Monday, 4 May 2015

Letting go of your list

I’ve been a great believer in lists for most of my life. They help organise the mind, prioritise tasks and prevent important things from being forgotten in the mad rush of modern life. But lately I’ve been asking myself if perhaps the keeping of lists can go a little too far. 

Over the years I’ve developed the habit of writing a new daily list as I sip my morning coffee; it joins my home list, shopping list and personal list in a special notebook kept for the purpose, and it’s a very rare day that I do not consult with it. My grandmother is even worse: sometimes when she completes a task that wasn’t on her list, she adds it just so that she can have the satisfaction of crossing it off!

What is this satisfaction we feel when we accomplish a task? Well apparently when we complete something we set out to our bodies release dopamine. Dopamine is the body’s reward system: it feels great and it’s very addictive!

To make this addiction all the more compelling, we’ve been taught from a very young age that society respects people who ‘get things done’, even when the things they do are not necessarily beneficial to that society. Our need for social and familial approval adds to the dopamine craving, making our behaviour fixated and largely an unconscious reaction to stimulus.

List keeping becomes toxic when it becomes either an anchor or a shackle:
  • When you feel that your list is keeping you from losing control you are using it as an anchor. It is your safety net. You are holding onto that list for dear life because you're afraid that if you let go things may become messy and chaotic.
  • On the other hand your list may have become a heavy burden. You dread looking at it, knowing there are too many things on there that you either do not wish to do, feel too exhausted to do or simply do not have the time for. Your list is a chain around your neck; you are no longer free.

If either of these scenarios rings true, it may be time to look closely at your relationships to lists. Ask yourself a few pertinent questions:
  • Are the things on your list actually the things you’d like to spend your time (life) doing?
  • What exactly will doing these things achieve? Is it worth the time and energy invested?
  • Do you experience guilt or shame when you fail to complete the tasks on your list?
  • Do you project these negative emotions on to your loved ones in the form of resentment, irritability, blaming or demands?
  • Do you feel a sense of panic when you get to work and realise you’ve left your list on the kitchen table?
  • Do you feel you could spend a whole weekend without writing or referring to a list?
  • Are your lists recycled – are there things on there that you wanted to complete a year ago but haven’t been able to? Is it time to let go of them, or face-up and make them happen?
  • Do you ever miss an opportunity to act spontaneously, perhaps enjoying a moment of synchronicity, because you are too fixated on your list?
  • Do you consult you list just so you can cross something off, even if you already know what your next task must be?
  • Do you sometimes feel frustrated by circumstances when they interfere with the completion of tasks, even when the turn of events is a happy one, such as the arrival of guests?

Of course there are many good reasons to complete tasks: to serve others, to move towards our goals or simply because they're a part of the necessities of life. And of course a list is a valuable tool that can help us complete these tasks efficiently. But just as you wouldn’t use an axe to cut off your fingers and toes, you don’t need to use your list as a safety blanket or a shackle.

Letting go of your list can be an intensely liberating experience. Strangely enough the world doesn’t fall apart around you. Things continue to get done, your loved ones go to bed sweet smelling and well fed. In fact you may find yourself acting more spontaneously, noticing opportunities and using your intuition to guide you. By staying present and acting as the situation calls you to, rather than trying to force time and space into the format of your list, you allow life to open up in new and beautiful ways.

1 comment:

Jen said...

Ha ha! This made me laugh :) You are literally describing me! Great blog xo