To Do Lists: Friend? Or Foe?
I, like many women (and probably some men, although I’ve yet to meet them), love a ‘to do’ list. My tiny Parisian apartment is littered with them from post-its and scraps of paper to leather bound ‘passion planners’. But recently I’ve been questioning whether they actually cause more harm than good. High functioning anxiety has, in the past, featured very high on my resumé. I excel at being nervous. I’ve come to realise that I’ve been self-fuelling it with my unnecessary, almost addictive need to see myself getting stuff done.
In today’s whirlwind society that moves faster than we can think, it can be difficult and anxiety inducing to keep up with all the things we need to do each day. Making lists is often a way of giving our minds a break from constantly repeating things to ourselves over and over like a broken record. And there’s new ones coming in all the time. Buy more washing tablets, pay the electricity bill, Katie’s birthday, P.E. kits Thursday, dentist appointment 9am and that thing that was just there a moment ago, hang on, it’s on the tip of my tongue….crap, should have written it down. Lists are a great way of coping when we worry that our brains might implode with thoughts.
But I’m wondering if we’re not becoming addicted to that sense of accomplishment as we draw a satisfying black line through each item. Giving it the value of making us feel completed and important. Talking to my Mum the other day, we laughed as we agreed to feeling a rush of pride as we cross off our duties but also, rather worryingly, both admitted that if we complete a task that’s not on the list that we will write it in and cross it off directly as we feel we’ve cheated ourselves of a self congratulatory pat on the back for getting something done. That’s more than a little silly and yet, I bet we are not alone.
Live your dreams, have goals, hobbies, have a full time job, be house proud and a good mother, daughter, friend, speak out, have a butt that could be mistaken for a ripe peach, travel, meditate. The list, ironically, goes on. Today’s women are more independent and have more freedom and power than ever before. Yet running along side these wonderful rights we’ve won and built up there’s also been a sharp rise in anxiety, depression and a colourful array of other mental health problems that people are trying to deal with, sometimes without knowing they are even suffering. Social media pushes us to be our ‘best selves’, to get more done, to look more perfect, to compete with other women at making a success of our lives. We feel we must always have something new to be working on so we can tell each other that our next incredible plan is just around the corner. Or at least I do. The pressure we put ourselves under is immense. Add to that the fact that the wonderful men in our lives continue on as oblivious as they were two decades ago to the pile of ironing, the lack of toothpaste or imagination for their Mother’s birthday present. They’re not fully expecting us to do it for them, but not doing it themselves either. It can really begin to feel like it’s all on us #whorunstheworld This question has now become rhetorical.
We are all, by now, through the deep insight of Facebook articles, aware that whilst our other halves may possess many enviable qualities like the ability to walk blindly past the stack of washing up for three days in a row (that we’ve left festering in the sink in protest) without developing a so much as a twitch, they aren’t exactly wizzes at multi-tasking. Maybe it’s biological or, just maybe, this is actually a survival technique that we’ve yet to clock on to. The ability to see past less enjoyable or necessary tasks keeps their minds clear and calm. I know what you’re all screaming at me now, ‘BUT SOMEONE’S GOT TO DO IT!’ And we don’t want to live like teenage students forever; washing up only when we need cutlery and so we do. We do it all. We also don’t want to be a nag, we want to be BETTER than that and so they get used to us picking up the slack and we marvel (and silently seethe) at their ability to ‘not see’ the mess accumulating around them.
Now, this is by no means a man bashing blog. I love my fiancé and often remind myself as I hoover for the third time in a day that, while he sheds leg hair faster than any animal I’ve come across, he also provides me with the kind of level-headed emotional support and love that keeps me sane as I struggle through the game of life. It doesn’t stop me feeling frustrated (most likely, if I’m truly analytical, at myself) as he lies down after work and watches TV for two hours straight without moving a muscle whilst I buzz around him like a turbo charged bee, doing a thousand little jobs that I’ve created for myself. I mean how does he do it? Doesn’t it make him nervous just doing nothing? I think I may be a little bit jealous. So instead of joining him, I scold him for being lazy and continue vacuuming the windowsill.
Sometimes, I vacuum the air.
Just to pre-empt the dust.
Somebody pass the little blue pills please.
This IS however, a blog about our over stimulated brains and how we suddenly feel it’s no longer acceptable to lie, slovenly on the sofa for a whole afternoon watching way too early and badly written Christmas films on channel 5 (Just me?) We do do it, but never truly relax, knowing that we could be being more productive if we tried. We may even get up several times as ideas drift into our brains and add them to the list of shame.
I put anything and everything on my lists. It feels good at the time. Phew, I think, getting it all out of my mind and onto paper, putting the beast in its paper cage, but not two seconds later it starts to growl back up at me in its now physical form and the anxiety begins to ball in my stomach as I realise I can’t possibly get all these things checked off instantly and that that list will now have to remain unfinished, making my sleep restless and my mind clouded. I regularly add things to my lists such as ‘paint nails’ or ‘wash hair’. I mean, I could just do this in my spare time, because I enjoy it or because it’s part of daily life, instead of turning it into something that NEEDS to be done and has a deadline. I don’t think I’m going to never remember to wash my hair and I’m quite sure no one actually cares if I have my nails painted or not. No one’s going to pull me up on it and label me ‘a mess’. I know that I don’t care about other people’s nail care!
I can look forward to a lovely day of nothing for so long and then fill it to the point where I collapse into bed and wonder where that day of blissful nothingness actually went. Instead I’ve spent the day getting all the things done that I haven’t yet had time for and the time has passed in a frenzied rollercoaster of procrastination and productivity. I feel like I’ve done a full day in the office and I’m mentally exhausted! It’s madness.
Making lists has even become fashionable. You can actually buy fancy planners that help you make lists for anything your heart desires. It’s become a hobby in itself. We’re all running around like headless chickens trying to confirm to ourselves that we are doing it. We are #winningatlife. I’ve definitely succumbed to the trend, buying myself unnecessary coloured pens and wasting hours making my 'to do' lists look beautiful and artistic only to realise that while I had enjoyed it for the first hour, it now seems like a task in itself that needs to be constantly maintained to a high standard. Half the lists I’ve never even looked back on and have probably duplicated numerous times just for the sheer thrill of re-writing them and seeing a smaller more compact inventory. I am getting somewhere, I tell myself firmly, yet not quite believing it. The truth is, I’m getting nowhere fast. I feel productive but I’m giving myself more work than is really needed.
So, I think it’s time we put down the biro, step away from the pile of notepads and stop ‘schedule shaming’ ourselves into oblivion. I bet I’m not the only one who feels a little bit ill adding things to a list that’s not yet finished. Will it ever end? Is this my life? A never-ending series of tasks to complete where I compete with myself to do more than is humanly possible in a day? Sometimes it feels like that.
I read quite a good little book back at the beginning of the year which helped me cross of ‘read more books’ from my New Year’s resolution list. It was called ‘Eat that frog’ and talked about labeling activities in order of importance or difficulty and doing only the smaller, more personal tasks when the big boys had been completed. This was actually useful in opening my eyes to what activities actually need to get done and which are filler activities that can be completed at a later date or that I’ve put in because I know they’ll be easy to check off!
In my opinion, lists only seem to incite fear in us, they light a fire under our bums and in our stomachs that can’t always be put out in one day and those that are left over keep beeping irritatingly in our minds, like my stopwatch that I can’t work out how to silence.
Breaking it down could be the answer. Only writing lists of up to say, three items a day and then spending the rest of the day actually living. Or even doing away with lists all together. Oh the novelty! Could I dare to be that brave? We could allow ourselves to do nothing, giving ourselves the time to actually realise that there is something spontaneous that we’d like to do that would give us pleasure and peace of mind even if it's only reorganising our wardrobe. I know. We just can’t stop! But we need to. Having a mind that’s constantly running at such a high frequency and telling ourselves that we are not being productive unless we’re getting things done and moving forward is unhealthy. Are we even moving forward or just avoiding bigger more life changing tasks that seem too overwhelming to even put down on paper? Your body will get tired and you may notice aches and pains, headaches or upset stomachs that you can’t quite allocate to anything. And the more we do it, the worse it gets. When our minds are calm it feels wrong somehow. Have we forgotten something? Is there something we could be doing to make better use of our time? There must be something that needs to be done! Ladies, enough. Just stop.
The thing about life is; there will always be more things, tasks, chores, and duties. They will just keep on coming. And the more we take on and agree to, the further away the goalposts of peace move. We can bog ourselves down with list after list or we can have faith in ourselves that all WILL get done. Create a little inner calm and believe that we are intelligent women whose mothers have taught them well and that we will remember the important things when we need to and that we will be forgiven for the things we forget. We can stop being afraid that we will be letting others and ourselves down or that we will gain a reputation for being unreliable. Because we don’t not do important things on purpose and because everyone drops the ball occasionally. These are (or were) MY underlying fears, I’ve come to realise. However, what made no sense was that I don’t judge others if they occasionally let me down or forget something I’ve asked of them so, why then, did I judge myself so severely? We must stop holding ourselves up to these impossible standards. It’s been said a million times and it will be said a million more. Life is short. No matter how much you get done in your insignificant lifetime, no one is going to look back at your time on Earth and say ‘God, she was exemplary at list making; she never left a job unticked!’
I’m proud to say that I didn’t add ‘write a blog on lists’ to my list and am conquering my ‘addiction’ one day at a time. Fighting the need to do stuff, to fill the emptiness and say I’ve progressed to feel like a success. It’s great to be proactive but it’s not healthy to hold yourself to standards that you wouldn’t hold others to. I remind myself I’m not failing by slowing down in life. I may even make more progress as my head is clear to get to work when, and if, it needs to. By giving myself permission to breathe, to not answer a message the second the phone pings and by not reaching for the notepad I’m trying to regain some trust within myself that things will always get done in due course, that there will always be time and if there’s not, well that’s just how it is. Tough titty everyone! I’m conscientious and I’m doing my best, but nobody’s perfect and no amount of completed lists are going to prove otherwise.
So let’s leave the list making for grocery shopping and suitcase packing and free our minds in order to make more solid, concentrated progress on the plans that really matter. The things that just can’t wait and the things we want to do, NOT, the things we feel we should do.
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