“What happens when everything is done on the to-do list? Do we go home?” The eighteen year old, fresh-out-of-college company junior asked his new team.
His colleagues, one of them my partner, Kristin—who’d spent years and years working for the company—rolled their eyes, partly incredulous, partly amused, and replied, “There is no end! Once we’ve finished this project, there’ll be another one and another. It never ends, you don’t get to go home just because everything is done. This is what work is. Get used to it.”
The young intern sloped off, embarrassed. And confused.
We’ve become a to-do list culture, haven’t we?
Add more and more ‘jobs’ to the list.
Do more things.
Stay busy. Be busy. “How’ve you been?” “Oh you know, really BUSY.”
I have to-do lists all over my desk; I’ve always been a list-maker. They kind of calm me and make life feel a little more ordered.
Mostly though, my lists just trick me into thinking that once I get to the end of them, life will be different somehow; that I’ll feel more relaxed and serene and massively fulfilled because I’ve ticked everything off.
I don’t think I’ve ever ticked everything off a to-do list.
My to-do lists just merge into the next day’s to-do list and the next days, and sometimes, I even write things on my to-do list that I’ve already done—and immediately cross them out—it’s like a little celebratory self pat on the head. Do you do that?
There really is no end to a to-do list. But we all know that deep down.
There will always be things to do, appointments to make or reschedule or cancel, people to see and work to be done.
And over time, these things get ticked off, and replaced by other things.
This is life.
And yet we spend so much of our lives on never-ending hamster wheels of BUSY, BUSY, BUSY, DO ALL THE THINGS BECAUSE AT SOME POINT THERE’LL BE AN END AND THE END WILL FEEL AMAZING AND FULFILLING AND I’LL BE SO HAPPY AND FREEEEEEE! UNTIL THEN, MUST KEEP GOING!
(You don’t have to keep going.)
My Nan, who’s 92, keeps talking about dying and how, before she dies, she must clear out her garage.
She’s been saying this for a few years now and has yet to clear out her garage.
I think, secretly, my Nan knows that clearing out her garage is not really that important in the grand scheme of things, and by not clearing out her garage, she can watch another episode of her favourite Alan Titchmarsh gardening programme instead.
I think she also knows that when she’s not around anymore, someone else will clear out her garage.
That it’ll get done, somehow.
And that ultimately, none of it matters.
She’s wise, my Nan.
There’s a saying in German that loosely translates to, “The work will wait while you show your child the rainbow. But the rainbow will not wait until you’re done with work.”
I’m wondering how many times I’ve ploughed through and kept going, head down, working my way through my to-do list, only to miss the most important things in life. Like my kid saying a word for the first time. Or a call from my 92 year old Nan who won’t be around forever. Or, you know, just noticing a rainbow outside my office window. I haven’t seen a single one this year. How can that be?
Maybe it’s time to loosen up on our to-do lists and HAVING TO GET EVERYTHING DONE ALL THE TIME, and step off the hamster wheels long enough to actually live our lives.
I know this isn’t the most popular suggestion, especially in the self-help motivational mantra world of SET GOALS AND WORK 18 HOURS A DAY AND HUSTLE HARD, and hey if that’s your thing, keep hustling.
But for me—and maybe you—there is another way, and it involves less tick, tick, ticks on the to-do list and more tick, tick, tick minutes of living LIFE.