I have recently had a huge revelation into why I always feel pressure to get things done and why the list never ends.
I went through school treating it like a video game with tasks to complete. Memorize 20 vocabulary words? Check. Read two chapters in your science book? Check. Write a three page paper in English class? Check. Do 50 math problems at the end of the chapter? Check. I was always racing to the next task. Check, check, check.
When school ended, I transferred that bizarre need for tasks from schoolwork into life. Vacuum the living room? Check. Do the dishes? Check. I am the to-do list queen. I have lists of my to-do lists. But there’s a big difference in my to-do lists now vs. the lists when I was a teenager.
In school, you only have as much work as the teacher gives. You will only see the teacher at certain times. This means there are specific, predictable opportunities for your work load to change or grow. At all other times there is the peace of knowing that once done, you are truly done.
Life is never truly done.
And so, to me, my to-do lists can never be satisfied until my house is entirely organized and spotless. That’s the only point at which I will have no more work assigned. (At least for a time.) And true to the old habit as a kid, you don’t go outside to play until your work is done, so I never go outside to play. This is why I don’t let myself binge watch my Korean dramas. Why the thought of going to the movie theater is always accompanied by all the things I could get done in those two or three hours. Why I don’t sit down to write. Why I quit drawing. Why I nearly quit reading (for a time). Why plans with friends feel like a loss of productivity instead of an enjoyable time.
I have this all-consuming, bizarrely intense need to complete my to-do lists before I can let myself live. So I made a decision.
School ends on December 31st. I’m not re-enrolling. My to-do lists are due at the end of the year, but only as they already stand. My grade will be based on what I accomplished, not what I failed. I’ve never been a dropout so I can’t quit in the middle, but that gives me a few more months to try to clear the anxious oppressive monster from this house.
I have a list of books currently checked out from the library and ones I own that I am in the middle of reading. I aim to have them all read and returned (if not mine) by the end of the year. Next year I start fresh. No ‘required reading lists’ before I get to play. Reading will be play.
I have a list of every non-writing creative project I am currently in the middle of or aim to complete. I aim to finish what I can, doing the things that hang heaviest on me first. Things that have hung over me for so long they almost don’t seem fun anymore, but that I know I will truly regret if I abandon.
I am KonMari-ing my way through my house, bit by tiny bit. I will not be done unless I work myself to the bone, which I refuse to do, so my goal is simply not to forget that I am in the middle of the project, having made great strides, and that it is slowly relieving the pressure I put on myself.
I am gathering all of my to-do lists and asking myself ‘What can you finish so that when the year starts over you can breathe?’ What can I do that I do not have to immediately put back on my list? What can be marked off for good? (Or at least for a good long time.) It may sound like I haven’t changed my habits, and really I haven’t, not yet, but I have changed my mindset in the way I am looking at them, thinking about them, tackling them… and that’s the first step.
I finally know why I’ve stopped letting myself live. I turned life into homework. Now it’s time to finish the semester and get back to recess.
*Image taken from Morguefile, creative commons license, user semiphoto.