Does anyone else have trouble establishing a rhythm to their days? Ever since I stopped working a 9-5 job where I was answering to my employer and that holy paycheck, my time has been more fluid, slipping through my fingers like drain water. Self employment was my first shot at self-management, and resulted in several years of rewarding, exhausting, and unprofitable labor. When I decided I couldn’t afford to support my self-employed “habit” any longer, I closed up shop, planned to take a break, and went directly into a medical emergency (optical) that rendered my entire resume irrelevant. Sort of like the Mission Impossible recording that self-destructed after 5 seconds. (1966-1973 TV show. Iconic. Check it out here. )
In the ten years that followed that last eye surgery, I tried my hand at all sorts of things I never planned to explore. And now, after a year of weekly planning and accomplishments, I have uncovered a deeply imbedded, seriously misaligned cog in my head. Epiphany stuff always sounds self-evident when it is put into words, but here goes. Excuse me while I munch on a bit of humble pie.
The Tyranny of the To-Do List
For as long as I can remember I have kept a written, daily to-do list. I learned this at my mother’s knee, literally. As an adult, I often visited her on weekends when I was living nearby and working long hours at my paid job. Mom was her own employer, sometimes doing work that resulted in revenue, sometimes just working on hobbies. Either way, she went at them with the diligence of a high level Madison Avenue project manager. If she did something during the day that hadn’t been on her list, she would add it on, and then cross it off. Mom not only had to-do lists, but she kept them rubber-banded together, archived. I found them boxed up among her things when I cleared out her house after she died.
For her (and for me up until now), those lists began as guiding lights but became interrogation lamps, a way to decide whether or not she had earned her crust of bread and bit of oxygen for the day.
Question: So what is the alternative to the Tyrannical To-Do List?
Answer: Back off, baby.
I see now that what sounds like a great plan the night before becomes a drill sergeant the following day, so I have given up planning. To be more precise, I now have an anorexic plan instead of a Bullhorn Blimp. It is a new habit, but strangely refreshing, like coming home to ones heart.
Here it is: I have a datebook that I carry with me, and now it only contains time-sensitive appointments. No grand plans for how to be an efficient automaton for the day. Just appointments.
My new morning ritual: If I need to leave home that day, I take a little stickie note and jot down anything I could do while I am out. I live 46 steps above the street, so bopping out for errands multiple times a day is not appealing at all. If I have an appointment, I might make a quick grocery list, or decide today is the day to go to the laundromat (take the tablet and keyboard, there is a cafe next door which is a great place to write!) That’s it. My list-making is only for outings.
If I have a day in, or when I return home, I pause, make a cup of tea, and sit down for The Chat. I sit at my studio table, quietly look around, and ask, “So, what would you like to do, Bobbie?” This question may seem absurd to most, but for a lifelong “should-oughta-haffta” girl, this is heady stuff. My one-room-living lifestyle means every possibility is within sight: the choices run from tidy up the place, pay bills (if it is the end of the month), wash dishes, make soup, prep a huge salad for the next couple days, start another Scotland watercolor, finish up a blog post, or get back to the memoir I am writing.
The thing is, every one of these options is appealing if it is not on a to-do list! Isn’t that bizarre?
‘Should’ is a barrier to love, especially self-love. For me, the best symptom of self-love is loving my own precious life. And how can I do that when my life is “on hold” until I finish that goll darn to-do list that some idiot created. Oh. Wow. That idiot is me. Or was. The yelling has stopped. The shaming has stopped. I am on vacation, with a few responsibilities sprinkled here and there. That is what life is really. Or can be if we let it.
A gift at the end:
Sometimes when you slow down a bit, you see where a splinter in your soul was lodged. If I hadn’t chucked my to-do list, I never would have had space for the following:
I thought I had finished a watercolor a couple weeks ago, but wasn’t fully pleased with it. I set it aside in the “Oh well” pile, thinking I was done. Yesterday as I was pondering my afternoon, I pulled it out. “Hmm, why not?”I thought. I changed a tree on the upper right side to the species it is in real life, not the one I thought it was in my tiny photograph from Scotland. How do you change a red tree to a green one without creating a muddy mess? You stay present and follow your instincts, not directions. I punched up the contrast overall, and used a color test sheet to make sure my darks were really dark enough before the paint hit the painting. Voila! Much happier.
How do you plan your free time? Do you even have free time, listen-to-your-heart time, or have you shackled it up with your own expectations? This was a long blog post, thanks for sticking with it to the not-at-all-bitter end. Comment below, this is a conversation!