To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times. ~Thomas Merton
It’s amazing the many ways we’ll find to beat ourselves up.
When you set self-compassion as a theme for your year, as I did in 2012, you start to notice these things.
Like the way my to-do list is always about 27 items long, when it’s physically only possible for me to check off about three of those things. And yet I keep compiling these 27-item to-do lists.
Needless to say, this is not very self-compassionate.
The result is invariably a sense of guilt and frustration for not accomplishing more. I end up feeling unsuccessful at the end of the day, no matter how many items I’ve checked off my list, because there are always so many more that I didn’t check off.
All of which makes me an excellent target for metaphoric punching, by me.
And the cycle starts all over the next day.
I’ve known for some time that this is not useful, but making realistic to-do lists has always somehow eluded me. Even a conscious commitment last year to slow down didn’t cure me of Overloaded To-Do List Syndrome.
Creative Ignition Club to the rescue!
Then, a couple of weeks ago, Laureen, one of my Creative Ignition Club members started a thread in the clubhouse (what we club members call our private forums) called “Practising Reasonable Goal Setting.” (And yes, that’s how she spelled it, because she’s Canadian, and it’s correct to spell it that way where she lives. In case you’re a little OCD about spelling, like yours truly.)
Turns out I’m not the only one with unrealistic to-do lists, because this clubhouse conversation has gotten quite a lot of action!
Here’s what we do — pretty simple, really: Those who wish to participate post their reasonable goals for the next day, then report back on how it went. Tweak, adjust, and try again.
Simple, yes, but in practice it’s harder than it might sound. We’re all learning — very publicly, albeit in our private clubhouse — that what constitutes “reasonable” needs continual downward adjustment.
Perhaps you can relate?
Why do we set unreasonable goals?
Partly we set unreasonable goals because we don’t have an accurate sense of how long things take. This is where data-collection can be really useful. I learned about the aTimeLogger iPhone app thanks to this clubhouse conversation (hat tip to Jeannie!), which (when I remember to use it) is helping me get a handle on actual time spent on, well, anything and everything in my life!
That new sales page I imagined would take, oh, a couple of hours? Sweetie, darling (I lovingly remind myself), the last time you wrote a sales page, it actually took you three days.
So yeah, inaccurate time sense is part of it, but I think there’s something deeper going on here, and it’s intimately related to self-compassion, or lack thereof. Setting goalposts for “good enough” that are beyond punting range is simply not treating oneself kindly.
In fact, it’s a double-whammy: We make crazy-impossible demands of ourselves (not very kind), then beat ourselves up when we don’t transform into superheroes and magically meet those demands (definitely not very kind).
So. What to do?
Think like the lone woman in a room of generals
First, I’m following what I call the Lone Woman General method, in homage to an anonymous female general referenced in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.
They tell a story about a psychologist who had been invited to give a talk at the Pentagon about managing time and resources.
To warm up the elite group of generals, he asked them all to write a summary of their approach to managing their affairs. To keep it short, he instructed each to do this in twenty-five words or less (sic). The exercise stumped most of them. None of the distinguished men in uniform could come up with anything.
The only general who managed a response was the lone woman in the room. She had already had a distinguished career, having worked her way up through the ranks and been wounded in combat in Iraq. Her summary of her approach was as follows: “First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three on down.”
Like this general (one of my heroines for ever after), I’m aiming to give myself no more than three items on my to-do list at any one time.
I’ve still got a running list in my reminders app with approximately 27-gazillion items. But at any given moment, I aim to keep my task list down to three, max.
Three is a magic number
I can wrap my head around three things. With a list of only three items, I find it easier to stay focused on what the next thing is that I want to tackle, right now, without getting sucked off in a thousand different directions.
As I check things off my three-item list, I can dive into my 27-gazillion-items-long list and figure out which three items I want to move over to my Lone Woman General list.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
I will admit, it is hardhardhardhardhard to limit my task list to only three items at a time. It is hardhardhardhardhard to prioritize. But as long as I have someplace (other than my to-do list!) to keep track of the 27-gazillion other items I need to tend to, it’s amazing how having only three items on my list at one time is helping me feel — and be — more productive.
Perhaps more importantly, I feel calmer, less stressed. I have fewer opportunities to unconsciously default to beating-myself-up mode, and because I’m treating myself better, I feel better, and that makes me want to treat myself more kindly in return.
It’s a virtuous circle. 🙂
Ramp it up with a timer
For optimal effect, I set a timer when I’m tackling a task that requires any degree of focus. I’m fond of 25 minutes of focused work, 5 minutes of “break” to stretch my body, focus my eyes on something farther away than 24″, take a pee break, etc., but any number will do.
For focused work, I’d recommend no more than about 45 minutes at a shot, because our bodies and minds simply need rest and refreshment in order to operate at our best, but whatever number you choose, if you’re at all like me you’ll immediately get great benefit from this simple tool. Something about setting the timer helps me firm up my attention to keep my focus on the job at hand, rather than the constantly buzzing flies of email, social media, or the refrigerator.
Get reasonable and start enjoying life more
So what do you think? If you suffer from Overloaded To-Do List Syndrome, I invite you to try my Lone Woman General method. Add a timer, and maybe some group accountability like we’ve got going in the Creative Ignition Club, and you may find yourself more productive, and less battered and bruised all at the same time.
Let me know how it goes!
PS — Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!