Why I’m Breaking Up with To-Do Lists

IMG_3806

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved making lists—particularly to-do lists. Those empty little boxes next to each task thrill me, and I can barely wait to fill them in with triumphant checkmarks.

Over the last couple years, my to-do list habit grew and morphed into something a bit more obsessive. The items multiplied and branched out into sub-categories. I experimented with keeping a Bullet Journal and settled on a variation that required me to rewrite the list over again every morning in a steno book.

Then I left my job and COVID hit, and suddenly I didn’t need such elaborate lists (if I ever did). And yet, I remained in thrall to those little suckers. They appeared on post-its and scraps of paper in my kitchen, in notebooks of all sizes, typed up in my phone notes, and in files on my laptop. I started to suspect that all this documenting and tracking of everything from trivial daily tasks to big life goals might be contributing to my anxiety.

Then, I got a brilliant idea, which I must credit in part to dancer, choreographer, and author Twyla Tharp. In her book “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life,” Tharp shares her practice of temporarily removing the biggest distractions from her life in order to boost creativity and focus. For a week, she steers clear of multitasking, movies, numbers, and background music.

Tharp writes: “Subtracting your dependence on some of the things you take for granted increases your independence. It’s liberating, forcing you to rely on your own ability rather than your customary crutches.”

She’s right, of course. Quitting to-do lists for a short period of time felt so freeing that I’ve chosen to strike them indefinitely—maybe forever.

What am I getting out of it?

Once I stopped writing down all my tasks, I started to get a better idea of my true priorities. Apparently, in my haste to check off items on the list, I had been tackling the easy tasks first plus the ones I wanted to get out of the way. Consequently, the things I really wanted to do kept sliding to the bottom of the list and then on to the next day, and the next, and the next.

With no list taunting me, I’m able to ask myself, what do I want to do right now? And then I do it. It’s sounds ridiculous, but for someone like me, it seems to be working.

For important items, like doctor’s appointments, I schedule them in the calendar in my phone and set a digital reminder to make sure I don’t miss them. But I do this only for appointments that must not be missed. Everything else is up for grabs.

This hasn’t been easy. My hand wants to grab that pen and paper. My mind wants to see what all is on my plate. But I stop myself and move on. And it gets easier every day. My mind feels more spacious and fluid.

I also decided to stop mentally ticking off all my accomplishments for the day. I used to do this in bed at night, and though it sounds like a nice way to pat myself on the back, in practice it functioned too much like a nightly meeting with the judge who resides inside my head.

Maybe one day I will try making a simpler version of my to-do lists; or maybe, like alcohol, my life is better without them.

The Domino Effect

IMG_3598

Sometimes when I struggle with making a decision or writing a blog post, I “interview” myself. When I have some time alone, I ask myself probing questions and answer them, often out loud to hear how they sound. Does this make me sound nutty? Don’t answer that.

Recently, I asked myself what I thought was the most influential thing that I’ve done to improve my confidence and peace of mind. If I could recommend one big life-changing step to others, what would it be? This was not a difficult question to tackle, except I kept changing my answer—maybe it was quitting drinking three years ago, or maybe it was quitting smoking 11 years ago, or maybe it was something else.

Picture a long line of dominoes standing on their ends. When you push one it knocks down the next domino and so on until the final domino falls. Which domino would you say is the single most important piece in getting the chain from the beginning to the end point? The first domino gets everything rolling, of course. And the last one completes the action. But every domino in the chain connects the domino before it to the domino after it—each one serves a purpose and keeps the momentum alive.

That’s how it’s been for me this past decade-plus. Each decision I made to improve my life was often impacted by the decision before it and then led to a subsequent positive choice. After I quit smoking, I started exercising more. Feeling better made me want to live in a place where I could get outside more. When my husband and I moved, being around nature made me want to improve my physical and mental health even more. I started meditating and eating mostly Paleo. This led me to quit drinking, which led me to take a writing workshop. Writing more led me to leave my marketing job in search of something more fulfilling.

Each step of this journey played its part, just like each domino plays its part in the chain reaction. When we get stuck on one step, the way a domino occasionally fails to push over the next one, we can miss out on all the other great steps that are waiting on the other side.

So, I can’t really say what is the best life-changing action someone could or should take. But I can say that the most important thing you can do is identify the next critical action—whether it’s finding a form of exercise you actually want to do, leaving a stressful job, getting into therapy, moving on from a bad relationship—and take it, so that the domino effect of your life never stops progressing.

 

The Difference Between Oprah and Me

IMG_4353
Impressionism in every day life: my feet under our patio table.

As I was scrolling through Facebook recently, I came upon a post from a former co-worker I like and admire very much. She was announcing that she had accepted an impressive new job. This was not the first colleague or friend to share similar news within the last several months.

Each time, I was truly happy to learn that someone for whom I have mad respect earned a major promotion, decided to start their own business, or otherwise achieved something extraordinary career-wise.

But I also felt a chilly wind blowing through my chest. Someone else’s success often leads me to panic that I am flailing about in life, and it’s particularly tough when I’m going through an iffy transition period.

Currently, I am making a shift in my career, and I guess you could say I’m playing a long game—though that phrasing would imply that a clear plan is in effect. In reality, there’s no telling how this move will pan out. Given my pessimistic and impatient nature, it’s pretty amazing that I’ve taken such a leap without knowing exactly how or where I’ll land.

fullsizeoutput_2f43
Flowers alongside Lake Linganore, Md.

The Self-Motivation Spectrum

On a long drive the other day, I did a little self coaching to process my fear of being an underachiever. As I have many times before, I pictured a spectrum that measures a potent mix of ambition, drive, and perseverance.

At one end of this spectrum are people like Oprah who started out their lives with very few advantages yet became wildly successful. These people shine bright in their chosen field, take on daring new projects, and lead the way for others. They are respected and reliable. Inspired and inspiring.

The kind of person who resides at the other end of the spectrum isn’t necessarily unimaginative or lazy, but for whatever reason they are not inclined to step outside their comfort zone, to take risks, to push ahead.

By my own estimation, I sit somewhere in the middle of that spectrum—maybe a bit above the center marker, or maybe just below (depending on the day, month, or year). Where you fall on the spectrum doesn’t matter so much, as long as you are happy and fulfilled.

For those of us who wish we were a little higher on the spectrum, an important question emerges: Why do folks land at various points along the spectrum? I’ve formed a theory that might help answer that question.

fullsizeoutput_2fab
Sign outside a home in Williamsport, Md.

Toxic Stress

When I am faced with uncharted territory—something new, challenging, different—I typically convert much of the accompanying uncertainty and excitement into stress.

In situations like this, I would define stress as a toxic combination of three tendencies:

1. Catastrophizing: Conjuring up all the things that could go wrong, from the small to the spectacular.

2. Self-doubt: Assuming I will fail because I’m really not that talented, skilled, or industrious.

3. Martyrdom: Reminding myself that I have terrible luck, and life is so unfair.

Once stress takes form, I grab onto it like it’s a life raft in choppy water. But stress is not a lifesaver—its an identity that I cling to out of fear. I’m afraid to let go of that anxious person I’ve always been. It’s a habit as strong and automatic as any addiction.

People like Oprah, I believe, convert the same uncertainty and excitement into positive energy or fuel. They thrive on pushing themselves to reach higher, build new skills, and cross new thresholds. I’m sure they experience stress and doubt, too. But they might end up with 20 percent stress and 80 percent motivation, while I end up with 80 percent stress and 20 percent motivation.

Where Oprah sees opportunity, I see obstacles.

Jessie Graff is one of the top competitors on the show American Ninja Warrior. In the final seconds of an amazing run a couple years ago, Graff fell off the last obstacle, thus eliminating herself from the competition. She was interviewed on the sidelines afterward, and Graff said she was ok with falling—that discovering the limit of her abilities showed her where she needed to do the work. What a fabulous outlook to have!

fullsizeoutput_2f44
Tools for sale at a street fair in Elkridge, Md.

Attitude Adjustment

So…I’ve hypothesized that some of us on the spectrum are stressing ourselves out far more than we should, and that is leading to discomfort and inertia. Now what?

Lately I’ve been listening more closely to the words that come out of my mouth—specifically the off-the-cuff answers I give to unexpected questions.

Just the other day, my mother’s therapist suggested something I could do to help her, and I was full of reasons why it wouldn’t work. As the words left my lips, I could hear the negativity, and I wanted to suck them back in. Too late. As the counselor urged me to focus on the potential positives, I sat there feeling ashamed of my pessimistic mindset.

A recent commenter on this very blog suggested that I “stop being so over critical.” Oh, how I would love to!

But that’s just it—no one can do this but me. Like Graff, my limits are pointing to where I need to do the work. If I want to move up a few notches on the motivation spectrum, I need to convert some of that excess stress to excitement, hope, and optimism.

Here are a few simple strategies I’m employing:

– When I read posts from or about inspiring people, rather than focus on how much I envy them or differ from them, I will try to focus on what I can learn from them.

– Instead of noting all the times I’ve faltered, I will recall the times I’ve succeeded. This will come more naturally if I practice telling myself over and over: You have what it takes!

– I will remind myself that even hugely accomplished people fail at various points in their lives. No one can win all the time, and failure is actually critical to success.

– I have committed that my next three blog posts will be more positive. Period.

Shaking off my longtime stress monkey isn’t going to happen overnight. Years of conditioning have etched unease into my nervous system.

But progress will come, if I embrace this attitude adjustment as a key part of my ongoing journey.

In the meantime, keep those announcements coming, my friends! I’m so proud of you all.