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Life without lists

Posted May 25 2010 12:00am

I’m trying something new and different these days I’m doing without my exhaustive lists of what I need to do, when I need to do it, and how it should be done. This is a real leap of faith for me. A key component of getting myself back on track and building some kind of structure in my life has been my list-making habit. After my last fall, I had a hell of a time keeping track of what I was supposed to be doing, and tracking whether or not I was getting it done. So I got in the habit of making lists and using them to keep myself focused on important tasks.

I have been writing out all the things I need to get done for a number of years, now. And it’s a good thing, too, because there have been plenty of times in the past when I would literally forget from one minute to the next what I was supposed to be focusing on. I’d get distracted by something, and my “problematic” short-term working memory would lose track of what it was I needed to be doing.

It was maddening. I’d get to the end of a day and I’d look back on all the things I had planned, and lo and behold, nothing would have gotten done.

It was pretty bad. Everything from returning books to the library, to people I was supposed to call or email, to picking up pet food on the way home from work, to taking a certain route home so I could run my errands on my way home… a ton of important things got lost along the way. And each time that happened, I felt worse and worse about myself. As though I intentionally blew it all off and didn’t give a crap.

At least, that’s what my spouse thought. And they weren’t happy with the situation. Or with me. Nor was I.

So, I got into making my lists. I tracked my activities, marked the things I got right, the things I messed up, the things I forgot, the things I needed to remember for the next day. I had the list-making habit down to a science of sorts. And it helped. A lot.

One of the ways it helped was actually getting me away from making exhaustive lists. ‘Cause when I looked at all the things I had scheduled for myself, and I compared the list of “successes” with the list of “failures”, I saw how much I had loaded up for myself. And I saw how impossibly busy I was making myself, with no hope of ever digging out from under the mountain of to-do’s I needed to dispatch. Only when I took a look at the written record of all the stuff I had slated for myself to do over the course of weeks and months, was I able to step back and say, “Hey – what’s going on here? Is it really necessary to do all that stuff? Is the world going to stop spinning on its axis, if I just give up some of that stuff?”

And I realized that a big part of my most dysfunctional behavior is the habit of loading up a lot of crap on myself to keep myself so busy I can’t pay attention to the things that bother me. I get all stirred up and all worked up and all tweaked over things, and rather than sitting down and thinking it through and working my way through the feelings I’ve got and constructive ways of dealing with those feelings/situations, I make myself even busier, even crazier, and the stress of it all pumps my body and brain full of stress hormones that dull the constant pain and confusion and help sharpen my thinking for basic activities (but do nothing for the more complex aspects of my life).

So, my lists have given rise to plenty of ah-ha’s over the past months. And slowly but surely, I’ve gotten away from the crazy-busy franticness that used to drive me like a low-level nuclear reactor pumping a steady stream of energy that is fundamentally toxic and very hard to dispose of safely.

My lists have grown progressively shorter and shorter, as I’ve forced myself to make decisions about what I really wanted to spend my time on. As I’ve realized that there is no way on G-d’s good earth that I’m going to get everything done that I want or would like (or even “need”) to get done, I’ve had to pick and choose the things that I absolutely positively cannot live without… and then figure out why that is… understand what part of my life those things fill… and then bump them to the top of the pile of constantly shifting priorities in my life.

It has been hard very, very, very hard to do this. You have to understand my daily list of to-do’s used to fill two sides of a sheet of paper, and by the end of the day, there would be even more things listed in the margins that I had either started or wanted to start or had gotten done just on the spur of the moment. Culling my list is not my first instinct. It’s exactly the opposite of that. But doing anything less was simply obviously not sustainable.

Okay, you may think, that’s fine, you’re trimming back your list, but how do you get anything done? Good question. I asked myself that many times, when I started getting away from my list-mania. How would I manage to get anything done? How would I manage to remember the things I needed to do? How could I get away from all those lists AND keep myself on track?

Well, for one, I started getting more involved in my life. I’m talking, think-it-through-plan-and-vision involved. I realized that keeping those lists was keeping me from getting involved in the actual living of my life. I was so busy looking at the list of stuff to complete, that I stopped paying attention to the WHY of what I was doing. Or examining the ultimate outcomes of my actions.

For example, I once had it in my head that I was going to start a new business. I had it all mapped out, all planned. I had my unique selling proposition, my schedule, my business plan, my project plan, my lists of all the different people I was going to contact, how I was going to go about doing this-and-that, etc. I had it all mapped out on paper, and the list of stuff to do was voluminous. Someone in the “getting it done” camp probably would have gotten a thrill out of all my lists. Because there were many of them, and they had every single activity broken down in to a series of smaller steps, each with its own timetable, etc.

The problem was, in the process of getting all those lists in place, I neglected some critical, fundamental aspects of any new undertaking as in, my motivation for starting this business in the first place. Why did I want to do it? What did I hope to accomplish with it? Where did I see myself in another five years, and what kind of life did I want to emerge out of this new venture? When I thought back, I detected some faint recollection of wanting more freedom and independence, but by the time all my lists were written out, my mind was pretty well enslaved to the tasks-at-hand, and freedom and independence were about the farthest things from the situation I was creating for myself.

So, I let that go. I learned some valuable lessons, and I had to let it all go. Because the lists took over.

The same thing had been happening in my life, over the past six months or so. I had refined my list-making practice, had created numerous to-do templates which listed the most common things I needed to do each day (that I was prone to forgetting), and I had my system for tracking what I did and did not get done, and why. I even wrote a computer program to help me keep track of everything, which was very helpful at the time.

But it got to a point where the list became the thing, not the doing, not the getting done. And I found that in the process of making sure I got things done, I had lost my connection with why I was doing it all, in the first place. And without that motivation, there was less and less chance of me actually getting those things done. The very tool I was using to help me along, was holding me back.

Huh.

Plus, I found that making daily to-do lists made me more prone to distraction. By the time I had the main things written down that I wanted to do, I had worked up a head of steam, and suddenly I could think of a gazillion other things I wanted to get done. And they would end up on the list. And some days, the distractions I’d written down would get done before the main items. But I checked them off, so it looked like I had been successful that day when I really hadn’t. Not really. Effectively distracted, yes. Effective in living my life, no.

So… I have been living more and more without my lists. And I’m starting to love it. Oh, sure, for things like going to the grocery store to buy more than three things (more than two, actually), I have to have a list. But who doesn’t? I know I’m prone to distraction and confusion in grocery stores so many choices, so much extraneous input to screen out (no, I do not want a diet of cheap carbs and high fructose corn syrup!) And if I have more than one library book I need to find on the shelves, I make a point of writing the numbers down. But for the overall flow of my life, I’m moving away from planning out every single thing I do in advance.

It was kind of a losing battle, anyway. For all the things I finished in the course of each day, there were always other things that I hadn’t gotten to, and it was those things that got to me, to no end. Even if I’d done 9 out of 10 items, it was that remaining one thing that would stick in my head. And the next day I’d start out playing catch-up. Yet again. And by the end of the day, I’d have a couple more things that needed to get done, which needed to be added to what I’d do the next day. Eventually, I would amass such a heap of undone stuff, I’d just bag it all and have to start from scratch… all the while knowing in the back of my mind that I had a lousy track record… and I was really just another loser making a losing bid at trying to do stuff only winners could do.

Why did I bother?

Why indeed? Man oh man did I need a change.

So, I bit the bullet a little while ago and started taking on each day without a list of stuff to do. Instead of spending my time on the exercise bike listing out all the crap that needed to get done, I spent my time focusing on my workout and thinking about what kind of life I wanted to live, what I wanted to accomplish on a much grander scale than ever before and I quit fixating on details. I resolved to let a lot of stuff go a lot of anxieties about “lack of effectiveness” and not being good enough. I let myself off the hook, thinking back on all my years of compulsive list-making… and looking realistically at how much I had actually gotten done (far less than I’d intended). And I took a long, hard look at the toll it had taken on me and my quality of life and my relationships.

I was so busy with my damned lists, I didn’t get around to living.

And I let the lists go. I quit fretting about the exact order in which I did my morning routine. I quit worrying about making sure I had the exact proportion of sleep to activity. I quit freaking out over drinking coffee after 2 p.m. And I quit stressing out over how much sleep I was or was not getting. I stopped making myself and everyone around me nuts, if I/we didn’t get everything done that I/we originally said we would. I wrote stuff down when it was critical that I remember it, and I started using my work calendar more creatively and regularly, so I wouldn’t have to hover over my list(s) every moment of every day. And I gave up the all-consuming need to satisfy every single damned requirement they had for me at work.

I have probably pissed off a lot of people I work with because I haven’t been as anal retentive as I used to be, but you know what? I’m a lot happier. And healthier. And that makes me a better co-worker and employee.

Plus, it frees me up to actually get things done. Because in lieu of lists, I have a larger picture in mind for what I’m doing with my day and my life. I’m less focused on the details, but I’m more focused on the bigger picture not just what I need to do and how, precisely, but what I intend to do and why.

That why makes all the difference. Because lo and behold, even in the absence of lists, I am actually making progress. Granted, I may not be as frenetically ‘efficient’ as some folks would love me to be, but you know what? I’m a lot happier this way, and if others want to wreck their health and their sanity over a bunch of detail and have-to-have’s, then have at it. I’m not going there. Not anymore.

Which opens me up to other possibilities. And it makes more possible in my life. Because it’s not just about what gets done, but why. And when you know why you’re doing things, more details emerge that add to the overall work you’re doing. Those details add higher quality and greater dimension to what you’re up to. And that’s a good thing.

It’s all good.

So, here I am, up early on a Tuesday morning. I woke up at 4:30, worried about money and how I’m going to make ends meet. I tried to get back to sleep, but by 5:15, it was pretty clear that wasn’t happening. So, I got up, exercised, and sat down to have my breakfast and write. I resisted the temptation to make a list of ways I can deal with my finances, and focused on the larger work of my life. Now my money problems aren’t gone, by any stretch, but the worry has subsided and within the larger context of my life, all the drama and anxiety and worry is a lot less overwhelming. I’m ready for my day, full of tasks and duties and worry and anxiety as it is. And I’m actually feeling pretty hopeful. Because there is more to my life, than a few hours’ worth of concern. And there is more to my work, than fretting over distinct details and trying to control and “manage” every single aspect of my existence.

Some times, you just gotta let yourself be. The lists will always be there, if I need them. The challenge is telling the difference between needing them and wanting them for the wrong reasons.

For today, I don’t want one. Not like I used to. For today, the day will take care of itself.

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