Do You List?

Over time, I’ve experimented with a lot of different options and systems for organizing and managing my time. What I realize in retrospect is that I spent a lot of time on it which I could have used for other things. Even more importantly, I now see how such systems can be used for violence against ourselves.

Oh, it all starts out so innocently, as a wish to use our time more wisely. And it ends with beating ourselves over the head with the unfinished items on the list at the end of the day. And promises to catch up tomorrow. Add items to the list and repeat the next day. And the next day. And the next…ad infinitum.

I tend to use my calendar, planner and listmaking as prioritization and memory devices now, rather than as attempts to cram everything I ever wanted to do into one day. And still, the list can turn into violence. It’s quite magnetic to imagine perfection and then frame it as reality. But the cost to our well-being is great. The items still not crossed off at the end of the day prompt thoughts like: Why wasn’t I more efficient, disciplined, moving faster? I should have (insert self-judgement nonsense here). If only (insert inevitable, unavoidable event here) hadn’t happened. Oh, no, (insert worst imaginable, improbable consequence here) is going to happen!

These thoughts prompt me to realize I’ve fallen into the trap of ego, trying to achieve some imaginary goal or leap some completely arbitrary hurdle. When I realize I’ve been in the trance of doing or fixing, and relax again into being, I notice what it’s like to move from being in that hurried, agitated trance to being in the present, in sanity.

Time management matrix as described in Merrill...

Time management matrix as described in Merrill and Covey 1994 book “First Things First,” showing “quadrant two” items that are important but not urgent and so require greater attention for effective time management (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we make arbitrary lists and plans and then beat ourselves up for not finishing what might well be unrealistic, or have already become irrelevant, goals, this is the epitome of not being present for our own lives. Could anything be further from self compassion? Could anything be further from what really matters? How could we disengage from this cycle of violence to self? Sometimes it helps to look and really see how that urgency to “get it all done” inevitably becomes violence to innocent bystanders who we see either as recruits for or obstacles to accomplishing our imaginary urgent list items?

If nothing else, it can be useful to ask questions like:

  • what is the urgency about? where does it come from?
  • what is my busyness helping me avoid?
  • does my self worth rooted in being or is it dependent on doing?
  • what would happen if my schedule included breaks to regroup and ground myself?
  • what objections does the mind/ego raise to adopting a slower, more realistic pace?
  • what are all the costs of not being present?

What I’ve realized is that I will probably always feel the pull of achievement, but now I don’t have to get lost in it. I can revise my expectations to accommodate reality as needed, without having to get so beat up by the process. I can recognize the “should” for what it is: resistance to life, avoiding truth, and an attempt to control reality, which never leads to peace.

I see clearly how I feel less anxious when I’m not standing behind myself with a stick, trying to get it all done, “or else”. And little by little, I become increasingly comfortable with living in the real world. Which, ironically, is the feeling I was after the whole time with my to-do lists.  But you know what? I never found the feeling there, never found it at the end of striving, except as a fleeting glance. I only ever really find that kind of lasting peace right here, right now, in the present moment.

About Cynthia M Clingan

Cynthia Clingan is a licensed professional clinical counselor in Columbus, Ohio who offers somatic psychotherapy, spiritual coaching, and meditation and mindfulness instruction.
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1 Response to Do You List?

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