The Tyranny of the To-Do List

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If I were a rose-colored glasses type, I would breeze through a list of everything I accomplished in 2012. Since I’m more the ochre-colored glasses type – in other words, I see the world in approximate shades of cat vomit – I have given a lot more thought to what has not been accomplished. A more puce-colored personality would hurry the leftovers into a list of New Year’s resolutions for 2013 and blog about them in case someone reading perchance gives a rip.

Being in an ochre mindset, though, I have realized that I will probably be much more successful if I strive for imperfection. In terms of learning experiences, I’m an overachiever; in terms of achievement, my record is mixed. My ambitions are a glass house from whose windows I can never quite remove all the spots. Better to chuck mudballs at the thing, I say.

Ochre Jill has hypothesized that the contents of the yearly to-do list, and not the dearth of checkmarks, might be the actual problem, and she has decided to drag Puce Jill vaguely in the direction of reality. Puce Jill, of course, wants to keep scrubbing the windows of the glass house in hopes that they will somehow be perfectly clean. Ochre Jill prefers to scream obscenities.

I’ve learned a lot this year. I have learned that I’m not a good multitasker and that I’m not especially efficient; that my skin is still on the thin side; that I can tell what someone really wants by what they actually do, even when I don’t want to see it; that I don’t know why I love my dog or why he loves me; that most of the time, if I don’t force myself to follow a recipe, I can make something decent with what’s on hand and skip the shopping trip; that the perpetual problem of balancing teaching and writing has continued to be perpetual, but that my relationship with procrastination has cooled…a lot.

Basically, I have decided to reevaluate my relationship with time and space. This year, I will fail again – but this time, I will fail deliberately. If my to-do list is a hoarder’s paradise, I have nobody to blame but its author. And really, there is no audience but me who cares about the ending, which I dearly hope is not “Here lies Jill: She crossed everything off her list.”

Because what is a to-do list, really, but a series of decisions about how to spend my time on earth? And do I want to judge my life by what I have crossed off, or by deliberate choices about what I have chosen to include?

My 2011 Cosmic Footprint

Rare Cosmic Footprint from the Hubble Space Telescope, July 2011

The past couple of years, I have avoided most New Year’s resolutions. What resolutions I did make last January have only a tangential relationship to what I accomplished this year, or, for that matter, to how I spent my time. For example, 2011 was the first year in a long time that I didn’t make a resolution to lose weight, but for once I actually did. Nevertheless, I don’t think the world really cares whether my jeans fit.

This New Year’s, I am feeling just a tiny bit skeptical about our national obsession with self-improvement resolutions. It’s not that I don’t need improvement – you could come up with a substantial list of my faults faster than I can say “2012” – but, frankly, we can all think of oodles of things that need improvement far more than I do. Lately, instead of re-evaluating the goals I set last January, I’ve been asking myself what I feel is a more important question: “What would have been different about the universe this year if I hadn’t been in it?”

I imagine all the people I care about, all the lives I touch as a teacher, and my impact on strangers I will never meet, and I wonder: What have I done for them? What have I made more difficult? When I say I believe in something, what have I done about it? When have I been constructive, and when complacent? If teaching at a community college has taught me anything, it’s that caring words at the right moment have the power to change lives. This year, there were times I paid attention at the right moments, and times when I was something less than mindful.

I think of my 2011 Cosmic Footprint as something like the carbon footprint calculators that have proliferated around the web, which give you an idea of how much carbon you consume and save from energy conservation each year. The first time I used a carbon footprint calculator, my self-righteousness toppled like so many clearcut trees in the Amazon rainforests. (Lesson #1: Caring about the environment does not reduce carbon emissions.) In the past two years, I’ve reduced my personal emissions by roughly 30%, mostly by telecommuting one day a week and teaching online during the summers. My footprint is still much too large to help save the world, but I have made steady progress.

Similarly, when I contemplate my cosmic footprint, I’m not trying to decide whether on balance I’m better or worse than I wish I were. Instead, I am trying to reflect, as neutrally as possible, on how my existence impacts the universe outside myself. Both knowingly and unknowingly, I am sure I did both good and bad over the past year, but thinking about my cosmic footprint is more like trying to trace the circles that radiate from a pebble dropped in water. There were pebbles I threw into the water and pebbles that accidentally fell out of my hands, but all of them made ripples.

The new year is a time when we indulge our desire to be perfect versions of ourselves, and because we’re human, we fail more often than not. It is a matter of what about ourselves we are trying to perfect. Plenty of people have left cosmic footprints that stride far ahead of mine, and plenty of people make New Year’s resolutions that focus on helping others and trying to change the world. The media’s “New Year, New You” mania for self-improvement, however, discourages us from trying to improve all the things that exist beyond our own skins.

I am not surprised that each year, after a few weeks turned inward for the holidays, our ritual discussion of New Year’s resolutions focuses on our outer selves: how to make more money, how to be more attractive, how to turn resolutions into reality. What surprises me a bit is that it took me so long to realize that the footprint I leave on the universe is far more important than the ones I put on the scale.