(photo credit: Less is the new more by Environmental Illness Network on flickr.com. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode.)
As if that were easy.
All the phone calls and errands and household responsibilities (from grocery shopping to cleaning to paying bills) could easily fill any day, yet those things are not at the top of my list of things I want to do with my life. Those are simply the have-to-do things.
Add to it the creative work and the occasional paid work. And the reading and watching and listening that I do to keep up, to educate myself, and to relax. And the yoga and dog walks. And then there is the connecting with other people, my friends, my family, my community, which are necessary to my sanity and sense of purpose.
What’s a girl to do?
We’re culturally educated to believe that the more we do, the more we accomplish, the better we will feel about ourselves and our reason for being. Yet, this puts us on this never-ending hamster wheel, where we run ourselves ragged.
I’m reminded of this several times a night when my husband, at some random moment, blurts out “Damn it” because he remembers something that he was “supposed” to do and has forgotten to do, that will now have to be added to the next day’s list of required activities. He may be the only one acknowledging each frustration, but he’s not the only one in our house who feels the constant jab in the side, the constant reminder of all that didn’t get done, the constant nagging within one’s self.
Doing less does not mean being lazy. It means setting out to do certain things each day and doing them, but not overburdening one’s self with the continuous list of should-dos that could, if we let them (which many of us do daily,) crowd any space we may have to breathe and ponder and live joyfully.
If you do less, you can pay more attention to what you do, give it the time and space needed to take stock and fulfill your needs, ultimately getting more out of every life experience. Getting more out of doing less.
How do we cut back, though, when everything is necessary, when every undone thing is essential and urgent and if left undone will cause future failure or physical breakdown or mental disturbance?
I think the first thing is to realize that many things can be left undone. For awhile. Or forever. What’s the point of doing, doing, doing if it drains you of your love of life and self and others?
The second, I think, is to prioritize your to-dos, both in the long and short term.
I know that I need three things: to work, to play and to live in the world. Broken down that means to use my talents, to enjoy what I have, and to manage the details of my life so I have the necessary things in place to serve myself, my family, my community and my world.
I could see those needs as overwhelming or as life-affirming. The trick to going the latter route is to acknowledge the limits of how much I realistically can do each day and to take my big picture goals and break them down into tasks and activities that will build on one another over time.
So . . . today. In the work category, I can get this blog post written, work on one lesson in a self-study program I’ve taken on, and outline one concept I have for an essay I’d like to write. In the play category, I can go to a farmer’s market in Boston, eat lunch out, and prepare dinner with my daughter, who has the day off and later, I can read the novel I’m halfway through. In the live in the world category, I can shop and prepare dinner (already in the play category), return a rug to Target, and either go for a walk or exercise on the elliptical machine or take a yoga class.
My initial reaction to setting this plan is that I’m forgetting something important. My response to self: if it’s that important and I remember it, I’ll swap out one of the set things in a category for the more important one.
My second critique of my plan is that I’ll fail if some catastrophe I have to attend to happens: a death, an accident, a mental breakdown. My response to self: take things as they come. Some days, because you don’t have control over everything, you have to adjust your plans. Be willing to adjust if necessary.
My third self-critique is that my plans are self-centered. I’m not serving the larger world, only my own needs. My response to self: Isn’t the point to take care of yourself first so that you are able to give to the world? And not every day needs to be about serving the larger world. Didn’t Mother Teresa say “Help one person at a time and always start with the one nearest you.”
A solid idea whose time has come.
[This is the fourth post in a short series about Zen Things. If you’d like to see the list of Zen Things or read the first post, “Do One Thing At A Time,” click here. If you’d like to read “Do It Slowly and Deliberately,” the second post, click here. If you’d like to read the third post, “Do it Completely,” click here]
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