Not too long ago, on my pre-dawn way to the gym I saw a solitary college student headed purposefully toward campus across the slick, snowy street. A few hundred feet later I saw another. Then another. Then my car passed the Colorado State University boundaries and they were left behind.
Except they weren’t. Because what I noticed most about those young people wasn’t the fast determined walk, or the beautiful slim bodies, or the backpacks slung over the shoulders; it was how grim they looked.
Now, if this were semester exam week, that would be one thing. But these students were coming up on a five-day Thanksgiving holiday! And here are these young people, shoulders bowed under a weight far heavier than what’s in the backpack, dutifully getting up way before dawn to go study? practice? work out? somewhere on a darkened campus in the gray half-light… And why? Because they love learning, feel a sense of anticipation, adventure? That’s not what my gut felt when I glimpsed those set faces. There was no pleasure there, no excitement… just duty. Just drudgery. “This is what I have to do. This is the first task on my to-do list today.”
So it set me thinking (while parking): what about the rest of us? Why was I up at this hour? And my mind gave me its made-to-order instant answer: Because the only time I can “fit in” my daily visit to the gym is this early. I have so much to DO!
And so I began thinking (while riding the stationary bike) about how everyone’s to-do list has multiplied and multiplied over the past decade or so. We churn out more work in a day than our younger selves could have imagined dong in a week, because we take our work everywhere. Even in transit, we are conducting business, catching up with friends, taking care of our to-do list. We’ve created no-hands phones so we can drive, type, text, wash dishes, even use the toilet while talking, talking, talking. And now we have smart watches that remind us, gently or not-so-gently, of the upcoming appointments, the incoming emails and texts. Airplanes are traveling offices for most people; if I can’t phone, I can at least check email and revise some documents. Yes, we are productive, productive, productive… the to-do lists get checked off. (Of course, they resurrect themselves, grinning, the next day…)
And what, thought I – while driving back home, preparing and eating my breakfast, feeding and dosing the cat, taking my supplements, doing the dishes, showering, drying my hair, dressing, making my bed, cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming the floor, half-tidying the kitchen table—in short, getting ready to start my day—what is the net effect of all this productivity? Feels to me as if all we get done just programs the treadmill to go faster and faster, so we have to run harder and harder to try to catch up with our lives as they disappear around the next corner.
Personally, I have come to the point where I cannot add any more projects, activities, interests, people. There’s no more space for additions, only substitutions. My life has switched from AND to OR: I can do this or this, not both. I can connect with him or her, not both. I can belong to this group or that group, not both. I can take care of myself or others in this moment, not both. (And not all the others, at that.)
So, do I get this article written or spend time with my spouse? Do I stroke this cat or make that phone call? Do I drive up into these mountains or do I visit that ailing relative? Do I schedule that meeting or catch up on this paperwork? Do I receive a process or give one? Do I receive help or provide it? In fact, do I ever receive, or do I just give and give and do and do and do and DO, because it’s on my eternally self-renewing, unbelievably compelling, excessively guilt-inducing to-do list? And so (thought I, while writing my grocery list, quickly checking email and getting ready to pack up the cat for its visit to the vet) have I in fact become addicted to my to-do list, both loving and hating it? Have we all?
And if so, what would break that spell? Well, most of us have tried out Solution Number One, courtesy of the media, the inbox and the internet: when you get tired of all this work, here’s Entertainment for you! Information! Connection! Your mind can escape from the infernal to-do list at least for a little while by overlaying its siren call with pretty—or ugly—pictures, lots of words, intriguing ideas, biographies of celebrities, past history, future plans, what’s new what’s new what’s new what’s new…
And as old Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that workin’ for ya?” For me, not very well. My beleaguered brain turns to the internet (I have no TV, thank God) or my inbox for a “rest” from my work… and gets caught up in even more “stuff.” And the to-do list is still there, grinning, when I re-surface. And there’s even less time remaining before some deadline or other….
So what might work better to give us back our time, our choices, and most important, our sense of joy in the moment? What will free us from the to-do list?
I’ve gone back to a different list lately, a far shorter one: you might call these to-do items “time-restorers” rather than time-stealers. Or perhaps “present restorers” would be a more accurate term. They don’t magically erase the to-do list, yet when I faithfully make these four things a priority, my life does open up and I feel more present to myself and others. The deadlines remain, but I am less concerned; I slow down internally and start smiling again. Here’s what I’ve been reminding myself to do:
Get still. For a while I “didn’t have time” to meditate in the morning before starting my business day. And I have learned that for dutiful me, formal “meditation” can so easily metamorphose into yet one more item on my overcrowded to-do list. So these days I just call it getting still: winding down, letting my mind unhook from the day past and the day to come. And I’ve now learned that for me, getting still is time very well spent. In the inner quiet that then permeates the rest of my day, my road is so much clearer, my choices more obvious. My day is just plain more intelligent when Stillness has a chance to set the priorities. I will be much more likely to hear Grace pointing out the next single thing to do, then the next, then the next, rather than trying to cram it all in willy-nilly.
Share the load. I am learning to ask for help… and to ask for it from many people, so each does just a little, does it well and enjoys doing it. And I’m learning that those I ask are thrilled to be asked! And somehow their joy-in-giving adds to my own joy and gratitude. They have taken this precious time from their own over-busy lives—and that thought reminds me to ask gently when I ask for help, and to understand, even applaud, the occasional “no” answers.
Put on my own oxygen mask first. Awhile back—longer ago than I’d care to admit—my processing buddy asked me a question that hit hard: “Pat, do you ever put on your own oxygen mask first? Or are you always so busy making sure you don’t let anyone else down, that you let yourself down, crash, and are useless to your world?” Good point. I’m looking at that question more deeply these days. What rejuvenates and inspires me, so I can come from joy and wholeness in my work—and play!—with others?
TRUST GRACE. Yep, capital letters on that one. When I am trusting, remembering, that everything that happens is brought by Grace, that everything I do proceeds from and through Grace, that’s precisely what I experience. And my whole system stands down from hyper-alert. I give up the daily load, take off my backpack full of responsibilities, relax about the everlasting deadlines, and just let Grace draw me gently through the series of here-and-now moments that make up my day.
So far, I’ve found that when these four take priority, the result is balance. And stillness. And there is both time and space for me, others, work, rest, play, because I am relaxing in the knowledge that “if it’s here, it’s Grace.” I can choose consciously, yet without “thinking.” The next thing appears and flows toward me, the last thing flows away. In this space, I float down the river of my day, and enjoy the scenery. And smile. Or laugh, or frown, or cry—but still, underneath, rejoice that I am here to live all this.
Does this inner relaxation happen all the time? Nope, not thus far anyway. Yet I realize I’m at choice about this. I can get caught up in multi-tasking, in “too much,” “not enough,” and the frantic attempt to keep up with my exploding task list. Or I can STOP and get still again, and let my day flow. And then there’s truly NO TIME—just my own version of eternity, because time has become the river flowing through me. And somehow it all gets done, when I cease being the one who “has to do it.” It just happens as Grace would have it; and I get to enjoy it!
What would happen if we all moved those four items to the top of the to-do list, just to see what happens as their influence trickles down through the rest of the list? I like to look out at the snow and wonder what would pour forth through us into our world, if we all tried it out. What could emerge from and through us come springtime, if this winter season were truly a resting time for us, as it is for our planet?
No time to experiment with that and find out? I wonder. Can we afford not to find out?