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Better ways for better days – my amazing new life without lists

Posted Aug 15 2010 12:00am

Source: wikimedia commons

Something unusual has happened to me, over the course of the past six months or so I have essentially abandoned my long-standing list-making habit. But at the same time, I’m able to get the same amount of things done if not more.

This is a huge departure for me. For years, I’ve been totally dependent on my lists for getting things done. If I didn’t have it written down, it wouldn’t get done. I had lists for everything all my different projects, all my different commitments, all my different hopes and dreams and plans. I mean, seriously I had notebooks full of highly detailed lists of what HAD to get done. And almost each and every day, for years on end, I took voluminous notes on how my day had gone, what had worked, what didn’t, and why. Just thinking about it now makes my head spin. But that’s where I was, so…

Many of the “important” projects were pure busy-work  (as I’ve discussed before), intended mainly to distract me from the existential angst of not knowing what the hell was wrong with me. And many of the plans I had were not only unrealistic, but downright delusional derived more from having seen other people do those things, feeling a great deal of respect and admiration for them doing it, seeing how well-regarded they were (by others) because they were doing those things…  A lot of my motivation came from thinking it would be cool if I did those things too, so I could gain the respect and admiration of others, as well as myself. Those kinds of goals stemmed more from a need to feel valued and useful, than from any inner need to actually do those things.

Looking back, it’s amazing to me, how many “dreams” I had that were little more than bids for the respect and regard of others and myself. And I’m even more amazed that I was under the serious impression that I could do that stuff like provide legal counsel to people, or high-level advisory services. Truly, I was living in my own private Idaho, without much grip on reality.

But that’s neither here nor there, at this time. Right now, what matters is that I’ve got a grip, now. I have a clue about my professional limits.  I’ve also cut out a ton of those old pet projects, and I’m focused more clearly than ever on the things that I can do, and I want to do, because I (not somebody else) want to do them.

Interestingly, I’m finding that my old list-keeping habits get in the way more than they help me now. Once upon a time, I couldn’t survive without a notebook filled with tons of to-do items. Now, it’s rare that I even consult my daily minder. (Note to self: make sure you check your schedule when you need to you still need to keep your commitments.)

I have to say, this freshly list-less life is quite freeing. And in fact, when I make lists, nowadays, it really turns me off. When I rely on lists for getting things done, ironically, I often forget the things I’m supposed to be doing. Fascinating. How did this happen?

I think there are several different factors coming into play:

Now, when I talk about context, what I mean is, the grand scheme of things. It used to be, I had a list of things I was going to get done, and each of them were separate and distinct from all others. And I would get so much granularity going on so many different tasks, I would lose sight of the big picture, lose my place, and ultimately not get very much done.

But with context understanding what it is I want to accomplish, and why… having a vision of the kind of life I want to create for myself… and having greater understanding about the things around me which help or hinder me not only can I remember what I’m up to a whole lot better, but I can also interact with the world around me on a scale that escaped me for most of my life. It feels strange, to be at this place now, after spending four decades in the dark, but hey, at least I’m coming out in to the light…

I must admit, it’s kind of hard to believe I am at this place, right now. For so many years, I considered it a strength that I was so “well-prepared” but in fact, I was just holding myself back and missing out on a whole lot of interesting detail that I didn’t capture in my lists.

I also didn’t have a handle on the realwhy” of what I was doing. I never developed the real and lasting habit of listening to myself and understanding what I wanted to do… and why. That’s probably because, given the constant difficulties I had, and the perception that I had of myself as a blithering idiot who had nothing to offer that was my own, I never got in the habit of thinking that I even mattered. Or that I could ever truly achieve anything I put my mind to. After all, too many things got screwed up when I tried them. I got turned around too many times. I got my hand smacked  literally and figuratively over every little thing. Why in heaven’s name would I even dare to guess that I mattered, or that I could contribute something real, something of value, to the world around me? I was so out of touch with myself, so prone to screwing up the things that I undertook for my own sake, that I fell into the habit of disregarding my own ideas and wishes and stuck with following others’ orders  – that was my ticket to success. And it served me pretty well, all things considered.

But it’s left me with a huge gaping hole a hole I filled with list after list of to-do items.

Now, if you don’t listen to yourself, and you don’t understand really why you are doing things, a list of tasks to do makes perfect sense. You have this outside prop that helps you “git ‘er done” and you can end up being all efficient and whatnot.  It makes you look good. And it plays well with the project managers of the world. But it can result in a somewhat meaningless existence that consists solely of satisfying others’ requirements, not getting on with the life you’re most apt to live. And if you’re like me waking up to find yourself acquiring the ability to pay attention to yourself and get out from under the dark cloud of self-doubt and insecurity that old way, as outwardly rewarding as it may be, is no way to live.

So, I’m changing that. I’m living my life without lists. It doesn’t always work out perfectly, as my memory is still quite spotty in many places. But it’s a hell of a lot more fun than being shackled to a never-ending series of tasks… many of which were never my idea, to begin with.

It wasn’t that long ago that I couldn’t function without a list and the practice of writing everything down once served me pretty well in some respects. But now my brain is working differently from how it was before. Heck, my whole life is working differently than it was before.  I’m better able to conceptualize the whole of my life, than I was even two years ago, and that means I have to get rid of my lists.

So long as I understand where eventually I am going, and why, I can get there. Without writing every last little thing down.

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