Why I’m Breaking Up with To-Do Lists

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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.

What to Binge After Tiger King – Part I

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Looking for something to binge watch during your home quarantine, now that you’ve seen Tiger King and Love is Blind? Well, as some of you may know, I watch a lot of TV. It’s been that way since I was a wee child and our TV sat on a wheeled cart that we swiveled back and forth between the dining room and the living room.

I’ve struggled to tame my media over-consumption for years now, and considerable progress has been made. My eyeballs are no longer glued to the screen unless I’m watching something I consider “must see TV.” But there’s a lot of good stuff out there, folks, and thanks to my husband we have every pay channel and streaming service known to humankind.

So, I am kindly sharing hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of research with you. Due to the sheer volume, my recommendations will be offered in parts—a limited series, if you will. This first part covers my favorite half-hour shows that first premiered during the past decade. Each show listing contains no more than 280 characters—just the basics to help you decide if each show is for you.

Enjoy!  Much more to follow during these cloistered times…

Half-Hour Shows (recent-ish—started in 2011 or later):

Barry

HBO; 2 seasons so far (2018-?)

From IMDB: “A hit man from the Midwest moves to Los Angeles and gets caught up in the city’s theatre arts scene.”

My opinion: Probably one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. Brilliant, quirky cast. Moody, wacky, bingeable. Alert: Very violent.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

NBC/Hulu; 7 seasons so far (2013-?)

From IMDB: “…an immature but talented N.Y.P.D. detective comes into conflict with his serious and stern new commanding officer.”

My opinion: Gleefully goofy, charming cast, both broad and subtle jokes. Just try not to smile!

Catastrophe

Amazon Prime; 4 seasons (2015-2019)

Summary: Rob (from the U.S.) and Sharon (living in London) try to turn a hook up into a committed relationship.

My opinion: Hilarious, raunchy, unexpected, and engaging. If you’ve ever been part of a couple, you can’t help but relate.

Dead to Me

Netflix; 1 season, second one coming soon (2019-?)

From IMDB: “A powerful friendship blossoms between a tightly wound widow and a free spirit with a shocking secret.”

My opinion: Darkly funny, adult, lots of great twists, immensely bingeable. Two fabulous leading women.

Dear White People

Netflix; 3 seasons, fourth coming soon (2017-?)

From IMDB: “At a predominantly white Ivy League college, a group of black students navigate various forms of racial and other types of discrimination.”

My opinion: Funny, compelling, hugely entertaining, winning cast.

Enlightened

HBO/Amazon Prime; 2 seasons (2011-2013)

Summary: After a breakdown followed by a spiritual awakening, a woman makes it her mission to enlighten others and reform her workplace.

My opinion: Overlooked gem! Funny, bizarre, suspenseful, awkward. Laura Dern is fearless.

Fleabag

Amazon Prime; 2 seasons (2016, 2019)

From IMDB: “…a young woman trying to cope with life in London whilst coming to terms with a recent tragedy.”

My opinion: LOVE! Brilliant, hilarious, saucy, and touching. Second season is darn near perfect. Alert: Fourth-wall breaking.

The Good Place

NBC; 4 seasons total (2016-2020)

Summary: An eclectic group of characters explore what happens after death.

My opinion: Amazing cast, incredible concept, funny, intelligent, big-hearted, and full of interesting twists—what more could you ask for? A+ series finale.

High Fidelity

Hulu; 1 season so far (2020-?)

Summary: A record-store owner recounts her worst breakups while talking music w/friends.

My opinion: Zoe Kravitz is utterly cool AND relatable. Fun, hip, engaging, NYC-drenched. Alert: Lots of drinking/substance use, fourth-wall breaking.

Homecoming

Amazon Prime; 1 season, second one coming soon (2018-?)

From IMDB: “Heidi [Julia Roberts] works at Homecoming, a facility helping soldiers transition to civilian life.” Or are they?

My opinion: Intense, creepy, riveting, thought-provoking. A must for conspiracy fans.

The Last Man on Earth

Fox/Hulu; 4 seasons (2015-2018)

From IMDB: “…after a virus wiped out most of the human race, Phil wishes for some company, but soon gets more than he bargained for.”

My opinion: Hilarious, dark AND silly. Perhaps too timely? End of series leaves things hanging.

Mrs. Fletcher

HBO; 1 season so far (2019-?)

From IMDB: “A single mom whose son moves out for college begins a new life on her own.”

My opinion: Fun, provocative, complicated, and surprisingly tender. Alert: If “unconventionally sexy” gives you pause, maybe skip this one.

Russian Doll

Netflix; 1 season so far (2019-?)

Summary: A woman in Manhattan keeps reliving her same birthday party, trying to figure out how to break the time loop.

My opinion: Funny, edgy, mind-blowing, totally binge-worthy, top-notch cast, tight plot. A must for New Yorkers.

Servant

Apple TV+; 1 season so far (2019-?)

Summary: A husband tries a unique approach for dealing with a family tragedy while his wife hires a mysterious nanny.

My opinion: Super creepy, gothic, juicy performances, food fixation, keeps you guessing. Alert: Not for weak stomachs.

Shrill

Hulu; 2 seasons (2019-2020)

Summary: A young woman seeks creative and professional fulfillment and a satisfying relationship.

My opinion: Aidy Bryant rules! The whole cast is incredible. Funny, touching, surprising, inspiring, unapologetically fat-positive. Don’t miss out!

Your feedback is welcome. Did my brief recommendations sufficiently steer you in the right direction? Got any recent half-hour shows you think I should watch?

Can We Talk About Jealousy?

This post continues exploring a theme I first addressed in Wrestling with My Inner Mean Girl in Honor of #MeToo.

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A seemingly satisfied goose at England Acres Farm in Mt Airy, Md.

Several months ago The New York Times ran a style piece about a woman in her 20s who creates designer ice cubes. As I read the article, my mind lit up with envy. The subject, Leslie Kirchhoff, was being celebrated for capitalizing on something I recall doing as a child—suspending objects in ice.

But frozen water is not her only medium. The article relayed her first big break: “While studying abroad in Paris during her sophomore year at New York University, Ms. Kirchhoff learned how to D.J. at the hip nightclub Le Montana, which led to a regular Friday night gig at the Top of the Standard when she returned to New York.”

How exactly she managed to score D.J. lessons at a trendy French club wasn’t explained.

One of Kirchhoff’s other claims to fame is co-creating the buzz-worthy “Drunk Crustaceans” calendar, which features shellfish in twee settings, such as a shrimp lounging in a miniature bathtub with a tiny bottle of wine. And if that’s not enough, Kirchhoff is also a photographer, with credits that include Vogue.com.

In the photo that accompanied the NYT piece, Kirchhoff is revealed to be tall and slim with long blonde hair. She is the kind of woman Paper magazine photographs in designer clothes and dubs “The Coolest Girl in the Room.” To sum it up, I hate her.

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Metal flamingos at Blacksmith’s Garden in Frederick, Md.

Jealousy is a common human emotion, but you don’t hear many people eager to unpack it. Copping to envy is like admitting that you’re insecure, and possibly vain and petty as well. Who wants to explore how crappy it feels to be covetous and resentful? Surprisingly, I do!

But why? Well, let’s face it, the world is often unpredictable and sometimes cruel. Most of us encounter numerous inequities, both big and small, throughout our lives. When this occurs, initially we might feel bad about ourselves—maybe we don’t deserve to have good things happen to us. This feeling is quite uncomfortable, so often we transfer the blame onto the person who has what we want.

Thus, envy hardens into animosity toward people we assume have an unearned leg up or are gaming the system. This line of thinking can affect how we treat others. Sensing you’ve been cheated can lead someone to think, say, and do foolish, spiteful things.

A closer examination could help prevent jealousy from degenerating into ill-advised words and actions, and I believe that’s an opportunity worth seizing. So, let’s dive deeper.

I sat down and drafted a lengthy list of things that make me jealous. Then I grouped the items on the list into three main categories, borrowing from the well-known Serenity Prayer for my framework. Every example below comes from my own messed-up (in other words, human) mind.

Things I cannot change:

 This first list comprises circumstances that are usually referred to as luck or fate.

  • Being born into wealth
  • Belonging to a family with connections to powerful people who can offer life-changing favors
  • Looking like a fashion model
  • Possessing the talent of a brilliant singer, dancer, painter, or other creative genius
  • Having siblings who can share the responsibilities involved in caring for aging parents

There is very little wiggle room in changing these circumstances, so getting peeved about them is a poor use of one’s mental energy. However, we humans like to be in control, so our lack of control here can be particularly annoying. When faced with the arbitrary nature of the universe, our minds can go to some unpleasant places.

For example: Upon reading about a woman who is beautiful, talented, and successful—a less charmed person (let’s say me) might wallow in the unfairness of the situation. Why wasn’t I blessed with such good fortune? This jealousy can lead to villainizing the woman to soothe my feelings of inferiority. Her parents are no doubt rich and well-connected—she probably doesn’t deserve her success at all. This tactic might make me feel better temporarily, but it does nothing for my long-term satisfaction.

The best remedy or antidote to the “things I cannot change” brand of envy is simple gratitude. For every quality you envy in a person who seems to have hit the birthright jackpot, think of something for which you can be grateful. I’ve been trying this, and it really can help. But sometimes it’s also best just to take quick note of someone’s prodigious gifts and then move on with your life.

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It would be silly to envy a beautiful flower; we simply appreciate it instead.

Things I can change:

The items in this second grouping feature characteristics that don’t come naturally to some of us but aren’t impossible to develop. 

  • The ability to relax and not stress over the small stuff, like housework, bills, deadlines
  • An inclination to rely on the big stuff turning out okay—not worrying about getting cancer, dying early, or going broke
  • Exuding genuine personal confidence
  • Being in good physical shape
  • Actively developing new skills, learning new things, and chasing life goals

I try to be delighted that there is so much to accomplish here—room for progress is good, otherwise we stagnate. The trick is not to dwell on how much improvement is needed, and instead jump in and get to work.

We may whine to ourselves that some of these things seem hard. When you’ve spent most of your life worrying, like I have, about dying in a car crash or losing my house or saying something stupid, it’s hard to imagine going through your days without such creeping dread. But you can control your thoughts and actions. You can become what you envy.

Here’s a simple example: My husband is way more chill than I am about things like yardwork and the cleanliness of our house. My feelings about this are a combination of frustration that I end up doing most of the work (which is my choice, after all) and envy transformed into anger. So, I decided to try learning from him. I’m reconditioning myself so that I do fewer chores that might make me resentful; instead I read, write, or take a nap—things that make me happy. I will never be as relaxed as he is, but I’m starting to see positive results in my attitude.

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Trying to chill in my kayak on Lake Linganore, Md. Those eyelids still look a little tense.

Things I may not want to change:

This last category contains items we only think we want. 

  • Ambition that results in big promotions and a rising career
  • Frequent travel to faraway places
  • Leading a wild life without concern for adverse consequences
  • Being super positive and cheerful all the time
  • Never second-guessing yourself or struggling to make decisions

The same feelings of resentment bubble up when you see someone exhibiting these desirable traits or behaviors. But if you’re completely honest with yourself, it becomes clear that you simply aren’t one of those people.

This is great news! You are off the hook from not being more driven or perky or decisive, and you can stop resenting those who are like that.

One more example: I have friends who make it a priority to travel twice a year—every freaking year—to exotic locations. I always get a twinge of jealousy when I see their photos on Facebook. But a couple years ago I began reminding myself that travel is not a priority of mine. I could save up the money and set aside some vacation time and travel more if I really wanted to, but I have other preferences that mean more to me. Now I just say to myself, that’s so great that my friends figured out how much they love to travel and are making it happen.

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When I do travel, I usually end up missing home, because why wouldn’t I?

If envy haunts you, make your own list. Once you place each jealousy trigger into one of the three categories, you’ll realize that there’s only one group that should have an impact on you—the things you can change. Now you have a manageable list for self-development.

When jealousy starts invading your brain anyway, reject the usual script and try out a new internal dialogue. Here’s how I might react differently to that same article about the luxury ice cube creator:

Smile upon other people’s good fortune: This woman studied abroad in Paris, and not only could she get into a hip club, but someone taught her how to D.J. while she was there! Now she’s getting rich making ice cubes! How awesome is that?!

Identify their effort: According to the article, Kirchhoff “spent four years developing her own ice-making method and turned it into a business.” Good for her for having the dedication and the belief in her vision to put in the time and energy.

Remember your dreams and your skills:  Ice cubes aren’t really my thing. I want to reach people through my writing. I’m not half bad at it, and I will only get better if I make it a higher priority.

Find inspiration: What an amazing world we live in—if people will buy designer ice, surely there is an audience for my writing. I just need to find my niche.

Commit to immediate and ongoing action: I’m going to spend two hours writing tonight instead of watching TV or scrolling through social media. And I will make room in my schedule for regular writing in the morning.

Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being jealous now and then and confessing to it as a way to expel the shame. If we don’t let it rule us, we can learn from envy and use it to propel us forward.

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I am grateful for many things, especially red velvet ice cream in a chocolate-dipped cone.

Putting the Self-Care in Caregiving

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Fields of lavender (Mom’s favorite color) at Springfield Manor in Thurmont, Md.

My mother fell about a month ago. I was there by her side, but I didn’t have a good grasp of her hand, and suddenly she was falling, and there was nothing I could do.

She hit her head hard, so we called 911, and the paramedics took her to the hospital. Everything checked out okay, but a day later her face looked like she went 12 rounds in a boxing ring.

For the past four weeks now, when we go to one of her doctor’s appointments, I make sure our fingers are intertwined as we walk to and from the car. The intimacy of this hand-holding is almost unbearable—it exposes a vulnerability I’d rather not acknowledge. And it harkens back to childhood and innocence, before our roles were reversed.

Last summer my mom’s kidney doctor began preparing us for the fact that she would need to start dialysis treatments in about six months’ time.

Anyone caring for an aging parent or seriously ill family member knows the feeling that comes with this moment. Life is about to change, and your control over it is precarious.

My entire body clenched, and I was immediately transported back 10 years, to when my mother still lived hundreds of miles away.

“My doctor says I’m going to need dialysis soon,” she told me on the phone in 2008. When she was a young girl, an appendix operation had revealed that one of my mom’s kidneys was not functioning and would need to be removed. I was aware that my mother’s single kidney would eventually wear out, but I was hoping it would be much later in life.

She added: “I’m not going on dialysis. My friend Carol told me terrible things about it, and I won’t do it.”

“So, you’re just going to let yourself die?” I asked. No answer.

I realized that I would need to make a swift and assured transformation from apprehensive daughter to protective parent figure.

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At the Kapok Tree Inn restaurant in Clearwater, Fl., with Grandmom and Mom on my birthday.

I went to visit Mom in Georgia, so we could see her nephrologist together. I had previously tried to communicate with this doctor via phone and email about the status of my mother’s condition, but all I got was an envelope in the mail containing a printed page about kidney disease that I could have Googled myself.

In person, the doctor assured me that dialysis was not yet on the horizon. My mother had misinterpreted or imagined the whole thing. Relieved as I was, I did not see this misunderstanding as an encouraging sign.

I went back to Maryland and tried to put my concerns out of mind. There was no health emergency to speak of, and I hoped that I could continue to monitor the situation long distance.

A year later my mother confessed on a call that she had not left her apartment in over a week, and no one in the senior living facility had noticed. No friends or family in the area had called to check on her. When I was in my teens, my mother had suffered a severe depression, and I feared that she could be on the brink of another major episode.

My husband and I had a long talk that night. I was in my early 40s at the time, which seemed too young to be taking in a not-quite-elderly parent. My husband and I had been married less than two years. We had just bought our first house together, and we were enjoying being homeowners. Together, alone.

I was anxious at the prospect of my physically and emotionally demanding mother coming to live with us. Would it be a disaster from the start? Would I fall apart? Would my spouse slowly grow to resent me over the years?

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The dog gets lots of long walks.

My husband and I will never know if we made the “right” decision. To this day, eight years later, I occasionally review the pros and cons. And on most days, I conclude that the choice we made makes the most sense. But sometimes, when Mom calls upstairs at midnight to ask if we have an extra roll of toilet paper, I entertain second thoughts.

Acting as my mother’s health advocate, which is akin to a part-time job, is certainly easier with her under our roof. I manage her medications and go with her on all doctor’s appointments, taking detailed notes. Fitting her care into my work schedule is challenging and requires an understanding employer.

My mother has had three long hospital and rehabilitation stays and numerous out-patient procedures since she came to live with us. Both of her knees have been replaced (at the same time!), and a few years later she fell and broke a hip.

My heart goes out to every caregiver who has ever stalked the hospital halls looking for a nurse who has time to listen, who has worried about how many painkillers their parent is taking, or questioned if they should call the doctor’s answering service yet again.

When dealing with a family member with long-term health issues, self-care is critical. Caregivers must be proactive about their own health and well-being.

In addition to making sure I don’t put off my check-ups, I try to exercise, meditate, and spend time outdoors regularly. Writing and other forms of creative expression are real sanity savers. And sometimes, I simply need to be alone, even if it’s just to go shopping by myself.

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Out on Lake Linganore in New Market, Md.

My husband has been patient, and I am grateful that he is so supportive. But I can’t take his kindness for granted—I must prioritize partner-care alongside self-care. Is our relationship strong enough to weather any condition? We’re about to find out, because the storm is a comin’.

This time my mother’s kidney really is failing, and she has agreed to go on dialysis. Mom and I have attended a class, and she has been through multiple procedures to prepare for the upcoming treatments.

I will soon explore support groups for caregivers, and I have committed to start putting “me time” on the calendar so I remember to relax, reflect, and recharge.

At the top of my list is boundaries. I have never been very good at drawing and patrolling a proper perimeter between the two of us. Much like our hands when we walk to the car, our lives have become unavoidably entangled.

But as every good caregiver should, I will now strive to steady my mom while keeping my own feet firmly on the ground.

Next time: Something different!

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Mom and me outside the house in New Market, Md., where her bionic knees help her walk up and down lots of stairs.