I am one of those people for whom scratching off an item on my to do list triggers dopamine in my brain. I am so addicted to this feeling that I have been known to write down an already-completed item just so I can cross it off!
I love to do lists so much that I have multiple running at any given time.
I use the Notepad on my iPhone for to-dos and keep a notebook in my purse for shopping lists. I have a journal for deep thoughts, a journal for daily thoughts related to motherhood, a journal for “regular” daily thoughts, and a purple notebook for work-related aspirations.
I have an obsession with tracking progress, looking back, evaluating my life, and anticipating the future. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this pursuit. In fact, many mental health professionals advocate journaling as a way to channel feelings, work through challenging emotions, and mark time. There is something humbling and inspiring about reading past entries as a way to take stock and grow. But I’m starting to wonder if my list-making and time-marking hobby is helping or hindering me.
A few weeks ago, my husband came home after a long day at work, and I greeted him sourly. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Well,” I said huffily, “Do you know what I did today? I did laundry. Changed diapers. Washed dishes. Changed more diapers. And nursed about 10 times. I’m basically a maid!” I was so frustrated from my day of “nothingness” in which I checked nothing off my to do list. He looked at me lovingly and said, “You’re not a maid, you’re a mom.”
That conversation has not prevented me from opening up the Notes app on my phone multiple times a day. Like the addict I am, I scroll up and down the list, hoping there’s an item I can remove. The more items I can check off, the better I feel, at least for that moment.
I desperately want to reach a blank, white space on the Notes app which would indicate that I “did it all.” But if I did finish the list, I’d be filled with an emptiness and anxiety. “What am I doing with my life?” I would think. “How could I be so uninteresting? So lazy? So unproductive?” Without a list, how can I track progress, measure success, and ascribe meaning to my life?
Am I controlling the list or is it controlling me?
Lists in general are helpful. It’s good to know which items are missing from the pantry when we go to the store. It’s important to remember to pay the water company or make dinner reservations. What is less helpful is assigning such weight and value to each item on our lists. It is demoralizing to check the list each morning and think of it at night, using the tally to measure the day.
Maybe that’s what my husband was trying to tell me. I’m not a maid, I’m a mom. I don’t have to rank my days according to its accomplishments. I’m not getting a grade for each day’s activities or how quickly I can finish a list. But, if I do back away from my worn and true method of self-assessment, I’m not sure how I will analyze my days.
Measuring in love is harder to do, since its acts can’t be quantified or qualified.
I don’t know how easily I’ll be able to rid myself of my notebooks, apps, and journals. But I am going to try, and at night, as I drift off to sleep, I will count moments of love and connection, rather than the empty spaces on my list.