Recently I was talking to a friend who just returned from a relaxing spa vacation. Unlike me, who would take a spa vacation to think, figure things out, plan for my future, and such, she was going for the exact opposite reasons: to stop thinking, to not figure anything out, and to not worry about the future.
At first it was hard for me to understand that, as I am such a planner, but after a few minutes I knew what she meant. Sometimes you have to just be. You have to just accept life as it is and not worry about what is coming next. In short, you need to be present in the here and now.
Not too many things are much more difficult for me than that. I have periods of time where I am able to soak in the moment, but almost certainly within a matter of hours or days, I’m right back to my old ways. I’m the first to admit, I spend the majority of my time thinking about the past or planning for the future.
One of my staple behaviors is keeping a “To Do” list. Actually, no, that’s not true. I have multiple “To Do” lists. I have lists for the day, the week, the month, the year, and even years to come. I rotate items in and out of the lists as necessary, making sure to keep track of old ones so that all tasks not accomplished yet are placed on the new ones.
In fact, right next to me as I type this I have one of my dozens of journals I keep around the house. Just yesterday I spent over an hour planning my next 5 years…by season…by category…and in a table, like a spreadsheet. I’m not kidding.
Spring 2015…Personally…Professionally…Financially…Home Improvements…Other
Under each column I write a list of goals and plot out an action plan to achieve them. I’ll even make sub-categories, like under the “Personally” category, I’ll have goals for my “marriage” “kids” “health”, “travel” etc. I check what is realistic and what might have to move to the next time slot depending on various factors. I use arrows, cross things out, and make all kinds of marks as I adjust and adapt over time.
Frankly, I don’t know how to function any other way. It’s how we manage to take a great family vacation every year. (I know where we’re going the next 3 years.) How we save money appropriately. How I know when to make a move professionally. I get things done because identifying what I need to do, when, how and why has always come very easy to me. In fact, I’ve wondered if I’m not addicted to it.
There have been times when I’ve misplaced my lists and have truly gone into a panic, as if I’m not going to remember how to function or something. I have to talk myself down and remember that if it’s really that important, I will remember.
So when my friend told me about a suggestion made to her at the spa by one of the speakers, I had a serious Oprah “Ah-ha!” moment. He had suggested everyone start making a “To Don’t” list.
I laughed at first not because it is funny, but because it’s revolutionary. I wish I knew the person who came up with it, and I don’t claim to take any credit for it. The idea is so simple and yet so extraordinary. If writing down what you want to achieve on a “To Do” list is an effective way of managing your life, writing down what you don’t want to do should be as well.
I thought about it for a few moments and then made a note in my journal to write about this. Like my other lists, I keep a long list of writing ideas with me at all times. Unlike probably not forgetting to order the laundry room cabinet, it’s easy to forget something inspirational. I jotted it down immediately.
Over the next few days, I thought about my “To Don’t” list quite a bit. It’s so out of the ordinary for me to think about what I don’t want to do that I actually found myself struggling a little bit. The list of what I do want to do (or just need to do) is usually very obvious and very literal.
Order pictures for this year’s photo album.
Sell Girl Scout cookies.
Purchase airfare for LA trip.
Look into summer camp for kids.
Get birthday present for daughter’s friend.
There are about twenty other items of that nature on it this moment. Even my long-term goals are similar.
Secure contract with publisher.
Re-Launch Lessons for Life Unlimited, Inc. in the fall.
Take weekend trip with Matt in March.
But a “To Don’t” list is different. Figuring out what you don’t want to do today is not necessarily literal, or I should say, simple. For example, I don’t want to be a crabby pain-in-the ass today. I have found myself being a little grouchy recently, and I don’t like it.
And I don’t want to procrastinate doing the household chores that need to be done, because frankly, the kids’ bathroom looks like it could get up and crawl away.
And I certainly don’t want to waste hours on social media because that’s more fun than actually having to do some of my tasks or working out or making a nice dinner.
Don’t spend more than an hour on social media.
As I continued to write down my “don’ts”, I found this exercise had a lot of merit. It isn’t just writing down the opposite of what you do want to accomplish. It’s defining the boundaries and the spirit with which you will do them.
It’s great to be a “doer” who achieves a lot. It can feel fulfilling and open many doors to you along the way. But I have found, when doing them becomes rote or even mindless…or when you find yourself putting crap on the list just to be able to check it off (guilty as charged)…or even putting things you already did on the list just to be able to check it off (guilty again)…or gosh, even creating things to put on the list because you feel like life is one big resume of accomplishments you have to keep adding to…
Why yes, I would like to climb the tallest mountain in the middle of winter! (Even though you hate the cold, hate climbing, and have no desire to do either.)
Well, that’s when the “To Do” list can get dysfunctional. If it’s not helping you manage your life better, but instead making you stressed out or feel inadequate, that’s a problem. And that’s where the “To Don’t” list can bring you some balance.
No, I’m not going to add 15 more things to this list until I finish the tasks I already have.
No, I’m not going to sign up for a mountain climbing trip because it would be cool to say I did it.
No, I’m not going to allow myself feel guilty about anything today.
I have to say, for a chronic list maker like myself, the whole idea of making a “To Don’t” list has been incredibly helpful. It’s only been a few days, but I imagine it will be life changing for me.
Here’s what I am going to do today. Check. Here’s what I’m not going to do today. Check.
And someday perhaps, I hope to get good enough at it that having at least a few days where “don’t worry about your To Do list” will be my only goal.