Get Motivated: Using Lists to Create a Balanced Daily Schedule

I don’t really like the word “motivate” at all. To me, it seems like a dressed-up “should,” which is on my least-favorite-words list, and carries with it a sense of dread and obligation: I need to motivate myself to go jogging. You need to motivate yourself to do your homework. Let’s get motivated to clean the house. None of these things sound particularly inspiring (to me, anyway. If you love cleaning, kudos to you. Also please feel free to come over and sprinkle your motivated cleaning magic all over my house anytime).

That noted, it can sometimes be useful to look at finding motivation as simply identifying a place to begin, and beginning each day with a list is my favorite behavior-based tip. My own mother swore by lists to keep herself organized when I was younger, and I can’t imagine getting any day started without one. My own version is a bit more therapist-y, including not only what needs doing in the day, but also making space for things I want to do, and ways to take care of myself.  My go-to is the paper-and-pen variety, for easy marking and crossing-off-of-things. (Can you cross things off on an Iphone? Probably). You do whatever works for you.

To begin a motivating morning list-making practice, allot a few minutes at the beginning of each day. List out everything that you need to do (Groundbreaking, yes?). Now, list out everything that you’d like to do, but perhaps often don’t allow enough time for. Then organize things in terms of:

  • Must-do activities (going to work, attending to appointments)
  • Activities that take care of you (moving your body, cooking yourself a delicious dinner)
  • Activities that take care of others (cleaning up the house, caring for your family)
  • Restorative activities (like a yoga class, a meditation break, a phone call with a friend, etc.)

Of course, there may be some overlap between the categories, but the objective here is to reach for balance.

Now, put a star next to the activities that absolutely must get done today. Try to prioritize a number of activities that you can actually comfortably achieve within one day, and, if you can bring yourself to, allow the rest to fall to tomorrow. I know. It can often feel like the world is going to explode if everything is not completed to perfection Right Now Today, but I assure you that’s just your Anxious Part nudging at you and probably not reality. It is likely that most of the activities on your list are not world-ending-if-not-completed. To illustrate: One of my favorite podcasts recently recommended identifying FOUR things to accomplish within the course of a day. Four. This blew my mind, as it was about sixteen things less than was on my typical daily list (and on yours, I might expect). I’m not down to four things per day, but I have pared down my expectations of how many things I’m doing in one day. Amazingly, nothing has fallen apart yet. Conclusion: You probably think you need to complete more in a day than is actually necessary. Pare it down, and see what happens.

Now, create a list that is varied between the categories. Try to create a schedule that includes a mix of activities from each category in your list. (If you’re on the magical four-activities-per-day plan, that’s one activity from each category). If your list leans too heavily in any category, or lacks another completely, take a moment to consider what changes, if any, might be beneficial. If you find your list is exclusively Must-Do Activities, consider if you may be over-scheduling yourself. Are you working all day, every day, like so many of us are? If so, are there any changes that can be made to create space for other things? Similarly, if your list lacks any Restorative Activities, is it possible to add in one tiny activity just for you today, and see how it turns out? Again, pay attention to what must be completed, versus what can be moved to tomorrow’s list without much consequence. If you must make the choice between vacuuming the house and giving yourself a fifteen minute restorative reading break at the close of a long workday…well, my vote’s on the reading break, every time.

Practice making this list each morning, as a touchstone to begin your day and “get motivated”. See what information it gives you about how much you are doing in a day, and what types of activities you typically prioritize. Consider potential changes. Taking a few intentional moments to list-make each morning sets you up for a daily schedule that is mindful and balanced.

Originally posted on my blog, Common Humanity, at Psych To read more, visit

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