I love working with an ongoing “to do” list, and I especially love crossing items off my “to-do” list – it gives me a great sense of accomplishment. Especially these days.
I also have these other lists related to my goals for the week, month and year. As the pandemic grinds on, I have had to shift and change many of these goals and my expectations about what I can accomplish. It is often harder, and certainly takes longer, to cross items off of those lists.
I share this with you because I know that writing a “to do” list is an act of optimism.
I also know that writing lists is a universal practice, as it helps us control the chaos in our lives, to compartmentalize vast quantities of information, and helps us mark our progress. On the other hand, I have noticed that lists can cause me anxiety and frustration, especially when I repeatedly see an item that’s been on my list for a long time, that just don’t seem to be getting done — no matter how many times I underline it, or put it in all caps.
And so lists seem to both help and hinder me. Perhaps you can relate?
One of my favourite books to thumb through when I’m pausing for a cup of coffee is Shaun Usher’s Lists of Note. This book holds a collection of fascinating lists, including 19-year-old Isaac Newton’s list of the 57 sins he’d already committed, a shopping list written by two ninth-century Tibetan monks, Tina Fey’s list of body parts for which she is grateful, and Johnny Cash’s list of “Things To Do Today.”
As I perused this book I found myself fascinated with what the “greats” (great authors, scientists, thinkers and artists) had on their “to-do” lists. And this is what I found: according to what was on their lists it looked like almost all of them struggled to stay focussed on their goals and aspirations, on the work of honing their talents.
They included on their lists things like “practice piano” (Johnny Cash) and “write a song a day” and “work by a schedule” (Woody Guthrie) and “always keep working on the acting exercises” (Marilyn Monroe – she underlined this). And even the great Henry Miller composed a list of 11 commandments for himself which included “work on one thing at a time until finished.”
These lists were a bit of a revelation to me.
I had always assumed that the greats of the past and present…just did it.
Although I could imagine that they worked hard to achieve their success, it never occurred to me that answering their calling or creating their art could be an item on a list, could be something they had to keep their mind focused on, to insist to themselves that they work on — but it clearly was.
And although I was surprised, I was grateful to know that Marilyn Monroe struggled to attend all her acting classes, that Sylvia Plath struggled to finish her university writing assignments on time, that Johnny Cash thought he needed to practice the piano more.
So lists certainly seem to be an important part of staying focussed and getting things done – for the most humble to the most celebrated list writers.
If, like me, you are currently finding it very difficult to focus for long on the work at hand, and to find a gentle yet fruitful rhythm to your life that breaks up the monotony of a lockdown day frozen on repeat – I offer the following:
Lists can feel very regimented/left-brained or “yang” in their energy. If you’re feeling frustrated or overwhelmed by the length of your list or the size of the projects on it, try this “yin”/right brained/intuitive approach to the tasks on your plate:
Take a blank sheet of unlined paper and randomly write your top “to-dos” for the day (or you can do this for the week/month/year) anywhere on the page – not in a list, just scattered anywhere on the page.
Draw a circle around each item as you go.
Now, instead of a top-down list, you have these bubbles of possibility randomly distributed and “floating” all over the paper.
Next, sit quietly with the paper and see which items you feel drawn to.
Give yourself time for this – a snap decision is not required or even helpful.
You may immediately know which items are not calling you that day and can let that help you narrow it down.
You are looking for the task that may not be the most urgent or practical but may be what you energetically feel able or inspired to handle at this time. The work you choose to do in this way will flow more easily, with the potential that you will accomplish more and work with a more stable mood and sustained energy to get the task done.
Then use this intuitive technique to select your next task for the day or week. Of course, if something is very urgent, that will have to be tackled first, regardless of what other tasks might be calling you!
May this help you find your own, heart-centred way of navigating these strange times – one day, one thing, one optimistic list at a time.