13 December 2011

re-arranging {part I}

It all started because I needed to change a lightbulb. Up on a chair in my living room, I looked around and wondered.

What if I moved the bookshelf there? What if I moved those chairs? And aha, that would expose the vent that's been hiding {surely another reason it's always slightly chilled in my apartment in the winter, beyond that the heat is programmed to drop to 58 degrees at night and beyond that I live in the Midwest, land of the frozen ice sheet}.

This re-arranging was not at all on my to-do list.


I've been making these MUST DO and NICE TO DO lists for my free weeknights and for the more unstructured weekends. The concept is straightforward: prioritize. What is actually required today?

I have a tendency, when given a chunk of free time, to make lists as long as my legs, not that I have long legs but when it comes to listmaking, your finger is probably a better gauge, I've leaned.

In my leg lists, the concept of time never applied, so perhaps the first item on them should've been:
  • invent Star Trek-inspired machine to stop time {consider suspended animation principles from Star Wars?}

Being outside the limits of time would've helped me accomplish everything on my leg list, which usually looked like this:
  • plan lunches for week
  • make grocery list
  • go to grocery: try to arrive before everyone and their children do
  • make chicken stock {can be started early in the morning and left to simmer while doing everything else}
  • take clothes to dry cleaners that have been hanging over the back of the armchair in my room for months
  • go to Home Depot: plan bathroom re-do?
  • do all laundry
  • clean bathrooms—especially scrub floors! Maybe twice!
  • vacuum whole apartment
  • vacuum car
  • figure out why garage clicker isn't working
  • make three-course dinner

And then, because I'm aware that free time is for relaxing, I would add a few "non-chore" items:
  • read paper
  • do crossword {time self! Try to beat time from last Saturday!}
  • journal
  • call three friends to catch up
  • write cards to three other friends: gosh, Kamiah, try to be a better and more consistent friend and not have to do these massive catch-ups

That all adds up to an impossible, intimidating list.

It's a laughable list. The kind of list you'd half-expect to end with:
  • conquer world by lunch: then have soup and grilled cheese?

It's also the kind of list that leads to guilt when you, quite inevitably, can't accomplish everything on there. Or even three things on there.

As the day progress and you don't make as much progress on your list as you'd like, you can start to feel weighed down.

I think it's the weight of those undone tasks, the weight of the things you aren't doing, dragging you down. Day after day, you feel like you aren't accomplishing what you need to. Yes, your definition of "need to do" may be off and unrealistic, but that doesn't matter in this scenario.

What matters is: you feel dragged down by these tasks, and even in admitting that, you add another task to your list: get over yourself. What's so hard, after all, in your life? Why don't you have the strength to get up and do what needs to be done?

In my mind, I see a person with hunched-over shoulders, an exhausted frown, and insomniac eyes, walking through a harvested field {stubbled and a burnt yellow} and pulling behind them a to-do list made of stapled-together scrap paper 100 miles long.

Wow. Sorry for the incredibly dramatic—if very vivid and perhaps paint-able—image there. But in all honesty, I got to a point earlier this fall where I did feel like that person.

I felt like someone trying to carry on doing all these tasks I didn't even know if I enjoyed anymore.

And it didn't matter how many lists I made or how many people I explained this to: at the end of the day, I still felt dragged down. Something had to change or I was prone to start wandering through harvested fields feeling sorry for myself.

I took comfort in this: I know many smart, time-savvy people who, given the opportunity, think they can accomplish 10 things at once and so they, too, make these leg lists.

Why do we do this? Why do we overestimate our abilities and underestimate our need for rest?

I think the answer lies in:
  • how common—expected, even—it is to multitask
  • how scheduled our lives can be so that we're either perplexed by free time or overzealous when it comes
  • if you're of a certain task-oriented, checklist-loving, order-bringing personality. {I may be one of those.}
I've been learning this fall—and now into Advent—about limiting the to-do list.

About not trying to conquer the world {or even my own little corner of it} in my free time.

About focusing on really, actually, truly needs to be done—and then setting the rest of my free time free.

And from that place—that place of wanting to feel less like my life was dragging—has come the MUST DO and NICE TO DO lists.


Which I'll tell you about in Part II, as well as wrap up the furniture re-arranging bit {bet you forgot that that's where this story started, didn't you?}


  1. You could be like the mayor in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is his to do list:


  2. "Become invincible"

    I love that! I am totally the mayor.

  3. Oh Alyssa, you are awesome! I love the Mayor in Buffy! :-)

    And Kamiah, I was just checking things off my to-do list this morning. I've started doing monthly check lists (the one I have now is a "be done by Christmas" list. :-)



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