I overheard two women talking in the café yesterday. We were standing in line waiting to order our coffees. The line was long and these two work colleagues were chatting.
“You know, every day I get in to work and first thing I do is make a list of things I want to achieve in the day,” one of them said. She was tall and stylish with an accent. She was a professional of some type. “And usually there are nine or ten things on this list. Usually two or three big things, involved things I want to get done. Like finish that research funding application, write that paper, finish that report. And the rest are small things. Administrative things, or things that shouldn’t take too much brain power. Always about 10 things.”
She went on.
“And do you know how many things I get done each day? Always?”
“How many” her friend said.
“Two or three. I might get one big thing and two little things done. Max.”
“You’ve got great expectations,” her friend said.
“Yes. If I were smart, I’d only ever put three things on my list. Because that is all I can possibly do. But instead there are always 10 things. I can’t bring myself not to add things to the list. I always want to achieve more than is physically possible. “
This overheard conversation has been banging around in my head. The stylish accented woman’s observation reflected my own experience. For me I have an endless rolling to-do list in my smartphone reminders app. I’m always adding more to it than I can ever mark as completed. I even schedule reminders to pop up on my screen at particular times during the day in the vain hope that I’ll drop everything as the note appears and diligently make the phone call, write the document, pay the bill, achieve world peace and eliminate child poverty all in a day’s work. Pre-smartphone I would carry scribbled to-do lists around with unpaid bills, incomplete work documents in my backpack. Someone called it my backpack of life. More often than not I’d not even open it during the day. Instead of achieving anything, the backpack would just sit in my office making me feel guilty that I hadn’t gotten around to whatever was lurking inside. Same as the smartphone reminders – it served to make me feel constantly anxious and inadequate.
So why do we do this? This stylish accented woman and me. Why are we so hard on ourselves? Why couldn’t we restrict the things on our to-do lists to just three things? Make it do-able, realistic, achievable. So that at the end of the day, three things done, tick, tick, tick, and we could say to ourselves “good girl good job”. And then spend an evening in quiet contentment. Before bed, instead of worrying about how to get everything done the next day, I would know that quietly, methodically, the next 3 things would be done. And I’d get a good night’s sleep, free from nagging thoughts of unfinished business.
Why are there so many things on the list? In an age of immediacy, we seem to be faced with ever increasing urgency of tasks and a mountain of expectation. Mobile phones demand attention, ringing insistently or sms messages punctuate even the most focused of tasks. Emails flood our inboxes, bills to be paid now, school notices to be read, notes to be acknowledged, work questions answered, clients to be responded to. Now, now, NOW. Social media opens up even more demands. Staying in contact with so many friends, liking the daily holiday snaps, responding to personal messages, expressing sympathy, amusement, anger or interest in the rolling, never-ending daily feed. Not only are we bombarded with information in our post IT revolution era, but we are bombarded with expectations to respond to this information.
And then there are the increased responsibilities of the modern materialist world. With greater prosperity and more material goods we have more stuff to look after than previous generations. Not one car to service, insure, register and clean, but two. A pool to maintain. More clothes to wash, iron and put away. Sure we have more appliances to make modern life easy and pleasant – dishwashers, washing machines, driers, vacuums, air conditioners, security systems, sound systems, computers, to make chores a breeze. But there always seems to be something to do to keep things working. I’m always getting something fixed or serviced. There’s always “Fix [whatever]” on the Smartphone reminders list.
For people like me at the sandwich stage of life – trying to get your own stuff done sandwiched between the responsibilities of teenage kids and elderly parents – the to do list can be overwhelming. My list is full of things to organize for other people. “Get Mum’s toilet fixed”, “organize Mum’s personal alarm”, “organize repair Mum’s shed roof” are currently on the list along with “book parent teacher interviews,” “take kids to dentist’, “make kids’ optometrist appointment.”
Quite frankly, I have had enough of the fucking list. Yes it deserves an expletive as it has been lurking malevolently in my backpack or on my smartphone for far too long, like some administrative magic pudding never diminishing no matter how many things I cross off it.
No more do I need to be reminded, on a daily basis, that I can never get everything done. No, I will not clear out the garage today. Or update my will. And I probably won’t get around to ringing my father-in-law, cousin and probably not even my brother. I won’t finish my WordPress site, even though I would like to, nor will I “do some painting” or sort out the bills. All the to do list does is set in stone my ridiculously high expectations. It constantly reminds me of what’s wrong, what I’ve left unfixed or unfinished, an endless cycle of anxiety and frustration. Because what the to do list is saying, powerfully and in writing, is that I’ve failed. It’s a list of things I haven’t achieved.
That’s it. No more. It’s going. It’s driving me bonkers.
So dear stylish, accented, professional person at the café the other day, if you happen to be reading this, thank you for your insight. We can only ever hope to achieve three things in a day. And you don’t need a list for that.
What I do need is an antidote to the list. After all these years of reminders of my failings, it’s time to celebrate my successes. So, here’s an idea. Instead of a to-do list, I’ll write a Ta-Da list of things I’ve achieved or moments I’ve enjoyed. Not a record of the stuff I haven’t done during the day, but three things I have. Three wins, big or small.
So here’s the first Ta-Da list of what I have achieved today:
- Rode my new bike. Sunny day, breeze smelled of spring, checked out the neighbour’s garden sculpture exhibition.
- Coffee with old friend. Lovely, good for the soul.
- Finished writing this. Ta-da! Happy with that. Good job.