You're probably thinking this post is going to be me complaining about how long my to-do list is.
But it's not. Not really. It's about something deeper, something that God has nagging me about for a while now.
It's that I'm losing myself inside my to-do lists.
To give you some context: I'm the kind of person who constantly has things I need to do, should do, and want to do running through my head. And the more that I pursue new goals and projects, the more mountains of need-should-wants pop up everywhere I turn.
The to-do list is just a tool that keeps me from going crazy. Often once I've written everything down that I need-should-want to do, I see there's not as much as I thought there was when it was in my head stressing me out.
At work, I live off my to-do list. If something's not on there, it doesn't get done. At the beginning of the day, I copy down any remaining items from the previous day's list and then work through them methodically, adding new things as they come up. It keeps me focused and productive and feeling like I've accomplished a lot, and rarely do I have more than a few things left at the end of the day; it's not unusual for me to actually finish the last item before I leave for the day.
The problem is that I've been trying to apply this same structure to life at home. But I'm at work for 8 hours straight every day, 5 days a week. Of course it's not hard to get through everything. And my boss only gives me as much work as I can reasonably get done -- sometimes, not enough. Plus, once they're assigned to me, they're all things I need to get done, just with different priority levels and deadlines.
At home, I don't just have one category (need to do). I have things I need to do because they have a deadline (pay our insurance bill, mail this book someone ordered from us on Half.com), things I should do even though they don't have a deadline (exercise, plan meals), and things I just want to do (comment on blogs, design my new blog business cards).
But the categories aren't even that clear. I need to clean out the rats' cage eventually, and I should do it today, but I don't have to. I was supposed to knit my mother-in-law a hat for Christmas, so I felt guilty about not having finished it, even though really I don't think she would have cared that much if I never gave it to her. I told Mike I'd post some more books on Half.com, and I want to clear out the space and make the money, but it's not exactly pressing that I do it today or even this week. And on and on.
My weekends, which should be time for me to rest and recharge before going back to work, have instead become marathon sessions of tackling my to-do items.
As I've set more goals for myself this past year and tried to focus on the things I really wanted to be doing with my life, I've found that the pace of adding things to do has outstripped my ability to get them done.
I tried doing 'Becca's approach of trying to accomplish three things a day, but my backlog kept getting longer and longer, and I needed to write down everything regardless so it wouldn't stress me out.
When I was in college, I taught myself not to procrastinate. If I had things to get done, I would tackle them immediately and work and work until they were done, and then I could go hang out with friends or whatever. Big projects had to be done in pieces over time, of course, but if I had some little things I could knock out, I taught myself to get those done before doing anything else, anything fun. And because schoolwork comes in a finite amount and has clear deadlines, this system worked.
Now that I've discovered I have a bottomless to-do list, this habit is working against me.
One of the things I learned during my happiness project is that I've lost touch with knowing what I enjoy doing by myself. I enjoy spending time with other people, I enjoy playing games, I enjoy talking with Mike, and all of these things I will make time for without too much trouble. But because I taught myself to get anxious if I was doing something unproductive (e.g., playing a computer game) when I had things that needed to get done or should get done, it's like I've lost my ability to goof off. Everything has become a task. Even checking Facebook and Twitter is methodical.
And because there are always more things waiting on my need-to-do or should-do list, I haven't been forced to rediscover the things I find fun. The things I enjoy that make me who I am.
My to-do list has gone from providing me structure for my life to structuring my life for me.
Obviously I've accomplished a lot of stuff in the past year. I finally took programming classes, something I'd wanted to do for years. I've grown my blog, which I love. Mike and I are finally almost done with this art project we've been working on for about two years. I've made several prayer shawls (and a hat -- I stayed up last night to finish it!). I made a DVD compilation of interviews with my mom and her siblings and actually got it done in time for Christmas.
But I've also filed a bajillion papers, cleaned the rats' cage more times than I can count, washed their smelly bedding again and again, deposited Mike's paychecks twice a month, exercised twice a week, called up customer service of way more companies than I wished I ever had to talk to, transferred money between accounts, paid bills, gone grocery shopping, charged my cell phone, cleaned old food out of the fridge... the list goes on and on. (I'm flipping back through my to-do notebook.)
So the questions I have for myself (and for you) are this:
- How do I spend more time doing the former activities -- things that move me toward my goals and create the life I want to have -- and less time doing the latter activities -- the repetitive but necessary activities of life?
- How do I help myself feel accomplished when there are always more things to do? How do I look at my to-do list and see the things that are crossed off instead of all the things that aren't?
- How do I rediscover and make time for things that are fun but completely unproductive, things that would be relaxing to me if I could rid myself of the anxiety of unfinished projects in the back of my mind?
- How do I either learn to live with clutter without getting so anxious, or else build a better system so I'm not constantly doing maintenance-type activities (filing papers, clearing dishes) to keep it uncluttered?
- How do I make Mike a partner in tackling the to-do's without getting irritated with him when he forgets or decides to prioritize fun things, like video games, ahead of them?
It's entirely possible I am the only one with this problem -- I mean, everyone is always complaining about how they procrastinate, not the opposite, right? But if you have any thoughts at all, I'd appreciate the help.