Attack of the Killer Lists

February 21, 2011

I use lists to help keep my life organized. I have to-do lists, lists of goals, lists of books to read, grocery lists and lists of items to buy the next time I’m at Target. Without my lists, I would feel lost.

However, I recently noticed my list making taking a troubling turn. A significant part of my day was spent making or keeping lists. In addition to the lists mentioned above, there was my “gratitude journal.” After reading Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book Simple Abundance, I’d been listing five things for which I was grateful each day. In an effort to be more efficient (what am I DOing all day?), every now and then I kept a log of my activities to see where all my time went. Since I was also trying to lose weight, and I read that successful “losers” kept track of what they ate, I kept a food log several days a week.

Then I picked up Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. In one of their exercises to help “transform my relationship with money,” I started keeping track of every penny I spent. (I spent a lot on paper and pens. Hmm.)

And I realized that I was spending so much time recording everything I thought, did, ate and spent, that I hardly had time to think, do, eat or spend.

What was going on? Was I having a mid-life crisis? At the very least I was having a bad attack of self-improvement-itis. I was trying to improve my appearance and health and trying to handle money in a responsible and thoughtful way. I wanted to be more efficient, more creative and I hoped to find a deeper spirituality. I seemed to be trying to remake my whole life all at once!

I couldn’t go on this way. Frankly, I was tired. (I am woman, hear me snore.) It was time to accept myself for who I am. So I gave up all my lists, cold-turkey. (Is there a 12-step program for compulsive list makers?) Maybe eventually I’ll return to one, or some of them. But not all at the same time. For now, I’ll take it one day at a time. I’ll let go of my need to be perfect and concentrate on my need to Be.

Scout knows how to Be.

“No amount of self-improvement will make up for a lack of self-acceptance.”
Robert Holden

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  1. I don't know about you, but when I find things in life begin to feel "out of control" compulsive list-making goes up several notches. The worse the out of control feeling or say, the chaos of the holidays, the worse the list keeping becomes.

    However, I like Scout, the zen-master's, idea of how to just "be." Must practice more!

  2. I don't keep lists in general. I just lose them if I do so I don't. For a while I kept a notebook of completed projects and I'd do that now but if I do something it goes onto my blog which is the same thing. That way I can always look back and see that I DID do something. I started it because I thought "what the heck do I ever accomplish" so I guess it's a list after the fact. I do try to keep a running tab on groceries we are running low on and my husband helps keep that one up too. I guess we can always take anything too far but you've recognized it and taken a step away so unless you have a relapse I'd say you don't need a 12-step program for now.

  3. Whew! I was exhausted just reading about all those lists, Kathy. I have the opposite problem; organizing and keeping track of anything is a Herculean task for me. I do envy you because you seem to know how to tackle a self-improvement project efficiently and make progress -- whereas I just keep getting bogged down, especially lately. But I'm happy you decided to dump the lists overboard in favor of some healthy Being experience. You will be happier for it, I know.

    Let Kathy shine, list-free just in time for a glorious spring. :)

  4. I'm a list-maker as well. I'd never really thought about overdoing it with lists, but it certainly sounds possible. I don't think I'm quite at that point myself, but I probably need to keep an eye on it, because I do have a tendency to go overboard on things sometimes. All of your lists sound like good ideas, just too many all at once. Scout is adorable, btw.

  5. Laure--Zen Master Scout--I like it! I think the lists help us feel like we have some measure of control even when things are out of control. There's something so satisfying about checking off or lining through things on the to-do list, isn't there?

  6. Timaree--Great way to remember your accomplishments and not waste time with a tool that doesn't work for you!

  7. Meredith--My problem is not starting self-improvement projects, but finishing them before becoming distracted! In some ways, the lists are essential to my staying focused. But even a good thing can be taken too far...

  8. Cheryl--The lists can become too much of a good thing, just like anything else. I'll pass on your compliment to Scout, who is asleep on the couch right now...

  9. ah, i too look to my dog for life advice :) she sleeps a lot and gets joy out of the simple things, stretches out that whole body and knows how to have fun = perfect role model!

  10. Carrie--we should write a book: The Wisdom of the Canine...