The most important - and forgotten - 'thing to do'
I love a list. It doesn’t matter what kind of list it is, I’ll make it. My go-to list is always my “things to do list” and I seem to make many different versions of that list. There’s the ‘things to do today’ list, ‘things to do this month’ list – I’ve even been doing my ‘things to do this year’ list (e.g., 19 things to do in 2019; 20 things to do in 2020, etc). Last year I bought a brilliant Bandoo diary that has helped me keep all these lists in one place. And that’s made me feel far more productive, even given the year 2020 has been.
There are both pros and cons of to-do lists. It’s likely you are either a lover or a hater of these lists. For some, like me, to-do lists are positive in that they can help a person keep track of what they’d like to get done of a day, month or year and they can drive positive productivity, help people achieve their goals and perhaps even push people in the direction they’d like to go. But they can also be a negative thing. Like when the outcome becomes our sole focus; when our aim is to tick off as many things as we can from the list, we can loose sight of things that may really matter in life. We may forget, as I wrote about before, that life is lived in the process of doing the tasks, not necessarily because or after we get the tasks done.
Another negative aspect of being driven by a to-do list is that it seems to be a ready-made excuse to beat ourselves up or think less of ourselves for not having achieved all that we set out to achieve. At those times, we tend to focus on how horrible, inefficient, ineffective, lazy (insert your derogatory adjective of choice here) we are. This self-talk usually comes from a habitual pattern of unhelpful thinking, and is likely related to our “shoulds” and/or high expectations of ourselves that are ingrained from years of accepting a kind of cultural norm that defines what “successful” people look like. I’ve written about this before too, so you may already know what I think about these “shoulds”, high expectations and/or cultural norms – and that I believe it’s ok to question these things.
I also tend to see my daily diary as a list – I have this meeting, that session, this class, whatever, and those are my ‘time-bound’ lists. While my to-do lists are a rough estimate of what I’d like to get done in any given time span, my diary is a list of what will get done at what time each day. My scheduled events are my ‘must-dos’; there’s very little negotiation in these once they’ve been scheduled. My to-do list is more flexible, timing-wise. And while these are the two lists that tend to drive my days (and, sometimes, my mood), I do write other lists: shopping lists; gratitude lists, books I want to read lists, etc. These lists don’t seem to drive my time or productivity, but give me different kinds of benefits, like helping me to challenge my own negativity bias by reminding me each day that I am grateful for something.
Yet, as much as I love lists, it’s only recently occurred to me that there are one or two lists that I don’t make, that may be important for me to consider. These are the equivalent of ‘self-care’ lists or ‘me time’ lists and, for me, these are linked to the concepts of time and productivity. What brought about that revelation? Simply meeting my friend for a walk. It’s not something I do on a regular basis, but it does get scheduled in from time-to-time. This walk happened to occur during a time when I was busier than usual. I hadn’t seen my friend for some time and I hadn’t been out for a walk for some time, so this activity appealed to me for many reasons. So, I made sure I got a time and date scheduled in my diary. As my diary started to fill up all, I began to haver about how ‘reasonable’ it was for me to take this time out of a work-day to go for this walk. Could I really ‘afford’ to do this – from a productivity perspective? Once or twice I considered rescheduling, but didn’t. This was in my diary for a reason; I was going to leave it there.
That’s how I found myself walking along on a dark, cold, winter’s morning, chatting away to my friend. We put the world to rights, as we do, and as we got to the end of our walk, I realised just how good I felt. Yes I was tired; yes I was sore (honestly, I haven’t been out walking for quite some time!), but the cobwebs had well and truly been blown away. I felt refreshed and ready to head home to get ready for the rest of my day. And that’s when it occurred to me that I rarely schedule in time to do things that are good for me in my diary. Yes, I’ve got my weekly yoga class, but that’s really it. It became apparent that I really needed to take a look at my lists to see how I can make sure I incorporate rejuvenating, self-care activities more regularly in my life. This would be another way I could introduce more balance into my life – maybe not more of a balance between doing and being as I have written about before – but certainly more of a balance in the way I allocate and prioritise my time.
Up until now, I wouldn’t have considered taking a walk with a friend (or even on my own) as a ‘productive’ task and therefore something I ‘must do’. That’s always been something more akin to something I ‘should’ do regularly, if and when I have the time because it’s good for me. I believe now it’s not an option. It's not a should; it's a must. When I schedule regular activities to take care of myself, no matter what they are, the rest of my life functions more smoothly. There is no question about it. I can’t afford NOT to do it. It is not selfish. Ultimately it is self-less. When I ensure I am really looking after myself, I am able to give more of myself.
So maybe, actually, it’s not that I need to make a separate self-care list. Maybe my must-do schedule – those blocks of time scheduled in my diary – must include time for me. The question I will be pondering this winter, then, is how I'm going to re-organise my time to make sure self-care activities consistently rise to the top of my ‘must do’ list. Only then will I have a chance at living my best and most productive life – for me and everyone else. Look out 2021; here I come!