You are the boss of your to-do list, not the other way around.
When I wake up, I take inventory of all the things I didn’t do yesterday.
I don’t mean or even want to do it, but it happens reflexively, my anxious mind compiling a list from the remnants of everything I felt guilty about the day before: two baskets of clean laundry yet to be folded; four books that need to go back to the library; unsent emails and unfinished essays. And that’s just the immediate priorities – anything that doesn’t absolutely have to get done today gets shunted further and further down the to-do list, which is why with February looming I have yet to take down my Christmas tree.
How did I get to this point, where all my energy is spent frantically playing catch-up with the more efficient and productive version of myself that only exists in my head? I greeted 2018 brimming with ambition and optimism, excited for all the things I was going to do this year: finish drafts of two novels, relearn to play the piano, have friends over for home-cooked meals all the time. I couldn’t wait to do more, more, more, to stack up accomplishments and experiences, hundreds of little joys and prides to fill up the gratitude jar that I was definitely going to start this year.
I’m not completely self-deluded. I can see that this was never realistic, not with a toddler and a job and an anxiety disorder that takes up so much of my time and attention it might as well be my second child. My resources and my time and my energy are all finite; I can’t add something to my plate without taking something off. But the importance of doing more is so culturally pervasive that it’s infiltrated my very sense of self. All those “inspirational” Instagram posts about productivity – “you have as many hours in a day as Beyonce,” “someone busier than you is at the gym right now,” “work hard, play harder” – have crept into the nooks and crannies of my psyche and halfway convinced me that every second I don’t spend churning toward a defined goal is a second I’ve wasted.
If you are a person in the world, and especially if you are a woman in the world, there’s a good chance you know what I’m talking about. We’re on the clock every second, working on our careers, our relationships, our health, our Etsy stores. Even chilling out and watching a movie gets reclassified as “self-care” and counted toward a quota.
Maybe there are people who can live like that without totally eroding their sense of self, or maybe there are just people who are better than me at faking it. But it seems that the lesson I have to keep learning over and over, and especially since becoming a parent, is that it’s OK to do less. Not only OK; it’s necessary.
I did something in the spring of 2017 that I had done maybe three times in the preceding 10 years: I took a book back to the library without finishing reading it. The book – a popular and critically acclaimed novel that one of my friends had loved – had been sitting by my bed (I will allow you to envision a cute little bedside table, not a pile of books haphazardly strewn across the carpet and often used by my daughter as a stepstool) had been failing to keep my attention every time I’d opened it. It hovered at the edge of my consciousness, a Virgo’s worst nightmare: a task begun and then abandoned.
For most of my life I considered finishing every book I started one of my defining character traits. If I read a page or two and tossed it aside without ever finding out what happened, that would mean those minutes of reading were squandered, bringing me no closer to any finish line. Unconscionable. But last year – maybe out of the sheer exhaustion of parenting a toddler, or maybe from a spark of inner wisdom deep within my being, though probably it was the exhaustion thing – I just decided to let it go. When that book disappeared into the return slot, it was like taking off your bra at the end of a long day, but for the soul.
My life didn’t change for the better overnight or anything. I didn’t suddenly embrace relaxation as a lifestyle, shrugging off unattainable expectations (especially my own) and pursuing only that which gave me joy. But I did set several more books aside, unfinished, before the year was over. And every time I did, it felt a little bit like freedom.
The way we talk about giving up is deeply judgmental and layered with assumption. If you give up on a goal, it means you’ve let yourself down. It means you’ve failed. It’s never recognized as an act of self-compassion, self-preservation, or even bravery. We seldom congratulate each other on getting a divorce or dropping out of grad school, even though for some people those are incredibly necessary and life-changing positive steps. No one posts a “Before and After” picture on Instagram in celebration of how much more sleep they’re getting since they decided not to train for that marathon after all.
But sometimes giving up is the best thing we can do for ourselves. In a culture that fetishizes goal-setting and “having it all,” bullet journals and accountability buddies, deciding not to do something because you just don’t feel like it anymore is counterintuitive, but it’s also freeing. You are the boss of your to-do list, not the other way around. There’s a difference between an achievement that truly improves our lives – a dream realized, an obstacle overcome, a fear faced – and one that we joylessly drag ourselves toward for the sake of adding it to the “completed” pile. When we pay attention to that difference, it gets easier to figure out where our priorities really lie.
I’ve taken to reminding myself that “I can do anything” doesn’t mean “I can do everything.” In order to achieve the things that are really important to me – including not only personal and career goals, but a manageable stress level and, yes, the occasional afternoon nap – some things have to fall by the wayside. Giving up isn’t failing; it’s making proactive choices about where to expend my energy. And it’s the only thing that I know for sure I need to do more of in 2018.
Image via tumblr.com.
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