My mind is full of plans and garbage, garbage and plans. Every night in zazen I see it, let it go, return to the breath, see it, let it go, return to the breath ... and every night in zazen there it is again: plans and garbage, garbage and plans. Plans to get my various jobs done—four or five of them right now, depending on how you count (do I count the job I haven't started yet?). Plans for dealing with the cluttered disaster of our apartment. Plans for blog posts, plans for new poems. Rarely plans for the Critter, though—when he's there, he's there demanding my full attention—but how can I give it to him, when my mind is full of plans and garbage, garbage and plans?
For these reasons, I've been studying how I might use to-do lists to get some of the crap off my mind. The basic idea: write it down, get it off my mind, maybe even get some of it done. The problem, though, is that insofar as they represent a multitude of agreements with myself that can be broken—and often are—to-do lists can be traps.
Though he certainly believes in lists (and calendars, and crazy-organized filing systems), Getting Things Done guru David Allen doesn't believe in daily to-do lists. He writes, "First, constant new input and shifting tactical priorities [and toddlers running wildly around the apartment, yelling "Slow down! Slow down!"] reconfigure daily work so consistently that it's virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time.... Second, if there's something on a daily to-do list that doesn't absolutely have to get done that day, it will dilute the emphasis on the things that truly do."
OK, I get this, I really do. I especially get the part when, much later in his book, Allen explains what he believes is the source of all those negative feelings that accrue around our in-baskets and to-do lists: "The price people pay when they break agreements in the world is the disintegration of trust in the relationship—a negative consequence. But what are all those things in your in-basket? Agreements you've made with yourself. Your negative feelings are simply the result of breaking those agreements—they're the symptoms of disintegrated self-trust." These words were like a punch to the gut when I read them again recently. There have been days ... entire weeks, maybe ... when that sense of disintegrated self-trust felt like all that my self was made of. Night after night I have awakened at 4 a.m. in panic over my lost trust in myself.
However, Allen's suggestion that I keep "Next Actions" lists to review whenever I have any free time (!!!) doesn't really work for me, either, mainly because with a little Critter needing my care and my mushy mommy brain in charge, I want to limit my in-the-moment decision making. So, here are the questions I've been asking myself as I study the lists I've been making and compare them with what I'm actually getting done:
- How can I use daily to-do lists to keep me focused on what does have to get done every day?
- What can be renegotiated and how, without triggering that rotten feeling that I've broken an agreement with myself yet again?
- What agreements should I be making with myself in the first place? How much can I reasonably expect to do in one day?