When doing a to-do list is a big to-do
(a just-over 5 minute read)
🎵 Lists. Hmmph! Good God, dull! What are they good for?
The list is ironically endless. 🎵
But seriously. What are they for? Or, more specifically, what have we been taught to use lists for? (Yep, you guessed it! List time...)
- Writing down everything we have to do
- Remembering what groceries we want this week (but I bought ice cream a week ago!!)
- Letting people know what you want for Christmas/The Holidays
Easy question! NEXT!
Whoa there, Skippy!
That’s the Obvious list. I anticipate your “Say what now?!” and restate, That’s the Obvious list. What if I were to say that there are magical and murky otherworlds of listing? You’d say I was wrong and have clearly been eating mushrooms I found on the roadside? Well, wary wanderer, channel Willy Wonka to 🎶 come with me and you'll see, lists are stories, our manifestation 🎶
Some of the following may feel heavier or happier than others, and that’s the point. Lists can be used...
- To bullet journal our lives into more bitesize chunks because we have so much to get done
- To cross off tasks, regardless of what they may be (ok, yes, I put ‘wash dishes’ on there after the fact just so I could cross it off. Big whoop! Wanna fight about it?!)
- To give ourselves hurdles to have to overcome
- To show others how busy we are and therefore prove our validation
- To stop us from feeling our feelings by distracting us from stillness and silence
- To get clear on what we want to achieve and receive and buy so we create lists for all of those to create action plans and each of those action plans gets its own list and suddenly you look like Jim Carrey covered in Post-It notes in Bruce Almighty which stops us from taking the courageous first step in any of the things we say we want but putting a plan together is important and means you care about it and you don’t want to make a mistake because mistakes suck (truth) and I made a mistake when I was a kid once and I got ridiculed for it and so making a mistake means I’m stupid or silly or weak or...
- To help give order and/or simplification to considerations and curiosities
- To create the feeling of loss or incompletion or disappointment and dismay; an insurmountable terrain.
- To generate blame for why we ‘can’t achieve our dreams’ - yep kids, and the tasks associated with them, become a burden; partners don’t do their ‘fair share’
- To create pressure for ourselves (because we perform better under pressure?!?!)
Etc...(ironically endless, remember)
Once we start to write things down in a list, we start to exist in the ink, but what if our focus was still on the potential and openness of the paper; in the choice of what makes it onto the list in the first place? What if...and go with me on this...you WANTED everything on the list to be there?
What if the list is liquid, or fluid, just like the ink you used? What if you give yourself permission to change your mind(!!!)
Mind just blown?? Yeah, I get it, but what if?
I’ll just let you think about that for a second
Changing our mind means we choose the present - and alignment with our needs and wants - instead of the past and future, hoping to meet the expectations we think others have of us and to prove the identity we have shaped.
I find that lists are very ‘Should’ heavy. Ever wondered WHY Shoulds feel so heavy? Well, because we carry them on our (should)ers. Putting them down in a to-do list does not remove the emotional and symbolic weight.
Lists are our stories. What story do you tell in your lists? Does the amount of crossed off items mean you’re ‘productive’? Does having a lot of items, whether they are crossed off or not, protect you from reaching for the ‘dream’ or from meeting your basic human needs? Do you feel you produce your best when pressured by a list? Does having a list show you are a good parent/carer? Is a list a safe space for you to say what you can’t say out loud?
If we use lists to tell a story about ourselves, and to prove our identity to ourselves and others, then examining and reshaping our to-do lists can feel really difficult. It requires telling a new story. And that kind of change is not easy.
But it is possible.
To take some pressure off your lists today, and the lists to come, here’s a way to reframe your listing moving forward:
“What you commit to paper does not a commitment make.”
Rumi (I think...probably, but not really)
That’s easy for me to say, I know. When we have been conditioned to justify our existence through to-do lists, trying this new approach can make them feel like a poisoned chalice.
It’s safe to put that chalice down!
By ceasing to use the term ‘to-do’ we lower the stakes.
I have found that doing this has a freeing impact on how I see each item on my lists. They become choice-based instead of obligation-based.
You may have been handed the to-do list vessel, but you get to make your own choice of, and from, other containers - some light and bright, some heavier but helpful.
Cast your eyes over the following options:
- Needs list
- Wants list
- Musts list
- Shoulds list
You do not have to choose ONE. You can simply alternate between all of them.
Your basic human needs are:
- Sustenance (food & drink)
- Connection (to others AND oneself)
Use these as headings and fill in what meeting those looks like for you. The fact we have needs is constant; how they are met gets to vary from moment to moment; day to day.
Desires. What brings you joy? Getting out for a big hike perhaps, or working on a craft project. What are you curious about? Vintage Cars? AI? Perhaps you attend a webinar, or you read the latest issue of ‘Tech Weekly’.
You work remotely. You have a report to complete and return to your manager; you have a Zoom meeting with a client; some Etsy sales have to be packaged up to make the postage time window; you need to mail out those packages; you have to pick up your child from daycare.
Now, I need to speak of the Shoulds list before we go there. The Shoulds get a list, but it’s separate. It’s a dumping ground. A place to acknowledge that I have Shoulds without having to uphold them. I get the Shoulds out of my body and onto the page. They are easier to see objectively when outside of my head. Okay, here we go...
You should clean the house everyday (because...); You should have zero emails in your inbox by the end of the day (because...); you should exercise everyday (because...); you should do that time-sensitive thing for your friend, who asked you last-minute because they were busy (because...).
Feel some feelings? That’s totally ok and normal. As I said, changing your story is not easy, so you can’t expect to never make mistakes or fall into habitual patterns. Here’s the zinger that we don’t hear enough...
You are allowed to make mistakes and fall into habitual patterns
Read that line again, I’ll wait. Heck, read it as many times as you want. I’m not going anywhere.
I may make a mistake – which you now know is ok – and put a Should in one of the other lists. Ohhhhh, Sh*t! (I wait for the world to explode or for me to be struck down because I failed...oh...so nothing bad actually happened? Right!! Because failure isn’t a thing? Right!!)
Failure isn’t a thing
Writing lists with self-care takes practice. We get the chance to notice that a Should snuck onto the Needs list. We get to notice it, ask ourselves, “why?” and see what comes to mind, then move it from Needs to Shoulds; Shame has no reason to leave Its seat.
What do you have to lose? There’s only one entry on that list...
Much ginger love