The Illusion of the To-Do List

The to-do list, preferably in bullet journal form, sits to the left side of your desk which is of course cleared from clutter. You tackle the tasks in order, churning through emails and assignments and projects, cheerfully checking each one off in order. Ta-da, your day is done!

In college I lived by my to-do list. The school gave out planners (it’s unclear why, since most people had smart phones and I doubt used them) and since I was living an analog life, this awkwardly sized bound notebook was the key to my academic and personal success. Every assignment was recorded, every club meeting and many dinner plans. If I intended to go to a party or show that weekend, it was in the planner.

Since I am addicted to the self-improvement side of the Internet (even though it often doesn’t make me feel so good), I love when productive Youtubers share their secrets for getting things done. I just discovered Anna Akana and she posted a video a couple months ago about the way she gets her millions of projects completed. The part of the video that stood out to me was how she changed her relationship with the to-do list.

She talks about being almost addicted to her to-do list, to that feeling you get when you cross something off. To get that feeling more, she would fill her to-do list with minor tasks like “clean the cat litter” or “eat lunch”. She would end each day feeling like she accomplished a lot, even though all she had gotten done was things that she would do anyway. The big, meaningful tasks, the ones that are working towards her big goals, are left unaccomplished.

Over the past few months since I left college (and before I got into my good academic routine while I was still in school), these kinds of habits were sabotaging my productivity. Looking at my to-do lists from a couple months ago, I can see that they are filled with miniscule things. I don’t need to put “unload the dishwasher” on my to-do list! I do this every day; it does not need a reminder. Neither does “help Andrew study”; my brother will come to me for that. It gave me the illusion of productivity, of  a day filled with completed tasks, but wasn’t helping me move forward in my life.

Following Anna’s additional advice of creating a life map for 2016, I wrote down a list of goals. Mine are probably a little too general and don’t have a clear deadline, but right now I’m working towards: financial security, working in the field of economics, writing, and fitness. Now, when I make my t0-do list, I make sure that I’m working towards a couple of these goals every day. Applying for a job and mowing a neighbors lawn count for working in economics and financial security. Posting on this blog and going to martial arts class count towards writing and fitness. Now I’ve established what my big-picture goals are and have the tasks that work towards them at the top of my to-do list, making those goals that much more achievable.

My question now moving forward is how to make sure that I still complete the minutia of daily life. Even though it’s not working towards one of my goals, I do need to pick up my brother from school and clean the countertop in the bathroom. In order to make sure that these smaller tasks don’t take over the day and prevent me from moving forward with my larger plans, I keep those tasks on a separate list, sometimes written down and sometimes mental. this helps me procrastinate the tasks off each other more effectively (say, avoiding cleaning the bathroom by writing a cover letter instead). This makes sure that I don’t end up with a day where I cleaned the bathroom very thoroughly and caught up on black-ish but didn’t exercise or send out any job applications.

While Anna Akana’s video gave me the kick in the pants I needed right now, in other times in my life it would have been the opposite of what I needed. When you’re dealing with mental illness, those to-do lists with small tasks like take a shower, eat a vegetable at lunch, leave the house before dusk, are very meaningful. If getting out of bed is momentous, you need to work on that. Writing those tasks down and crossing them off can give you that little bit of momentum and feeling of accomplishment that you need to keep working towards health, or even just staying alive that day. When you need to feel a little less worthless, writing down all the things you accomplished that day and including these little tasks like taking the dog out or texting a friend or wiping down a countertop are an easy and important way to do that.

The key, then, is knowing which point you’re at. Are you struggling to complete the daily tasks, like showering or making sure you have to eat? If you need that reminder, those things should be on your to-do list. But if you’re past that point (or maybe were never there) and are getting bogged down in a day filled with tiny tasks while your big goals sit to the side unattended to, re-vamping the focus of your to-do list is a way to make sure that you are working towards your goals effectively.

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How are you using your to-do list to work towards your goals? Do you have an app on your phone that helps you keep track of what you’re working on? I’m on the hunt for a good one as I switch more of my life over to my phone.

Send me your recommendations!

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Lawns.

This was the first lawn-mowing weekend of the year.

I dread the start of lawn mowing season – my neighbor begins to mow in early April. This year, Mother Nature forces him to snow blow his driveway the following morning. We put it off for longer, mid-May at the earliest, waiting for the lawn to recover from the pounds of snow and salt after a rough winter.

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There are only a few families on the block who still mow their own lawns. The boy across the street has been whipping around his front yard on their ride-on mower since he was eleven. His mom likes knowing that he’ll have a good time while getting the chore done, though she worries what kind of driver he’ll turn into. The man next door is meticulous, often mowing twice before we have once. He likes his lawn mowed in vertical stripes, perpendicular to the street. With no fence dividing our front yards, he is generous in how far over he mows, saving me a few laps.

One summer he and his wife go away for a couple of weeks on vacation and hire my brother to do the lawn for them and water the flowers. Apparently their lot goes a bit further back than ours does, and doesn’t transition into woods in a similar way, leaving a whole lot more lawn than my brother expects. He becomes overwhelmed with the job and gives up about 2/3 of the way through, leaving my dad to finish two lawns in one weekend.

The lawn seems like such a suburban ideal, a key element in keeping up with the Joneses.  I am not fighting a proper war against the weeds or doing nearly a good enough job picking up the sticks and nuts that the squirrels are pelting down from the hickory trees. Most of the neighbors have hired lawn care companies to worry about this for them, aggressively fertilizing and to keep the grass lush and monochromatic. You’re allowed to water your lawn every other day according to a town system that’s supposed to prevent drought, but our sprinklers are disconnected anyway. My sister gets upset when she sees sprinkler’s on in the middle of the day. Last week I spent an afternoon dispersing lyme and seed with a push-spreader, though I’m not really sure why. There’s empty chip bags and tiny vodka bottles in everyone’s yard no matter what you do.

The lawn care companies don’t park their trucks very well, blocking more than half the road despite the empty drive ways. The roar of the leafblowers and ride-on mowers starts much too early in the morning, before even the high schoolers get on the bus.  The dad of a middle school friend buys a trailer to get in on the growing market and sometimes we see him and his younger daughter working around the neighborhood. Other companies drop their crew off, picking them up in a few hours when the job is completed, though sometimes I wonder if crewmen get left behind.

I don’t mind it once I’m actually mowing, but the chore looms large throughout the week, taunting me every time I pull out of the driveway, mocking me as my neighbor mows twice before I’ve done it once. I water the lettuce and basil growing in a pot by the front door and pretend it counts as the same chore. When my dad starts nudging my brother to do it after school, I bite the bullet and find the earmuffs and some close toed shoes (my dad has always been big on safety). I try to clear the the bigger branches and check for stones and litter. Check the gas tank, pull the starter rope twice since it’s a little finicky, and off we mow.

22 Things I’ve Learned in 22 Years

Today I’m turning 22!

Since watching Lex, Rosianna, and Karlie Kloss post videos about what they’ve learned in their 23 and 24 years, I’ve been thinking about what lessons I’ve learned and what things I know to be true. Here’s 22 of them.

  1. Peanut butter is a perfectly acceptable primary source of protein.
  2. You should probably eat some vegetables every day.
  3. TV is amazing.
  4. But don’t waste time watching shows you don’t care about just because it’s 8 o’clock and nothing else is on.
  5. If you don’t pay attention to when your quarterback is on a bye-week, you will lose in your family’s fantasy football league.
  6. You don’t have to constantly be working to improve yourself, though sometimes forward momentum feels nice.
  7. When you are a teenage closeted lesbian, you don’t have to fake having a crush on male celebrities.
  8. Go to prom with your friends.
  9. It’s important to do things even if you’re bad at it. Especially if you’re bad at it.
  10. It takes a long time to get to the point where running is fun, so start now and don’t stop.
  11. But sell the guitar early – your hands are small, you’re not going to learn how to play it, cut your losses and buy a ukulele.
  12. Whatever college you end up at, you’re there for a reason.
  13. Don’t take classes you don’t want to take.
  14. Don’t worry about not drinking alcohol in college; you will find people to spend Saturday night with.
  15. Good time-management and planning make college a whole different ball game.
  16. Don’t waste energy being angry about friendships that fell apart. Accept it, send her some nice thoughts, and move on.
  17. Never worry about double texting.
  18. Clean out your car regularly, you’ll feel better without that pile of CVS receipts and stale granola bars.
  19. Buy things you need. You don’t need to ask if you deserve new tires or a winter coat.
  20. When in doubt, kiss her.
  21. Write thank-you notes and tell people you appreciate them.
  22. You are worth more than you think.

Why I Don’t Drink

I’m 21 years old and I don’t drink.

I don’t have a dramatic story of getting sober after years of struggle, or traumatic experiences with other people’s relationship to alcohol. But I don’t drink and I don’t intend to start.

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Alcohol never played a big part in my family’s life. My parents don’t often drink at home, and if they do it’s only with guests. There was some beer in the cold part of the basement and wine saved from Christmas, but it wasn’t frequently taken out of the cabinets. Sometimes my dad orders a beer at a restaurant, sometimes he doesn’t (though he did go on the tasting tour at the Guinness factory when we went to Ireland). Alcohol never seemed high stakes at home and it was rarely discussed outside of reminders not to get in a car with a drunk driver. It was neither forbidden nor encouraged; we were welcome to a taste at holidays but my parents never sang it’s praises. My siblings and I most frequently saw alcohol during communion at Catholic Mass but the back-wash factor didn’t exactly make it enticing.

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Carpool.

Foggy Rainy Back Road 04861

I am waiting in the carpool line, my tiny Chevy sedan wedged between two luxury SUVs. Crew practice is getting out a little late and the other students who share this boathouse with my brother’s high school are long gone. The gaggle of blue and gold boys is slow to emerge from behind the long brick building. My brother and his friends are not exactly prone to hustling. I see him glance at his phone, seeing but not reading the long list of texts I have bombarded him with though I know we can’t leave until the coaches set them free.

He and his two lanky friends slowly amble over and I manually unlock the doors. The conversation with these three never seems to end. One of them takes forever to buckle his seat belt and is always complaining about his teachers; the other has a slow drawl and takes forever to tell stories. They all clamber in and my brother changes the radio station away from whatever NPR story I had been occupying myself with. We turn left out of the parking lot and take the winding back roads behind the high school to drive these boys home.

When I was in elementary school I was a passenger in a weekly carpool to get to our religious education class. I have no idea how this carpool was formed as nobody was very good friends (and in some cases friends at all). The church was very close to our elementary school but there wasn’t enough time to go home in between, so one parent every Wednesday would brave the insane parent pick-up line in order to take us. I liked riding in the back of the big SUVs, sharing a short time and small space with kids who were way cooler than me.

My mom remembers this one week, though I do not. CCD was cancelled, but in the age before cell phones and constantly accessible email my mom didn’t find out. I waited at the parent pick-up line by myself for a long time before a teacher told me to go to the office and call my mom. She was furious that the parent who was supposed to drive us that week and picked up just her own child, leaving the rest behind. I have no idea how I was the only one who didn’t know to take the bus that day – did the others just walk home up the hill? For the rest of that year, my mom would call that week’s carpool parent to confirm that they would pick me up tomorrow, much to the annoyance of one girl’s mom.

Today there is a carpool mom group text, frequent exchanges about who’s driving today and whether somebody’s girlfriend will also need a ride. The boys are oblivious to all this; often they don’t even know who’s mom is picking them up that day. They just absentmindedly galumph towards the parking lot and look for a car they recognize, trusting that someone will. When my mom works late or the practice schedule changes, my little car and I are sent in her place.

My mom likes listening to their conversations, even though they are usually about nothing. One boy cannot remember what the coldest day of his life was until someone else reminds him, another thinks he may have lost his sweatshirt. They are constantly complaining about their English teachers and celebrating minor improvements in their boats’ speed. She doesn’t interject very much, but I like to remind them how ridiculous they are being. The other boys don’t have older sisters so I think it’s good for them to experience that, even if it’s just for the seven minutes they spend wedged in the back seat.

There’s a slew of tricky turns to the first house, followed by an ongoing debate about the fastest way out of the neighborhood. We go through the center of town so we can turn left at a traffic light, even though it takes a minute longer. The second boy has the steepest drive way I’ve ever seen and we pray my car can make it up. I wave to his mom in the doorway as we slowly back down the hill, with just my brother left in the passenger seat.

Another carpool run complete.

 

Woo.

The city looks different as it rises before me.

I am driving home from my new college, looking forward to two weeks of nothing. I think about bringing a friend from school here with me, the one with lawyer parents in a fancy suburb. My parents are well-off too, don’t get me wrong, and have a house near the beach, but I made the mistake of doing some research on Zillow and found out that her parents’ one house on a lake is worth three times as much as my parents’ two. She doesn’t like when anybody mentions that her town is well-off.

The speed limit drops down to 50 as the Interstate weaves more erratically. I imagine what I would say as she sat next to me in the car that shakes violently through every pot hole. Here’s the polar bear for the soda company and the college on the hill. This is how you get to the most dangerous intersection in Massachusetts. My old college is over to the north, past the train shipment yard and the auto-body shops.

The newspaper building stands tall next to the bank, dwarfing the train station where we had our prom. They filmed a movie there because our city looks like 1970s New Jersey. The Italian residential neighborhood is to the right, best cannolis and worst hills in town.

It’s a long drive through the city, small neighborhoods and car repairs and churches and struggling convenience stores for miles. The sunlight glints off the rust and dirty snow. I merge right as we pass over the lake, where tiny houses climb the hills for a view and old men sit in lawn chairs, ice-fishing. We would pull off into my town, drive past the post office processing center and the India Society and race up the hill by the private high school. The dairy and the donut place are closed.

How can I explain how I learned to drive here, that for many years it looked like I was never going to be able to live more than 20 miles away? The art museum is better than it seems, but there’s no way to explain, and the largest collection of arms and armor in America shut down last year. Every closed sign and rusted out bumper, every pot hole stretching halfway across the street, every thin newspaper and , speaks louder than my words ever could.