The Tyranny of the To Do List

photo (7)I come off as a fairly patient person.  I can stand in airport security lines without rolling my eyes.  I will play endless rounds of Parcheesi – we only play the preschool rules at my house, however, which means the preschooler always wins. I can even stand at a cutting board and snap the ends off pounds and pounds of green beans until my eyes glaze and my fingers cramp.

It’s all a ruse.  Inside I’m beset by growing irritation, a tightening abdomen and increasingly snarky comments.  (Which I say only to myself – did I mention I’m also somewhat passive aggressive?)

I often feel this way in February, with endless weeks to go until spring and the memory of warm fall days long gone.  I’m booked this entire weekend, which is unusual for me, so tasks I usually ignore until Saturday are already overdue.  I’m behind in planning meals, buying countless Valentines for preschool (not to mention addressing those countless Valentines), and I my kids were sick part of this week, so I didn’t get everything done on my writing to do list.

And there it is – my problem.  The tyranny of the to do list. I work well with specific goals and I’m good at giving myself (and sticking to) deadlines. But when things are chugging along merrily, I tend to give myself just a little too much to do.  “Wouldn’t it be great if I finished two blog posts, a short story, read the rough draft of my novel, made extensive revision notes AND queried multiple agents this week?”

(I’m not kidding – this was actually my to do list this week.)


Even with sabbatical (or maybe especially with sabbatical, not to mention having kids), I’ve come to see time as a commodity.  I don’t want to waste it.  My inner narrative goes something like this:

  • I must maximize my time, because in a few months I head back to work and I need to do everything I can to launch this writing career.
  • I must maximize my time, because my kids are in preschool and I want to honor them by writing as much as possible when they’re not at home.
  • I must maximize my time, because “something might happen” to throw off my well-laid plans in the future.

Yep, I’m also a bit of a control freak.  Thus, one of the most surprising (and difficult) aspects of writing: you’re thrown headfirst into your deepest insecurities and anxieties. (Don’t even get me started on the roller coaster of emotional badness I go through whenever I get a rejection.  Actually, yes, do get me started on this – we’ll talk more about this in an upcoming post.)

I’ve been a Buddhist long enough to know that leaning into places of insecurities and anxieties are precisely where transformation can happen, if we’re brave enough to look them in the eye.

So today, at least, I will choose to be kind to myself by examining my overly-ambitious to do list and learn to be more realistic about my time next week.   I will try to cut myself some slack and also continue to explore my relationship (and clinging) to time. Maybe after I watch a few cat videos on the interwebz first…

Barrier: Overly ambitious to do list causing anxiety and irritation

Solution: Step away from the list (go back and review it later), look at pictures of warm, sandy beaches online instead, dream of sun

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