The Blessing and Curse of a To-Do List

I am in between right now. On a self-imposed sabbatical from a job. My whole life has been busy. I’m a task-master. I thrive on getting things done. I chose this path, this break, but some days I feel painfully unmoored, truly lost.

It is the most beautiful time of year in my typically rainy Pacific Northwest region. I am not struggling financially, professionally, or relationally. My family is healthy and I have a strong network of loyal and loving friends.

I should be floating on happiness, and some days I am. Other days the happiness cloud becomes too much. I drift in the unknown banging around my house like an old log in the river. I feel aimless and anxious to know where I’ll finally land. I’ve been here before. It happens when I am in between jobs or relationships; it happens when I am not busy with things to occupy my overly active mind.

On most days I work from an ongoing To-Do list. I use recycled paper from a stack on my desk and add to it all day long. The list grows throughout the week long and after each completed task, I make a satisfying pen scratch through the item. Each strikethrough on my list feels is a relief — like paying my taxes on time or remembering to send my mother’s birthday card on time.

My To-Do list gives me the feeling that I am getting somewhere. In this in-between that I am in right now, I need that, or at least I think I do. My To-Do list is my way to know that I am moving from one place to another, that I will not be in the discomfort of this limbo forever. I don’t know where I will be in a month or in a year but it helps to feel like I am heading in some general direction.

It feels like I am standing on the edge of a cliff. I can see across to another cliff but there is no way to get there. The space between the cliffs is treacherous — a thousand feet down; a freefall would surely result in death. Each item on my To-Do list is one rung in the slatted wooden bridge that will get me to the other side of the chasm between the cliffs. As long as I can keep checking through my list, I have the sense that I am getting to my destination.

Yesterday, my To-Do list was mostly done by 10 am. The few tasks I had left involved talking to my daughter who wouldn’t be home from school for several hours. I was listless. I wandered around, trying to find meaning in washing the dishes and folding the laundry. I tried to fabricate things for my list but nothing came. I stood hopeless; I’d never get across this divide.

My To-Do list is a crutch, a false sense of control, and a setup for a continued return to this feeling of listlessness. Every morning I take comfort at looking at my list, of adding to it and knowing that I’m building my bridge across …. I breathe deep sighs of contentment throughout the day as I scratch through my list.

In my literal listlessness yesterday I became aware of my problem. My destination, this elusive other side, is not defined. I have no idea how many slats this bridge is going to need to get me across. My list is a delusion. It’s just keeping me busy, occupied until my next step becomes clear. I have convinced myself that by keeping the To-Do list alive I am moving myself along, and in some ways that’s true.

But I’m also holding myself back. I do want to get to another side but I don’t know where that is. Maybe it’s not actually the other cliff I want to reach. Maybe it’s the river a thousand feet below and I need to scale the wall or backtrack and find a way down. Or maybe it’s here, hanging out on a cliff for a while, getting comfortable with this view.

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