Are you playing fair with your To Do list? I’ve been abusing mine for about a decade now and didn’t even know it. I tell myself that I’m a slave to it–I did finally see the light about the lunacy of “getting it all done at all costs” a while back. But I’ve just discovered I’m still approaching that To Do list the wrong way.
I’ve been using it as a daily confirmation that I have worth as a person—salvation via getting a lot done. And the painful truth is that this is just another perfectionist strategy—a way to avoid the pain of being deemed not good enough in someone else’s eyes by completing task after task after task, day after day after day.
To let go of perfectionism, you have to stop worrying about what other people will think. I thought I had accomplished that–and in many ways I have. But I still worship at the altar of “getting things done.” The wrongheadedness of this finally became clear to me courtesy of Brene’ Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. The gifts she discusses aren’t consolation prizes. Imperfection is actually a whole lot better way to live than all the perfectionist striving I’ve been guilty of over the years, including my worth-through-productivity mania.
Brown knows my game. She too was devastated when she learned that a stiff dose of work ethic wasn’t a particularly evolved approach to life. She refers to herself as “a recovering perfectionist and aspiring good-enoughist.” She’s also a social scientist who’s been doing qualitative research on shame for much of her career. That’s right—perfectionism is a facet of shame. I’ve been driving 90 miles an hour down that dead end for decades!
The news was a shock, but also a big relief. I’ve been frustrated for months about how little I get accomplished these days compared to three or four years ago. I used to write a long list of chores for the next day every night, and then, bright and early the next day, I would get going on those things—roaring through them like I was on a mission to save the world. Much of the time, nobody but me had decided they needed to be done. In the vast majority of cases, if I didn’t get them done, nothing bad was going to happen. But getting through that list made me feel like a superstar. I was effective.
Recently, it’s gotten more and more difficult to make myself work on the list each day. More and more often, I don’t even write one out the night before. I’ve been worried that this meant I was losing my grip on my life. I can’t even get a simple to-do list done?
After reading what Brene’ Brown had to say, the dawn came. A while back I asked the Universe for help to get wiser about doing what really needs to be done. I thought that it was a case of rededicating myself to that daily list. Until I read about her experience, I didn’t even realize the resistance to my To Do list mania was the answer to my earlier prayer.
A few days ago, I turned over a new leaf. Instead of that long To Do list, I jot down what I really do need to remember to do. Then I remind myself that my day is mine to do with as I choose. Yes, I need to honor my commitments, but usually, it doesn’t all have to get done “today.” And it’s okay to change my mind as the day progresses.
Work is a good piece of life; it’s not work that needs to be eliminated here. What I—and maybe you, too–need to stop doing is the frenzied rush through an arbitrary list of tasks that has become the default proof that I (we) deserve to be alive today. I need to erase the notion that work—even meaningless work that doesn’t need to be done at all—trumps the less socially acceptable stuff like play and taking a nap.
“To Do” lists are great for remembering what needs to get done. You do want them in your toolkit. But they aren’t inflexible marching orders, and there is no correlation between the length of your list (with everything crossed off) and your value as a person. To be really wise, you need to use a strategy that includes knowing when to ignore them.
Mary Lloyd is a speaker and consultant and author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love. For more, see her website www.mining-silver.com and her blog http://mining-silver.com/retirement-planning/