The Freaking Never Ending To-Do List

by | Mar 25, 2014 | Defining Success | 48 comments

There are times I wonder if it’s just me.

Is it just me who has given up reading fiction, even though I desperately need the mental escape, because my stack of unread self-improvement books is just too high?

Am I the only one who occasionally dreads unexpected calls, even from friends, because I feel like my life cannot absorb even one more thing?

Does anyone else lament their exhaustion, even if only privately, while simultaneously committing to big, impress-the-pants-off-everyone dreams?

I have published articles on why you need a to-be list instead of a to-do list and how self-improvement can ruin your life. I have considered unconventional advice such as how to relax by doing more. I have promoted time management methods that worked in the short term, but clearly failed me in the long term.

Today I stand before you to say I was wrong.

There is no denying that some to-do lists are shields to protect us from the things we don’t want to do. If my to-do list is long enough, I can justify putting off my daughter’s request to develop a puppet show for no one in particular. If you are an introvert or shy, you can use it as an excuse for not making friends or spending more time with the ones you have. If you are having trouble in your marriage, you can point to your to-do as the reason you are irritable, stressed, and not behaving your best.

I have done all three of those things at one time or another, and the truth is, I feel guilty about it. One of my core values is Courage, and hiding behind one’s to-do list is not in the spirit of how I would like to live my life.

I thought the answer was simply to add those other things to my list, to make them as important, if not more so, than the  stuff I was already doing. So I’d add activities like “Call Christy” or “Help make landform project for school” to my to-do list. Here is the reconstruction of the Cornwall coast I helped my daughter make for her unit on geology.

Cornwall collage

I am ridiculously proud of helping my daughter create this model, precisely because I do it so infrequently.

And when you look at my to-do list, it’s clear why this doesn’t happen more often.  My to-do list isn’t just a reminder of all the things I need to work on, but an explanation of why I am occasionally so exhausted and overwhelmed. I look at the list to remind myself that I am not crazy, lazy, or inadequate. I use the list to understand why there are days I want to curl up like a sick child and just have someone take care of me.

Feeling overwhelmed as an overachiever appears to be a chronic disease.

Right now, a lot of people are hating on me because of a post I wrote about the danger of inspirational videos that encourage a “success at all costs” mindset. Some of the commenters call me a dream killer. They say that I am a menace to children and society by encouraging laziness.

I don’t take those words personally. Most inspirational stories like Ruffin’s encourage herculean levels of focus, hard work, and sacrifice and I am daring to expose a myth that my detractors don’t want to acknowledge.

The myth is that one day you will “make it” and your to-do list, and the stress that accompanies it, will diminish.

I have fallen for that myth more times than I can count. I have wanted it to be true, even when my own friends laughingly told me I obviously enjoyed being a workaholic.

I know first-hand the trouble with treating your dreams like a finish line. You set the pace for a sprint, forgetting that life, if you’re lucky, is a long distance run. And, by the way, it’s not a race.

In my experience, dreams multiply over time. The more you accomplish, the more you will want and expect to accomplish. For example, my list of dreams currently looks something like this:

  • Be a loving, engaged parent
  • Be a loving wife
  • Be a good friend to many
  • Be a successful book author
  • Be a successful blogger
  • Be a successful entrepreneur
  • Be a world-traveler
  • Be healthy

I think it’s good to list out your dreams this way so you can see just how many you’re carrying around. There are others I didn’t even list because it’s hard to call “wanting to be the owner of a clean and tidy house” a dream exactly, but there’s little doubt it produces its own share of guilt and frenzy.

I look at this list and even I think it’s crazy.

One of my most instructive moments was talking to some other moms who I deeply admire. I asked if, as I imagined, they all went home after school and did arts & crafts with their kids?

Every one of them looked at me as if I was crazy. One said she was too busy making dinner. Another confided she sometimes hid in the bathroom.

That is why I love these paintings by Sarah Jessica Adams, who depicts the reality of most family dinners together. Talking to these women helped me realize that the standard of motherhood I was holding myself to doesn’t really exist, even among the most amazing moms I know.

Worse, I am prone to this crazy act of mythological comparison across every area of my life. I compare my workouts to those of my fitness crazed friends. I compare my writing success to authors who are not simultaneously running a small business. I compare my business success to 20-somethings who do not yet have the demands of a family.

The real tragedy is that my dreams often take away from the richness and joy I have in my life right now. Without question I am fortunate beyond belief. I get to do work I love, in a location I love, and with a circle of family and friends I love. So why in the world do I self-impose this level of stress on myself?

I think it’s worth asking: what if my dreams are ruining my life?

I’m not a dream killer. Really. But I know overachievers well enough to know that they will run themselves into the ground to achieve the impossible. They will fail to appreciate what they already have, believing the next accomplishment will solve everything. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “I just have to do this…” and really believed the pace would slow down, I would stop feeling anxious, and I would feel whole.

It just doesn’t work like that.

I don’t know why this message is so hard to understand. It is a message that many clearly do not want to hear. It makes people angry. And it is one I have struggled with all my life.

I love this quote from an article by James Altucher

Twenty years of stress and anxiety sometimes add up to something that can’t be hidden. There’s a river of sadness that flows through every story and we only see the surface.

Right now, there is an item on my to-do list to call the doctor to find out if I have Type 2 diabetes. I got concerned when one of my toes went numb and I struggled to get through the day without a nap. Although I am generally a healthy eater, my crutch in response to stress all these years has been to eat sugar, even when I knew I had a much greater risk of developing diabetes than most. I hid behind the urgency of my dreams, pretending it was only a short-term fix.

I have much to be thankful for. I know (although I need frequent reminding) that I do not need any more dreams to have a brilliant, enviable life.

My #1 dream is to enjoy the life I have, not the life I think I should have. [Click to tweet]

The title of this post was inspired by an image I saw of a notepad labeled “The Freaking Never Ending To Do List”.

As of this writing, the sellers are on vacation and the product is not available. Maybe that is a secret message for everyone who feels they need one.