Can Do, Must Do, Should Do: Making Life Simpler and More Purposeful


Are you getting a bit stressed as you head into the holiday season? Is your to-do list a mile long?  Here are four tips to help you thoughtfully pare down that list of tasks to only those that really matter:

1) List your current activities: in pencil!

Create a three-column list with these headings: MUST DO, SHOULD DO (Why?) and CAN DO. Quickly jot down your tasks within those categories.  Add a brief note about  why you are doing them.  To maintain meaningful family traditions? Bring in necessary income? Bond with your kids?

Or is it possible those tasks are on your list because you simply couldn’t say “no”?  If any activities listed are motivated by guilt, social pressure, fear of embarrassment, competitiveness, pride, or fear of not measuring up as wife or mother, it’s time to re-think them. To live life more joyfully and deliberately:

2) Identify your personal goals.

Make another list: this time of your personal and family goals. Think about life goals. Categories might include Faith, Family, Household, Community, Work and Health.  Now prioritize your goals according to those most important to you and your family at this time in your life.

3) Compare your goals with your list.  Are they in alignment? Do you see any conflicts?

Include volunteerism or work-related projects in your assessment You may have been persuaded that you are indispensable due to knowledge or experience you’ve acquired. But are those activities in conflict with some of your current major goals, for instance building your relationships with your kids while they are still at home?

4) Pray about what to release.

While your life goals may remain, priorities do change during various times of life.  If  you have a new baby, you should not expect to carry over all volunteer activities you did before she was born, no matter how meaningful those are.

Give yourself permission to take a hiatus while your children are small. You can plan to help out again in later years. I made this choice after volunteering for a crisis organization for many years, to allow time to bond with my own kids. Even if your children are older, remember that they will be grown and gone before you know it!

It can be difficult to release responsibilities if you have been persuaded that you are indispensable. But if that role needs filling, it will be filled. Perhaps God has in mind someone who needs that experience themselves to grow,  or who can offer expertise or talent that you could not.  You can still volunteer meaningfully, with your kids: for example, filling and delivering food baskets to the hungry at Christmas or putting together shoebox gifts for Operation Christmas Child.

Ask your family what Christmas tasks of yours are most important to them. My kids can easily live with store-bought Christmas cookies, but would rebel if I didn’t get up early on Christmas day to bake my Danish Puff Pastry with sliced almonds, almond icing and maraschino cherries (see recipe, below in Comment 1). “It’s our family tradition!” they cry out. I can still recall my now-23-year-old son calling them cheeramino cherries when he was little—perhaps because they brought such good cheer?

5) Make some new choices.

Now get out your eraser and move some items in your to-do list, based on consideration of your goals and priorities.  Is a Must Do actually a Can Do item? Or vice versa? If it’s a Should Do item—who says so and why?

Finally, take a piece of paper and cover up the entire Can Do column.  Can you breathe a little  more easily? If not, cover up the Should Do column as well.  Feel better? It is amazing how much we can fill our time with unnecessary tasks. Now dive into whatever is left on your list with enthusiasm and new purpose and enjoy the Christmas season!

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.

(Ecclesiastes 3:1, NIV)

[Adapted from Chapter 5 (Maybe Later, Dear) in The Power of Parent-Child Play by Laurie Winslow Sargent.

Reprints available by author permission at

About Laurie Winslow Sargent

Laurie Winslow Sargent @LaurieSargent at has tips for parents, and offers advice to nonfiction writers. Author of Delight in Your Child's Design, Second Edition, Kindle (2016, EABooks), paperback edition (2005,Tyndale/Focus on the Family), and The Power of Parent-Child Play (2003, Tyndale). She has also contributed to 11 other books, dozens of magazines, and been on radio broadcasts aired in nearly every US state.

One response »


    1st set of ingredients:

    1 cup sifted flour
    ½ cup butter
    2 T water

    Cut the ½ cup butter into the 1 cup flour. Sprinkle with the 2 T. water and mix with a fork. Divide in half, pat into 2 strips, 12” X 3”, 3” apart on an ungreased baking pan.

    2nd set of ingredients:

    ½ cup butter
    1 cup water
    1 cup sifted flour
    3 eggs
    1 tsp almond flavoring

    Bring to a boil the water and butter. Add almond flavoring and remove from the heat. Immediately add all the flour at once (to prevent lumping) and beat until smooth and thick. Add eggs one at a time, beating until smooth after each. (Can use a hand mixer or beat hard by hand.) Divide in half and spread over strips of pastry.

    Bake for 350 degrees for 1 hour.

    Frost with confectioner’s sugar icing flavored with almond extract. Decorate with slivered almonds and maraschino cherries sliced in half. Serves about about six people. Yum!

    Posted in memory of my loving mother-in-law, who gave me this recipe when I married her son 30 years ago.


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