The Sunday Magazine·Personal essay

When your 'to-do' list is taking over your life, try a 'to-don't' list

Emelia Symington Fedy realized her 'to-do' list was turning her life to rubble. So she decided to go another way.
Emelia Symington Fedy realized her 'to-do' list was turning her life to rubble. So she decided to go another way. (Pixabay)

September. The month when already bloated to-do lists become even longer and more tyrannical. Scratch one item. Add six. You know the drill. 

But without a to-do list, what is a person with a busy life to do? 

Emelia Symington Fedy found out the hard way. Her essay is called "To Don't."

I stopped.

It just happened.

There were no warning signs.

I woke up one morning and it wasn't there anymore.

The "to do" feeling.

The "I gotta do!" feeling was gone and in its place there was a great big wall.

The "I cannot do" wall. I. Can. Not. Do. Anything.

I found this annoying and troubling. Was I sick? Was it because I turned 40? Low iron? Or maybe God hates me so she took away my relentless drive for adoration?

You see, I have a daily 'to do' list. It's very organized, scheduled out in 15 minute increments.

Because I have lots to do.

I have important things to do and how much I get done on the "to do" list on that particular day is what decides if my children and partner get a happy woman when they come home.

If it's been a good "doing" day I feel satiated. I am friendly and patient.

If my day gets messed with and some to do's don't get done, I'm agitated and annoyed.

Because I have always believed that "getting it done" is what proves my worth in the world.

That's a stressful thought.

I am active and involved in my community. That's great!

I know what I want and I go for it at all costs. That's tenacity.

But there was a sinister side to it. I made a direct connection between my output and my right to be happy.

That's a lot of pressure.

So I hit the wall. And it was big. I lay in bed. And I whimpered. And I twisted. And it was very, very uncomfortable.

Who am I now?

What if I don't 'to do'? What if I didn't?

Who would I be then?

I tried to push through the wall.

I couldn't do it.

I'd lost my ability.

I'd hit the bottom and crumbled. I had no choice but to stop. Full stop stop.

The first thing I noticed happening was — I napped.

I napped like the gold medal winner at the Olympics of napping.

I napped every day. For 2 hours. I had no choice.

My to do list started becoming my to don't list. Sliding my commitments to tomorrow, then to next week. Or could it actually wait a month?

And then other things started sneaking on to my to do list.

I took a cross stitching course.

I practised weaving.

I went and visited an old friend.

I got my teeth cleaned.

And I napped again.

Every once in a while I'd think about the mountains of tasks not yet completed and instead of feeling panic that they weren't getting done instead I'd feel this immediate sharp hysteria of no. I don't want to, I won't. 

And the wall would come up and I'd lay my head up against it and rest.

For a doer this was obviously very hard to get used to. I was sometimes anxious not knowing what the purpose of my day was — what gave me the right to be here today. But my exhaustion overwhelmed the terror.

So now, a few months in, here's my to-do list for the month.

  • Take kid to baseball two times a week.
  • Nap once a day.
  • One day a week, sit down and answer all the emails (I do this from a hammock so it's much more pleasurable.)
  • Weaving class once a week.
  • Get shot of iron in the butt once a week.
  • Plan summer vacation.
  • Make plan with business partner about how much less I can do and how we can navigate that.

And every time I get an offer that I'm not super excited by it's a hard "no."

But how are you making money, Emelia?

Luckily I've been such a pusher for so long I have close to a year's worth of work lined up. Its sporadic and pays poorly but it's a yes! And I'm also lucky to have a partner with a job to help pay the bills.

But this new to don't list can start anytime.

Even if it sounds delightful … "No, we can't go to the party." "We love your kids but no to play dates this weekend." And, sorry, but no to volunteering at school. Maybe even be a no to fall planting this year. Everything that isn't a hell yes is a hell no! You'd be surprised how much space that frees up.

Sometimes I worry that my drive will never come back. I'm 40. Is it over? No more dreams or goals or lofty ambitions of high five-ing Oprah?

The field is fallow at the moment. Scorched by proposals, dreams, soccer practice and five-year plans.

It annoys people. And I don't go out for dinner as much. And we really watch our bank account. But I'm calmer. Now instead of finishing one last to do, I watch TV or play a game with my kids instead.  And they like me just sitting there. Doing "nothing."

So here I am. Sometimes sitting on my hands twitching (because old habits die-hard) and sometimes lying in a hammock whispering to myself "is this ok? Is not doing anything ok right now?"

I had to stop. I had no choice. But now I'm starting to really like this wall.  I'm relieved. And hopeful, quietly listening, curious to find out what I've been missing out on. That's my to-do list now.

Click "listen" above to hear the essay. 


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