The Life-Sucking Powers of the To-Do List

We've been keeping the heat a little low apparently...
This morning I woke up with a frosty chill creeping around the corners of the bedclothes. Ice crusted the window, and I had to stand on tippy toes to see over it to what I knew would be there: a fresh blanket of snow. My baby girl was restless but not fully awake yet; it was time to get moving before she did.

As I pulled on something warmer, my glance fell on all the undone things in my little house, and immediately I formed a mental "to-do" list. At the top of the list? "Write down to-do list" - so I don't forget anything, of course. This was closely followed by empty dishwasher, do dishes, tidy living room, clean up clothes + trash in the bedroom, make bed...The list grew incredibly fast. Then I started to think of all the things I wanted to do (like working out), and added them to the list. Because it won't get done if it's not on the list, right?

I stopped for a minute and thought about where all of this was headed. Already my day seemed long and repressive. No matter how productive I was today, I would never be able to conquer that list. Worse, I would feel guilty doing anything that was not on the list (taking a nap, playing peek-a-boo with my daughter, reading quietly for a few minutes).

Since I was a old enough to write, I would make lists. I know this because I have boxes of notebooks and loose papers at my childhood home full of these lists. They contain everything, from songs I wanted to listen to, Bible verses I wanted to memorize, things I wanted to be when I grew up. It was a compulsion. I couldn't stop making lists. Soon there were so many lists that I didn't have time to read the previous one before a new one had been made. I used to think the most amazing feeling was being able to cross an item off of my to-do list. I was wrong. The most amazing feeling ever is not having a to-do list at all.
It sounds counter-productive at first. Without a to-do list, aren't you stranded? What will happen to the feeling of accomplishment, the organization of your thoughts, the method to remembering what you have to do?

Nope. The list is not your organization ally; it is a cage. Step out of the list, and you're free.

I am a Master of lists. Every time I think of something to remember for later, I add it to a list. Tiny notepads and the notes on my phone are covered in these things that I need to do...later. I'll be walking around the house and see a lightbulb that needs changing. I whip out my phone and type change lightbulb. "There," I think. "Now my head is cleared and I don't have to worry about it." Except that I do have to worry about it, because making all these lists isn't clearing up my head for more important things. It's actually filling up the back of my mind with an impending cloud of doom. All of these lists are just hanging over my head. Now I have to remember to check all of my lists and I have to actually do the things on the list. And if I don't, I feel constant nagging pressure all the time.

So here is my solution: when you find something that needs doing, get it done immediately. You heard me. Get it done right now. Silence that nagging thought with action.

My normal routine lately has been to wake up right before it's time for the baby to wake, scramble around the house getting breakfast and pulling on socks, then tuck myself, my baby, and the breakfast into the couch and settle into Netflix while we eat. As I watch my favorite show, I'm already typing up the day's list. {Actually, I'm usually adding to yesterday's list of unfinished things and relabeling it for today. Yeah. Horrible.)

Within ten minutes, I am overwhelmed. All I can think about is the stuff I have to do that I don't want to do and it's all more than I can possibly get done, so why not watch another episode? Why not take a nap with the baby and leave the list for tomorrow - I'll get to it eventually?

But this morning, instead of drowning in my own lack of motivation, I dove into something before it even made it to the list! The baby slept for fifteen more minutes, and in those fifteen minutes I cleaned out the dishwasher and took care of the dishes in the sink. wiped the countertops, picked up a few misplaced items in the living room, and moved a small bookshelf into my closet (something that had been on my list for a few days).

Then I woke my baby and cuddled with her in a chair in the bedroom and started writing this blog post while she nursed - instead of falling prey to my de-motivator: that looming television.
We have a small apartment that is impossibly full of things. Day by day, I am whittling away at this forest of stuff.
It's going to take me a long time to break the list habit. And I know that this approach does not apply to everything. Some things, like paying rent, are time-sensitive and therefore must be written down to avoid forgetting them. But the things I need to do will get done in order of importance very naturally, without ever having to write them down. The things that I don't really care about will automatically fall to bottom of the list. And if something is big and pressing and important and I forget about it? It will keep showing up. It's not as though things disappear if I forget to write them down.

The first step to decluttering your house starts with your mind. Declutter a little portion of it today by mentally deleting your list. Start over. Do the thing that is right in front of you. And when you're done? It's okay to take a guilt-free break.

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