not* engaging? That seldom gets picked. What do I mean by that? It’s usually a project where I’m working to share leadership with other people. Moving at a slower pace gives more people a chance to engage at greater levels of decision making and power. Deciding my tasks at random slows my anxiety, often driven by my white sense of urgency, from just blowing through a group’s process. This often means that I leave tasks undone on my initially created to do list as part of the process. 

I’m not completely beholden to the random number generator. Sometimes a task comes up and I have a strong reaction that it’s not the right thing to do in the moment. That’s great information, more than I had when I started this process! Other times, I get in a flow after a couple of tasks, and can feel what comes next more naturally.  

My partner sometimes teases me for my little lists of numbered tasks. But when I get things crossed off my list, rather than turning to social media for soothing because I’m too anxious to choose something? It’s not about being productive. I feel more resourced to stay present for what’s most important to me in life.

*I am eternally grateful to Beth Wodzinski for suggesting the random to do list! It’s totally changed my world.

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