The Freedom is Tyranny of the To-Do List III: The Domination

So I was talking to my therapist this week about my issue with long-term projects with a “large” starting point. I used the analogy of a cluttered room (of which I have more than one in the house)–you know you have to start somewhere, but it all looks so overwhelming that you find yourself throwing up your hands because you don’t know what to do first.

Thankfully, she understood my rambling analogy and gave me two pieces of advice. The first was philosophical: start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. The second was practical: take your big to-do list, pick two or three things of most importance and then make another list using just those things. It’s a way to help not only simplify, but also focus my approach and perhaps block out the things that I will not be doing.

I know I have mentioned this before, but putting too much on my plate has been a problem I have had for a long time. It comes naturally with my job in some way–after all, having three classes to prep for that overall include more than 100 students is a full plate before you even begin Add to that the challenge of doing it within the time you are allotted at work, which is nearly impossible, and … well, it’s no wonder why I feel burned out by the end of the first semester. And then, if you don’t want to do anything beyond work?


Now add to that my guilt complex over saying “No.” When someone comes to me with a request, I almost always say “Yes” and that is because of years of being made to feel bad if I didn’t want to. Part of that came from what I am sure my parents thought was a sense of responsibility but what I interpreted to mean total commitment. This meant being committed to whatever the task was to an almost toxic degree. I said I’d do the thing, the thing started to get difficult to the point where I didn’t want to do the thing, but I said I would do the thing so I kept doing the thing.

Quitting? Oh, you don’t do that because quitting is shame.

I never learned to “cut bait”, to employ yet another metaphor. Because there does come a point where you see that sticking to this commitment is actually detrimental to you. I know this is a really stupid thing to focus on because it happened 26 years ago, but I still regret not sitting down with someone and saying, “I need to drop Calculus II because it’s too hard, I plan on majoring in a humanities discipline, and this is going to kill my GPA” and then exploring the options and the consequences. So I got a D+, and it really messed up my GPA for at least the first two years of college. And my adviser just told me to study more and … well, I don’t feel like re-litigating that for the millionth fucking time right now. All I know is that I could only think about what a loser I would be if I didn’t finish what I started and the shame I would bring upon myself.

Yes, it’s fucked up and it’s no wonder I’m in therapy. Anyway.

The other side of the “No” anxiety and the reason I don’t like saying it is the anxiety of having to come up with a reason for “No.” This comes from years of toxic relationships with people who wouldn’t take a simple “No” or an “I just don’t want to” for an answer. I would spend an enormous amount of time and mental energy thinking about what reason for not wanting to go to the thing or do the thing was acceptable to these people, and then would feel guilty for making these people feel bad that I didn’t want to do the thing. Or, if I ultimately did the thing, very often I would feel like shit for allowing myself to be bullied into doing the thing.

And now you see why I have two-page to-do lists that never seem to end.

As I write this, I’m taking stock of my current to-do list and seeing it categorized and prioritized. Some things are crossed out and other things have been added. Maybe I need to create those smaller lists and take it from there? And maybe I should be satisfied with those things that are left undone? You know, even if I worry that neglecting one thing in favor of something else will make the undone things worse.

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