“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day,” Lao Tzu.
You know how you get one of those monster to-do lists going—one that details every single unfinished project, task, phone call, and errand that is really, really bugging you? And, at first, it feels so good just to have it all down on paper, not needing to constantly remember to remember to call the handyman to come fix that broken outlet and the window that won’t shut all the way… Each day starts with a little song of purpose, “Today I’m going to get some s*&! done. I’m gonna cross stuff off of my list!” And it’s so weirdly pleasing to run to the list after doing every little thing, your pen piercing a determinedly solid line through those few words that have been tormenting you for far too long: “Take dress to drycleaner” or “Buy new toothbrush.”
But after awhile, if you’re anything like me, things start to change. The list begins to turn on you. You realize that instead of feeling so good and accomplished, you start to feel bad. You realize that most of your days are a frenzy that lasts from when you get up at sunrise to when you lie down long past sun down, and it stinks because those are the days where, although you did, indeed, work all day on the grueling business of living—at the end of the day the monster list is still there, nothing crossed off, growing longer and larger by the minute…
I read an article this weekend in the business section of the New York Times that seemed to crystallize something I’ve been working up to in the last couple of weeks. It was titled The Art of Adding by Taking Away and it talks about how sometimes the best companies, innovations, etc. come about by taking things away, rather than adding things on. So, this weekend, I got super brave and decided not to add anything more to my to-do list, not to complete tasks to cross off my list, but to work on eliminating stuff from my list entirely. To carefully contemplate each item to determine its importance and to decide—yeah, I’m just not doing that. Ever. (Or for the foreseeable future.)
So here, in no particular order, is a partial list of stuff that might have been living on my list for months (or years) that I’m just. not. doing.:
- Look for new duvet cover for our bedroom. (Ours has a big ol’ stain on it… I’ve decided it’s no biggie and I really love all the parts that aren’t stained, so I can just overlook it for now, right?)
- Start writing a new book. (I like writing on this blog. I have lots of ideas for posts I want to explore, and I don’t feel compelled to start a new, bigger writing project… for now. )
- Get new mirror or art for over our mantle (I like what we have now, it’s just not… perfect.)
- Make caramels. (I love caramels. I am intimidated by making them. I need to stop buying candy thermometers and just decide that I will happily consume others’ caramels and never make them myself.)
- Read the following 5 books: Outlaw, Song Yet Sung, Certain Girls, Presentation Zen, The Things They Carried (They’ve all been on my shelf for years. Time to get over it and move on.)
- Make my son a new winter hat. (Yes, I have the fabric and the pattern already. But my aunt made him a lovely one that he doesn’t immediately rip off his head, and winter is almost over, anyway, right?)
Deciding and publicly declaring I no longer seek to achieve these things is a little bit scary for me. I can’t really tell you why. Is it because I’m giving up on an ideal I had for myself? Is it that eliminating these things from my list means admitting defeat and failure? I haven’t really figured it out. And you know what? I’m not going to either. My to-do list is full, and I’m not adding one more thing.