Untitled (Vase of Flowers) (1903-1905) by Georgia O’Keeffe
For the past few months, I’ve been repeating the same mantra: I have too much to do. I say this to my husband in the morning. I announce it to the dogs at lunchtime. I tell the kids when I pick them up from school in the afternoon. I text it to my friends late at night.
Why do I talk to anyone this way? It’s as if I’m announcing to everyone I encounter, “You’re wasting my time! I shouldn’t be here at all!”
And when your brain tells you “You don’t have time for this!” every minute of every day, you tend to treat all to-do items like they’re equally weighted. You don’t have time to brush your hair or ask your kid about how her history presentation went. You don’t have time to water the plants or shop for Christmas presents online or call your friend in LA whose online dating life is becoming suspenseful.
But yesterday, after I read this interview with Oliver Burkeman in The Atlantic about recognizing the limits on your time and prioritizing accordingly, I made this my to do list for the holidays:
Figure out your real priorities.
Make some simple rules.
Declutter your goals.
Now, let me be clear about one thing: I don’t have time for any of this. In fact, it stresses me out just thinking about my fucking priorities right now. I don’t even want to know! Because I’ve been HOARDING GOALS. When I throw all of my to-do lists aside and ask myself what I can realistically expect of myself, some part of my brain *still* wants me to be a workaholic and an exercise fiend and a perfect mother and a master gardener and a stylish, attractive woman about town, all rolled into one. Ironically, this is the same part of my brain that says things like “Don’t take a shower, there’s no time!” and “Stop thinking about how to fix this essay, you’ve got to start dinner immediately!” I’m supposed to be perfect but I’m also not supposed to bathe?
The madness becomes more obvious when I slow down enough to notice what my LIVED PRIORITIES are. For example, I am not allowed to blow dry my hair or drive to the excellent local bakery for a treat but I am permitted to doomscroll at any time of the day, for several hours a day if the mood strikes. I’m not allowed to call my mother when I should be writing or play my favorite board game when I should be paying bills, but I am allowed to spend an hour reading the outraged comments on an article I didn’t enjoy in the first place.
So I’m using the holidays to reshuffle EVERRRRRRYTHING.
It’s going to be tough. But, as Burkeman explains in his interview, it’s all about acknowledging limits. For me, that means accepting that no matter how much I slow down and get organized and embrace my values, I will still sometimes disappoint myself, because that’s just what secret perfectionists disguised as unshowered, way-too-busy slackers do.
That said, when to-do lists get out of control, I think making a few simple rules for yourself can help. For example, last year during the pandemic when my kids were in Zoom classes, I had a rule: If one of my kids walked into my office and spoke to me, I had to close my laptop and listen patiently. Even though I was under pressure to finish my book, I wanted to make sure they knew that I was available and excited to talk. After all, I was one of four people they saw for weeks on end. No matter how I felt on any given day, I had to be ready to drop everything for them.
Once I put that rule into place, everything actually made more sense. I felt better because I knew that I was living my values at some level. Even if a lot of things went to shit, I was getting this one very important thing right.
That’s the benefit of de-cluttering all your lists and winnowing down your goals: You get to move through each day guided by an understanding of who you are and what you care about the most. Instead of hoarding goals and desires (Someday I will read all of these books and I will remember every word! Someday I will travel to Mozambique, and I will be dressed impeccably when I do it!), you live in the real world. Because the fantasy of having time for everything and being good at everything actually brings with it a kind of crushing stress. You spread yourself too thin, you never feel relaxed or fulfilled, and then you end up doomscrolling just to turn your brain off (which, by the way, doesn’t work).
So ask yourself what matters. Who’s important to you? What do you love doing? Try to make a very short list. The goal is not to accomplish as much as you possibly can. The goal is to become a simple human being who knows how to slow down and enjoy this imperfect day. And when someone you love appears and apologizes for interrupting, you’ll say, without thinking, “Don’t worry about it. I can always make time for you.”
Ha ha, yeah, it’s not that easy! But let’s try, okay? Tell me about some of the simple rules you’ve made that keep you focused on what matters in the comments below. Or, tell me what you’re eliminating from your to-do list over the holidays because it doesn’t spark joy, or adding because it does. And as always, if you’re struggling financially and want a free subscription, write to askpolly at protonmail.com. If you’re not struggling and you enjoy this newsletter, then by all means:
Weirdly I have the opposite problem; I don’t know how to have goals anymore. I went from super-overachiever-perfectionist to barely able to live, thanks to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I slowly had to discard all my goals and evaluate what really mattered; my family. Any bits of energy were for talking to them, hanging out, paying attention. After a decade I’m creeping towards better health but it’s really hard to have goals again. Partly I’m terrified they’ll be taken away again, and partly I’ve grown so used to living small. Thanks for the goal guidance Heather.
Doomscrolling and comment section-ing are definitely my self-harms of choice. I wonder how much time ive devoted to cultivating cortisol.