The To-Do Dilemma

My therapist said I’m a cope-aheader. As in, I anticipate all possible scenarios and my reaction ahead of time thereby avoiding surprise and disappointment. Best defense mechanism ever is TEN defense mechanisms.

I started writing this email to my best friend and realized it is a perfect summation of what is happening right now.

I even assign date and times to my to-do list. Don’t judge me.

“Things are trucking along. School is wrapped for the semester, I have lots of time off until end of August, which is both nice and intimidating. I’m not really working anymore so I have a lot of time on my hands. We’ve planned just about everything we know how to plan, and packing seems, well, premature, we aren’t leaving til mid-July.

So, I’m stuck without a to-do list. And for the last week I’ve been so anxious.”

Brian told me once that I needed a hobby. Not something that I was going to try to be really good at, but something that I just really loved doing and didn’t really care if I “won” at it. I was equal parts taken aback and offended. I have hobbies. I read, I write, I run.

He shook his head. Those things you always have a goal around. “I’ve gotta read 15 books this semester, write 10 pages today, run a faster mile.”


His suggestion was that I find something that I’m actually not very good at, but that I enjoy and then not try to get better. Just do it for the pure pleasure of it. So I took up crochet.

I told my co-workers about this and they were shocked and alarmed—why would you do anything without trying to get better at it? Why would you not try to win running or win crochet?

I don’t have a to-do list at the moment and it’s making me crazy anxious. I feel my chest tighten up when I think about how little I MUST do everyday. I think I haven’t given much thought to our actual trip for this precise reason. Do not be fooled: I’ve planned the trip, thought about what we need to buy, pack, arrange, utilities to cancel, insurance to secure, reservations to make, routes to navigate. But when it comes to what is going to fill the time—I have very successfully played the ostrich game with that one. Head straight to the sand. Because holy Lord it makes me so nervous.

WHAT THE HELL AM I GOING TO DO WITH MYSELF? No work, no laundry, no social engagements, nothing beyond making dinner and occasionally doing a load of laundry.

What is it about a to-do list that makes us feel like we’re living correctly? I got to thinking about it–I actually hate my to-do list most of the time. As soon as something goes on the list I don’t want to do it (surefire way to make me resist anything is to tell me I have to do it), and yet, I still make them and when they are completed I feel like I can relax and have fun. I’ve always chalked this up to the very, VERY German work ethic I’ve been blessed with. But upon further contemplation, I am beginning to wonder if it’s more than that—less of a blessing, more to reflect upon.

I’ve been contemplating this idea…it seems like a very masculine, Western concept, this to-do list. Very quantifiable. Like, here’s evidence that you are worth something. You accomplished everything on this to-do list. You achieved this outcome, you logged these hours, blah, blah.

Who am I, no, who are we, without the to-do list to validate us?IMG_2155

What actually makes me feel happy—not accomplished? What makes me feel pure joy, not just satisfaction?

Which led me down this rabbit hole of thinking about what actually makes me happy, that which is not accomplishing something or achieving something or earning something but which is pure happiness…and I had a really hard time thinking of what that was…which is alarming. When I thought about what would make me happy, it inevitably landed in the world of achievement—a book deal, a teaching job, run a 4 hour marathon, hike a fourteener, lose 20 pounds (actually, I don’t want to lose 20 pounds, but you get the idea).

What in those things makes me happy—not the outcome, but the actual feeling I get while I’m doing them? One step in the direction of releasing anxiety and achieving some sense of mindful happiness would be to boil it down to those basics, right?

Here’s what I could come up with:

  • I am truly happy when I am outside embracing the beauty and ferocity that is nature. Fanglike mountain peaks, river beds glistening with gold dust, skies black with storm clouds, the lull of waves, the wave of crops in a field, the smell of clover—all of it, it makes my heart open up and feel expansive.
  • I feel on fire when I’m creating things. Channeling a character, whipping up a new experiment in the kitchen, crocheting the most crooked scarf you’ll ever see.
  • When I connect with other people, I feel inspired. For me, that rarely happens in a large group or over small talk. In fact, I don’t know how to do small talk and I hate big groups, so I tend to avoid those things at all costs. But intimate, connected conversations that go beneath the surface, and better yet, hit a vein of something we are passionate about—so much the better.
  • Moving my body. In every way. I’m pretty clumsy, so it’s better if I avoid, say, roller blades. But running, walking, hiking, swimming, lifting weights, dancing, whatever—I like the feeling of my muscles expanding and contracting and growing stronger. The stronger I am physically, the stronger and more content I feel mentally. A different kind of happiness, I suppose, it’s the curl up on the couch and read happiness, not the set your hair on fire happiness.

I’m more aware of how to be mindful in the moment. I am thinking more about how to tap into this in a practiced way as we sally forth.

My MFA advisor says “writing is the most inefficient, unproductive, anti-capitalist thing you can do.” And yet by letting the metaphysical beauty of creating something take over, by writing things that will never make it into a novel, or even off our journal pages,  we are allowing ourselves to tap into the source, which produces the best quality of writing.

So, yeah. Letting go of the list, of the linear, of the should. Here goes.


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