5 Lessons to create a new relationship with your to-do list
If you’re like me, you love getting shit done and feeling the satisfaction of crossing items off a to-do list. I literally get a hit of dopamine every time I click, swipe, or check a box. Like hitting “publish” on this blog.
While valuing hard work and being productive has merit, there can be a shadow side. For me, and perhaps for some of you, the gift of loving to be productive can come with the sinking feeling of guilt and failure if you don’t cross off what you want to do on a particular day.
From ADD to productivity-obsessed
After being diagnosed in adolescence with ADD, a condition that blocked me from crossing much of anything off to completion, I started taking medication. What a thrill to fulfill my productivity potential! As time passed and I achieved more and more, I loved the feeling of finishing tasks so much that I became addicted to getting shit done.
Watching my to-do list dwindle thrilled me, and, as is normal with any dopamine-giving element or activity, accomplishing tasks became a drug. I was unstoppable! I could do it all! Watch me go!
As the pile of Post-its marking “completed items” increased in the garbage, so did my feelings of guilt if I wasn’t making the “best use” of my time. Even in my downtime, if I turned on the TV, I had to watch a documentary or a mentally stimulating show. I wouldn’t allow myself to veg out, “be lazy,” or just be. I began to interpret doing nothing as shameful. I linked my self-esteem directly to how much I got done that day. I’d feel terrible about myself if a day went by and I didn’t have at least a dozen tasks done to show for it.
The ultimate productivity test: Motherhood
While I was able to withstand being hyper-productive for many years (hey, that was how I was able to run a preschool while getting a graduate degree and train for a half-Ironman race all at once), when I became a mom, there weren’t enough Post-its, planners or lines on all the world’s to-do list templates that I could use to feel I could get enough done.
Motherhood required so much more energy than I could have ever expected. I no longer had the mental capacity or physical stamina to be constantly active, doing, absorbing, and producing. As all new mothers know, some days you look at the clock, it’s 10 p.m., and you haven’t showered or gotten the baby or yourself out of pajamas, much less picked up the house or replied to any texts.
And boy, did I feel guilty for it. What happened? I’d think. What did I do all day? Even though I put my all into motherhood, my self-esteem tanked because I had nothing to “show for it.” I didn’t realize that caring for a tiny human was the most productive thing I could do.
The price of over-valuing “productivity”
I spent many years holding on to my productivity addiction – it was part of my successful identity. I continued to feel guilty if I wasn’t multi-tasking at all times, like folding laundry, washing dishes, or cleaning up the living room while having a conversation with the kids. I loved identifying as a highly productive person. But it came at a price.
One evening, I was replying to a work email after hours while my daughter tried to tell me about her day. I heard her, but I wasn’t listening fully. Finally, realizing she didn’t have my focused attention, she gave up, understandably exacerbated, and said, “Nevermind.”
As she walked away, a deeper, more stinging guilt hit me than any had before – I hadn’t been present when she needed me, and I had no great reason why. The email could have waited. There would always be a list a million miles long as a mom.
I realized I had to build a new relationship with what productivity meant to me, or I’d miss out on what was most important.
Five lessons from a recovering productivity addict
- Doing ten things at once is counterproductive to getting things done thoughtfully and meaningfully. When your mind is racing with a million to-dos and constantly feeling behind, you lose sight of what things are truly important to do. You forget you can strategize and prioritize. What is truly important? And when is the best and right time to do what’s on your list?
- Resting (aka “being lazy” or vegging out) is not a waste of time. You’re giving your body and mind what it needs to recover, which leads to more efficiency with task completion later.
- Hanging out with your kids playing a game or just being in the same room “doing nothing” is productive because you are nurturing your relationship with them. Being with my kids fills my cup by learning about them and role modeling what undivided attention looks like.
- Saying “no” to a request is never because you’re lazy. Saying “no” means saying “yes” to your and/or your kids’ needs.
- Slowing down means speeding up. When you take time to rest, you will go faster afterward.
Are you avoiding something by “being busy” all the time?
Keeping yourself busy isn’t bad inherently, but for what purpose? Are you avoiding something by ‘being busy?” What are you afraid of facing? What would you do if you allowed yourself to rest for a beat?
When we try to keep busy, a lot of times, it’s because we’re in a space of avoidance. Avoiding a difficult conversation. Avoiding wanting to feel uncomfortable and negative emotions like grief, disappointment, and anxiety.
But what if you gave yourself the space to face it head-on? What if you allowed the space to be uncomfortable and moved through it, coming out the other side?
You’ve survived 100% of your worst days. Whatever you are avoiding, you will survive that too.
Redefine your relationship with productivity because some days, being in your pajamas all day playing “go fish” with your kid or focusing on nursing your newborn is the absolute most you should do.
If you need help letting go of your productivity addiction, let me know, I’m here to help!
To read more on parenting with the five pillars of calm, pick up my book: Chaos to Calm: 5 Ways Busy Parents Can Break Free From Overwhelm, and sign up for my Own Your Calm newsletter!
Reach out, I’m here for you.