How “to do” lists can hurt us and how to fix them

Most people make some version of a “to do” list. Justifications include improved organization, prioritization, and as a memory aid. Given how rushed life can be, “to do” lists may seem a necessity. Maybe we make one weekly, daily, or multiple times per day. Maybe we star important items; use headings like, “Urgent!”; or add highlighter for emphasis.

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One basic challenge is to keep the list in our consciousness or sight; otherwise, we won’t know what we are supposed to do! People with Dissociative Identity Disorder are notorious list-makers. We struggle with organization, prioritization, time keeping, memory, and using lists! As a result, we often make list after list that we lose, find, can’t interpret, and realize are not very helpful.

Phone apps have become a better tool with their reminder function, as long as we remember to keep the phone nearby.

No matter what system we employ to remember to use them, the essential flaw with “to do” lists is in their future orientation. As such, “to do” lists are the enemy of mindfulness, presence, and satisfaction.

Life balance guru Abby Seixas–author of  Finding the Deep River Within–calls this future orientation, “List consciousness.” To Ms. Seixas, the list is more the symptom than the problem: “With subtle but constant quality of rushing, it operates on the premise that life will happen once everything is crossed off the List.”

Our lives are so scheduled, so seemingly busy that, “When you are in list consciousness, you are leaning into the future and completely missing the present.” You are living in, “the fantasy that somehow life will begin when the kids’ soccer season is over or when I lose ten pounds…”

As most of us employ them, the “to do” list is a reminder to ourselves that we are not free, we are not accomplished, we are not done, life will not begin until everything is crossed off the list. And then we start the next day with a new list! We are always oriented toward finishing the list.

Ms. Seixas offers mindfulness (“practicing presence,” she calls it) as the remedy for list consciousness. No matter what items are on the list, we are alive right now. We cannot wait to begin living until the list is complete because (1) the list is never complete and because (2) Right Now is always unfolding before us.

This doesn’t mean we can’t organize, prioritize, and remind ourselves. It means that we may wish to organize, prioritize, and remind ourselves to live in the moment, to use our senses, to realize that life is the experiencing of a never-ending series of Nows. Life is not crossing an item off the list.

We have to live the losing of ten pounds, the grocery shopping, the kids’ soccer season, the recovery from trauma, the paying of bills. If we wait to live once we’ve accomplished a goal, (1) we have missed finite real time in our lives and (2) we become out of practice with how to live now once we have accomplished the goal. The new goal will be to keep off the ten pounds, to plan the next trip to the grocery store, to survive the kids’ winter sport, to the next paying of bills. We will always defer living now because of our “to do” lists.

Okay, let’s take a deep breath.

How do we live Now? If we don’t feel present, use our senses to feed the brain data. What is happening around us? See, hear, smell, feel, and taste to Live Now. Then connect to the experience. What does paying this bill mean? What does our morning tea taste like? How do we feel about the advice being given by our therapist?

The past is over. A memory we may experience in the now.

The future doesn’t exist. Any projection of it is a fiction. The future will happen only in a now that hasn’t yet happened.

Put these items on our “to do” list along with our tasks and then we will be better organized, prioritized, and will remember to experience life in the now.

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