A prolonged rainstorm trapping me indoors and the arrival of a three-month-old puppy, who required my attention to securely settle into her new home, presented me with weeks of unscheduled time – time that would otherwise have been spent on outdoor projects, hikes, time with friends, and the many other activities that normally fill my calendar.
The result of this unexpected hiatus has me flummoxed and experiencing a sense of aggravation I couldn’t assign to anything in particular, until this morning as I was writing a message to a friend.
I realized, mid-sentence, I was caught up. My constant collection of pending tasks, looming projects and items waiting for my attention, were done.
But strangely, my reaction was not one of relief or accomplishment. It was a disturbing air of vacancy, an emptiness that sat staring me in the eye, daring me to fill it or suffer the angst of a day without a to-do list.
I’ve always been a Type A personality, confident in my ability to organize chaos, carry a heavy workload and accomplish results on multiple fronts simultaneously.
But since retiring, those attributes are less necessary. It’s been eight years, and I have slowed down dramatically. But lately, I’ve slipped in lots of extracurricular activities that demand time management, meeting deadlines and obligation to others who are counting on me. All situations that weighed too heavily on me during my career as an executive director of a nonprofit organization.
It obviously wasn’t intentional, at least I was not aware of my compulsion to over organize my days, devote time to multiple responsibilities and require myself to constantly achieve, even on days when I didn’t feel like it.
The newfound freedom I once cherished so deeply was being eroded by a need to be busy and feel purposeful.
Having a purpose in one’s life and devoting time to supporting others is not a bad thing, it’s admirable, in fact. But, when it becomes habitual, powered by frenetic energy that just needs to be burned off “doing something,” it’s time to take a closer look.
Since I’ve been thinking about this article, I’ve noticed the first thing on my mind, even before I open my eyes in the predawn hour, is “what do I have to do today?”
I really don’t want to begin my day with a mind already filled with to dos, so instead, I’ve begun to lie in bed for a few moments and identify several things for which I am grateful just as they are; moments, events and situations that require no commitment on my part, other than to notice and enjoy.
So, instead of bolting out of bed geared up to achieve, I can settle into the peaceful silence of an early morning before the world wakes up.
I arise every morning and head directly to the kitchen to brew a very strong black Chai tea. I enjoy its flavor, but the true intention is to dose myself with enough caffeine to speed up my reactions, boost my brain function and get that satisfying adrenalin rush.
I sometimes rely on caffeine to carry me on through days when I’m overly committed and should be resting because I’m tired, when the healthy choice would be to slow down, care for my body and give it what it needs.
In response, I’ve begun to limit my Chai consumption to two cups, not quite enough to set my body and mind on hyper drive – allowing me to be less agitated, calmer and more likely to enjoy a peaceful, relaxed day.
I am also paying attention to the telltale signs of burnout and overexertion and trying to allow for an occasional 20-minute nap when it’s called for.
I have a full life consisting of a daily routine of fitness and self-care, and professional obligations as a content creator. On top of which I weave in regularly scheduled time with my friends, time to write as a creative outlet, house and yard care, a part-time job and volunteering with a local nonprofit organization.
In order to afford time for what is most important to me, I feel the need to prioritize my time. I’ve established that my physical wellness, my writing and my investment in my relationships are my top priorities, followed by my commitment to my part-time job and my volunteer commitments, and have decided to allot my available time and energy accordingly.
I will get some help with the home responsibilities and limit my volunteer commitment.
I will also be more discerning in my social engagement. Perhaps inviting friends to join me on a walk or a hike to catch up so that the time benefits us physically and emotionally, while strengthening our friendship.
Old habits, patterns and propensities are hard to break, but it is possible; mindset and intention are key.
When I notice the temptation to say yes too often, or the need arises to stuff one more thing in an already overscheduled week, I will pay attention and take an honest look at whether or not I am keeping my promise to myself and properly prioritizing my time.
Waking up with nothing on my calendar for a day is a foreign experience for me, but I will hold space for it, get comfortable with the feeling and perhaps even begin to look forward to unscheduled time.
It will take discipline to resist tucking something unexpected into that space. But it is a shift I wish to make in my life and as such I will make the effort.
Being productive, devoting time and energy to others and needing a strong sense of accomplishment is part of my personality, but being overly committed to any of it is unhealthy. With practice, I can learn to modulate my needs, balance my life and foster a sense of peace in the world I construct for myself.
And best of all, break my addiction to my to-do list.
Are you addicted to your to-do list? Have you found yourself waking up to realize you have nothing planned for the day? Does that realization horrify or free you?