The problem with to-do lists

The problem with to-do lists is that they can make you less likely to do the things you want to do.

You start out with the best of intentions, clean sheet of paper in hand, confident that it’s all going to be achievable this time. Oddly, as you write things down, you notice your confidence diminishing ever so slightly… However it’s ok because you’re making a to-do list and to-do lists are the answer to everything.

Once you’ve written down everything you can think of and sat and looked at your list for a while trying not to feel alarmed, you decide to start ticking things off. Some easy jobs first — just to make inroads into it. Yes! You’ve done three things. You’re on a roll! It doesn’t matter that those were three of the things that you would have done anyway and that you’re studiously avoiding the other things in the murky bottom bit of your list. No, you’ve done three things out of your 107 things to do and therefore you’re making progress.

Then the phone rings and someone asks you if you’d mind doing something for them and of course you wouldn’t, so you say yes and then, once you’ve put the phone down, you add that thing to your list and it’s now 108 things, but that’s ok because you’ve done three and…

Maybe now is a good time for a cup of tea. However, whilst you’re making a cup of tea, you notice that you really need to descale the kettle, because you’re tired of having crunchy tea, so you add that to the list — and now it’s 109 things and you’re feeling a bit less deserving of a celebratory “I’ve done three things!” teabreak. Your to-do list is starting to feel a bit less like the answer to everything and a bit more like a reproachful, slightly neglected pet.

Here’s a way to make a to-do list work better. Take an enormous piece of paper (or fresh document on your computer, or whatever works for you). Write everything on it. All of the things that are cluttering up your mind, waking you up at night and generally making life a bit un-fun.

Now get a little piece of paper. Make this your to-day list. Read through your massive, enormous to-do list and choose a very small number of things. Maybe three. Maybe five. Only you can decide, but the rule is — you can only put things on your to-day list that you are committing to do today. So if you think it would be nice to get around to looking at that corner of the kitchen where everyone mysteriously deposits things that are impossible to find homes for, but know that deep down there isn’t a hope in hell that you’ll do it, DON’T put that on the list. If, by contrast, you’ve noticed that the supermarket basil plant you bought is looking horribly dehydrated and you think you could probably water it whilst waiting for the kettle to boil a bit later on, then DO put ‘water basil’ on the list.

It might seem as though you have ridiculously low expectations if you only put a very few things on the list and they’re pretty small ones at that, but here’s the thing…

DO THEM ANYWAY.

Don’t analyse. Don’t judge. Don’t beat yourself up. Just DO THEM.

When new things come to your attention and you need to add them to your to-do list, do that. Just don’t put them on your to-day list — unless you are willing to absolutely promise yourself that they’re going to be done by the end of the day.

When you get to tomorrow and you look back and see that you did the three things on your to-day list from the day before, you will feel ever so slightly better. When you look at the pot of basil that is now not-dying, you will feel a little more like someone who’s getting on top of things. And when you make your new to-day list and choose your next small handful of things to achieve, you’ll feel ever so slightly more confident that you’ll get them done.

You’re not ever going to clear your to-do list completely — that’s not how to-do lists work. But if you get into the habit of checking your to-do list each day, choosing just a tiny number of things from it to put on your to-day list and then actually doing them, you will always know what needs doing, you will be making a steady impact and you can go to bed at night knowing that you’ve done what you said you were going to do — which is worth a lot.

Five things I learned from my parents’ dementia

Between 1990 and 2000, my father lived with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. A few years later, my mother started showing similar symptoms and was diagnosed with exactly the same two conditions.  Here are some of the things that living with and loving them during that time taught me….

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It’s not worth contradicting someone who is losing their memory unless you absolutely have to. In the last few months of her life my mum starred in a movie, robbed a bank, fought with the Canadian army, sneaked a train ride to London without paying the fare and had an illicit night in a hotel with a strange man, all whilst apparently bedridden in a nursing home. She liked to tell of her adventures. We liked to listen to them. It was a relief for all of us not to have to quibble about what was actually ‘true’.

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Memories are good but so are cuddles, hand-holding, singing, armchair-dancing, eating ice cream, pretending to be farm animals and numerous other things. It’s ok to be silly, ok to find ways of connecting that don’t require language, ok just to be here, now, without reference to what went before, without planning what might be to come. Many of us could probably benefit from doing more of these things anyway.

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If people haven’t lost someone they love to dementia, they may not understand when you grieve for someone who is still alive. We expect it after a death, but are less familiar with the kind of protracted heartbreak that comes from relentless, incremental loss. However, just because people around you can’t always empathise, don’t imagine for a second that you are not allowed to grieve. You’re entitled to feel whatever it is that you’re feeling. Don’t give yourself a hard time for that, on top of everything else.

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You have to look after yourself. This process can last a long while and you need to figure out how to keep yourself sane and healthy along the way. I say this with feeling – because I didn’t. So take time out. Don’t try to be superhuman. Know that it’s ok if you can’t visit as much as you’d like, if you can’t fix things, if you need to say no sometimes. If you go under, you won’t help anyone – you’ll just get shouty and resentful and hate yourself and everything will be harder than it needs to be. When you are gentle with yourself, you improve your chances of being gentle with your loved one, no matter what they do or say. So if you’re not great at taking care of yourself for your own sake, then know that you need to do this for theirs. Remember to eat and drink and sleep and cry and find kind people to lean on as necessary. Do fun things and laugh – yes, laugh, as often as you possibly can. And finally – ask someone else to buy the birthday card you know your loved one would wish to give you if a) they knew your birthday was coming up, and b) they remembered who you were, and get them to coax a wavering signature and seal up the envelope so that, when the day comes, you can look genuinely surprised and delighted to receive it. Don’t do all that yourself. It’s just a bit too hard.

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Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can discover beautiful things in your loved one that you didn’t know were there. A playfulness in someone who was driven and uptight. An ability to show physical affection in someone who was aloof. A rebellious streak in someone who was always impossibly ‘good’. Whatever you can find to enjoy – enjoy it. My dad was a strict man and, as a child, I was often scared of him. During his illness he became softer and sweeter, less materialistic, clearer that all that mattered was his family – even as he stumbled over our names and, eventually, forgot who we were. One day I arrived home to find my parents standing together at the doorway. “Have you met my wife?”, he asked. His eyes shone as he ushered us together, so proud to see two people he loved meeting for what he thought was the first time. Back then I could only see the sadness of his forgetting. Thankfully, years later, all I can remember is the love.

Katie Elliott, 2017

Tightrope walking

There’s a delicate balance between gentleness and challenge: a kind of tightrope walking.

Lean too far in the direction of gentleness and you will never feel really fulfilled, never know what you’re capable of. Life will gradually constrict to the point that it feels mildly – and then extremely – suffocating.

Lean too far in the direction of challenge and your mind and body will struggle. You may develop a habit of anxiousness, as a default state. You will exhaust yourself and lose the joy that comes from simply being, without doing.

Recognising which way you need to lean to correct yourself is an invaluable skill.

There are times when the very best thing you can possibly do is nothing. Sit down. Sleep. Drink tea. Watch Netflix. Cuddle someone or something for a long time.

There are other times when what is required is movement. The voluntary experience of discomfort. A stretch, beyond what is easy, into the unknown and scary.

Only you know, in any moment, which of the two is what you need to grow stronger. As you walk the tightrope, pay careful attention – which way do you need to lean right now?

The extraordinary power of small wins

In moments of feeling overwhelmed, depressed, anxious, exhausted and out-of-control, it can be really hard to know what to do.

And even if you work out what to do, actually doing it is a whole other thing.

However, even in those moments, you have access to an extraordinary super-power: the power of small wins.

Here’s how you access it:

  • Choose one tiny thing. It might be cleaning your teeth, or making toast, or touching your toes. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just needs to be tiny – for you. What’s tiny for someone else, or what you think should be tiny for you (but is actually really scary), isn’t what you’re looking for here. It needs to be something that you KNOW you can do, even if you don’t feel like it.
  • Now do it.
  • Once you’ve done it, notice that you did it. Make a celebratory cup of tea. Call a friend. Give yourself a hug. Just notice that you are someone who just did something. You are the kind of person who says they’ll do things and then does them.

If you’re feeling up for it, you could find another tiny thing. Do that. And then celebrate again…

The important thing here is not WHAT you’re doing, it’s the fact that you’re committing to doing something and then completing it. You’re shifting your view of yourself from ‘someone who is overwhelmed and out of control and can’t do anything’ to ‘someone who does things’. It’s about a mental shift. The things you choose to do are incidental. You’re turning yourself from someone hopeless into someone hopeful.

You don’t need to do things all day long – in fact it’s really kind of important that you don’t, because that would be exhausting and not very helpful – but if you keep choosing a tiny thing to do and then doing it, you will start to get your sense of overwhelm under control. And from there you can gradually introduce other strategies that will banish it for good.

Tiny steps. That’s all.

Body knowledge

It’s tempting to imagine that thinking is the answer.

I’ve always been a great fan of thinking. I like to imagine that it will help me solve everything.

Increasingly, though, I find that not-thinking has a lot going for it.

 

Touching.

Experiencing.

Resting.

Noticing.

Enduring.

Enjoying.

 

Just being.  A human animal in a body that can do so much more than simply think.

When you pay attention to what your body knows and ignore the mind-prattle for a bit, it is astonishing how well informed you can become.