Question: Have you ever (even once) started the day bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (as one of my grandmothers used to say), with a neatly organized to-do list, spent the next eight or nine hours moving steadily from task to task only to reach the end of the day without having crossed one thing off the list? Not one?
Backstory: I fondly remember a time in my youth when I never even had to write down a to-do list; I could carry all that stuff in my head and never miss a beat. Memories being what they are, I’m not all that sure this is an accurate (meaning real) memory. But it influences my current emotional state as powerfully as if it were real. Not to put too fine a point on it, it throws me into abject misery about three times a week.
Now: At my current age, I not only have to find a piece of paper and a pen (where do all the pens go between one list-making and the next?) and write down the to-do list, but I get to the end of most days without having accomplished more than a third of the tasks on it. In fact, in the last six months, there have been close to a dozen days each month when I wasn’t able to cross off a single item. Not one. So when my husband gets back at the end of his (highly productive) day and asks about my day, I tell him, “Nothing. I got nothing done.” Which – when I stop and pay attention – is patently untrue. I didn’t go into suspended animation, after all. I did something.
However, rather than feeling creative and accomplished and good-tired as a result of meaningful labor, I feel cranky and depressed and worthless.
A few days ago, I started to wonder (for the first time, consciously) exactly how fruitful to-do lists really are. I may be a lone voice here, but I am beginning to think that they may be counter-productive, that they actually drain energy. They certainly drain my energy. The catalyst for this wondering is the fact that on that particular day I didn’t pick up English muffins, take the books back to the library, do yoga, get L-braces for the valance I want to put up in my studio, call about a new modem for my computer, get some fresh plants to replace the ones that are looking really sad in the planters on the back porch, or change the bed and wash the sheets. What I did, instead, was write two cards of support and comfort to friends who were facing crises, talk to my daughter for over an hour about what felt like a dead-end in the book she is writing and toss around ideas for shifting gears, and spend five hours cutting and sewing the front of a stole for a dear friend who is soon to be ordained.
That evening, while I was waving my list at my poor husband (before he even put down his computer and took off his tie) and saying, “NOTHING! I got nothing done!” (in, perhaps, a slightly louder voice than was strictly necessary), I stopped short and thought something like, “No. That is wrong. That is totally wrong. You spent the day caring for the people you love best in the whole world because they needed you, not L-braces, English muffins, or fewer library books in the house.”
I think, watching my face, he saw something of what was going on in my head because he said, “Nothing? Really? Nothing at all?” And I said (considerably more quietly), “No, that isn’t true. I actually lived one of the beautiful, precious days of my life doing really worthwhile things…they just weren’t things on my list because I didn’t know when I started the day that they were going to happen.”
“Hmmm,” he said on his way to take off the tie, “Those things that you didn’t know were going to happen? Those are called ‘life.’”
I have a very wise husband (which is not to say that he doesn’t drive me around the bend sometimes) and figuring that free wisdom is better, cheaper, and faster than therapy, I have come to a resolution. I call it a “To-Don’t” List and it has one item on it: Do not write another To-Do List – Ever.
Yes, someone in our household needs to remember things like picking up milk, although if we don’t, the empty space in the fridge is enough to remind us, and the grocery store is only 3 minutes away – walking; we don’t even need to get in the car. And when I think about it, I have never forgotten to do any of the really important things, like call a friend whose parent just died, or comfort a crying child, or put a bandage on a bleeding finger, or eat, or get dressed, or breathe. So I have resolved to call any list I make from here on a “Maybe” List. As in: maybe I might want to attend to these tasks if there is nothing more important going on. And I don’t get distracted by a great idea for a new art piece, or an e-mail from a friend announcing the birth of a grandchild, or watching the sunrise turn the Rockies all pink and gold.
As we enter more deeply into Lughnasadh – a season in which our spirits are particularly attentive to both wisdom and fruitfulness – “maybe” this feels like a wise and fruitful experiment to you, too. If so, I hope you’ll join me.
Text © 2014, Andrea La Sonde Anastos
Photo © 2014, Immram Chara, LLC