A life without a list…

How does one live a balanced life? How does one live a perfect life?

One doesn’t.

I’ve tried to be balanced and “do it all” and it hasn’t worked. I don’t even have kids. Could you imagine trying to pull that off with kids!?? Ha!

This is what I was trying to do in “perfect” balance:

  • Work a full-time day job, and also be a highly productive artist.
  • Submit to every possible exhibition and show my work as much as possible.
  • Maintain an active online presence.
  • Be active in other art pursuits: curating, volunteerism, artist talks, and so on.
  • Maintain this blog.
  • Maintain social relationships both online, in NY, and with my loved ones in Iowa and other states.
  • Be a great wife.
  • Keep a pleasant home, keep up with chores.
  • Cook healthy meals.
  • Exercise or do yoga as much as possible.
  • Keep up with four magazine subscriptions and read online articles, blogs, books, and keep up with over eight weekly or daily podcasts, including the news.
  • Save money and be thrifty.

And this is how I tried to pull it off: lists.

My pile of lists….

The list would never end. As soon as I crossed something off there was something to be added. I would spend too much time re-organizing my lists, re-listing and prioritizing my to-do items. The lists would populate into little reminder slips, bits of paper listing important art project ideas, or new blog topics. Charts organizing my time so I could fit exercise into a regimented schedule would be made over the course of hours, only to be immediately ignored. Databases tracking information on my computer so I don’t possibly forget something that might come of use in the future populate my hard drives. Torn out magazine articles and links emailed to myself pile up on my work spaces, to the point where I spend too much of my time organizing my lists rather than doing my work. I store long-term to-do’s on a separate list app, which is constantly nagging at me while I am inundated with my self-prescribed short-term to-do lists.

Then came the realization: I spend more time trying to manage my time populated by too many tasks, and not enough time doing those tasks. So I keep fewer lists. But it isn’t enough. Because I want to live some fabled “balanced” existence where I can “have it all” and “do it all.” I still feel like I have to choose between desires if I am going to do any of those things well. In my mind, I couldn’t possibly exercise and make art and do both well… or perfectly, which is my mind’s natural expectation. So rather than “fail” (a.k.a. doing something half-assed or doing something “good enough” or “just a bit”) I choose not to do it at all. And in making that choice of “not choosing” I feel even more like a failure. I expect myself to do it all and do it perfectly, and when I can’t pull it off I fail. It’s a lose-lose situation.

I am trying to balance things that don’t give me joy with things that do give me joy. Because I have so many tasks, things that normally give me joy (like making art or visiting friends) become points of stress due to the number of goals I set for myself and my perfectionist nature. My mind prioritizes the less joyful tasks because they give me hard-copy evidence that I am “worth” something. I don’t enjoy applying to show my work in galleries. But I do it, because I like to show my art and because that is a physical accomplishment that can be measured by myself and others. Doing yoga? Even though my body loves and desperately needs it? Well. That is a sensation. My mind doesn’t trust sensations. Because after all – sensations cannot be measured by others to determine my worth. So I forgo the physical nurturing of exercise and force myself to sit in front of a computer and be an “achiever.” See how this works?

I took an R & R day at Kripalu (a yoga haven in Massachusetts that I now love love LOVE) last month and have since been coming to a very important understanding. I need to feel joy as much as possible. This joy must be self-measured by sensation (emotion and spiritual satisfaction) rather than externally measured by achievement. Constantly working toward some sort of theoretical professional accomplishment won’t bring me joy. It will just be a line I check off on a very long list; a list that never comes to an end. But doing things that bring me joy? Doing things that nurture my body, intellect and spirit? Those are things that make a life worth living.

One of the best lessons I learned that day at Kripalu is that my mind lies to me. If I desperately need to stretch, my mind will ignore that sensation because I need to get that blog done, I need to get that application out, I need to get my list crossed-off. By the end of the day, my mind has created a situation where I no longer have time to do the stretching because my mind tells me I’m too tired. It tells me relaxing in front of the TV or having a brownie will do better than the physical exertion of yoga for my well-being. And because my goal has been to do it all, I feel like a failure since I didn’t get my tasks done quickly enough to have the energy to do yoga too. I do what my mind says because it shows me concrete results of success. Theoretically that should make me feel good, but it never does. It is never enough, because I always must choose, and historically that choice has not been my physical and emotional well-being. (Choosing to live a healthy life is difficult for me – it is “new” and challenging. Naturally, then, I create a reality populated by lists to avoid these needs. Confronting this habit is the scariest of all.)

I’m going to do the best I can, from now on, to choose sensation over thought. I’m choosing to try to be imperfect rather than to be perfect and balanced. I’m choosing to stop pushing myself, to quit driving myself toward my goals so blindly that I forget to live my life with the zeal I desire – the enthusiasm I foolishly believe I will access by accomplishing things, rather than connecting to things. I know now that I will always have to choose. The point is not to attain a life where I don’t have to give up anything. The point is to live a life where I simply choose well. Choose happiness and joy, not reward and prestige. Choose health and wellness, not money and measured accomplishment. Choose joy within the moment, rather than planned events and tasks. Choose improvisation, not regimented structure.

This weekend I have done what sounded good. Normally I would call myself lazy, but I’ve gotten things done. But I haven’t spent the whole weekend in front of the computer, or tethered to my work. This is what I did yesterday: I went to breakfast with my husband and had a great surprise encounter with one of his very cool bosses. We ventured into a bookstore, where I bought a few baby books for some expectant friends of mine. I met a man named Stanley in this store, Market Block Books in Troy, who had the most wonderful mustache and shared a love of bacon with me. He introduced me to an amazing magnet all about bacon – is there anything better?!

Then I wandered with Jake through the market. It was like being in a small town – everyone smiling and friendly, vendors sharing their passions much more than simply selling their wares. We met a man who makes his own pickles – we got the kind with Habanero peppers! Then after a few errands, I returned home and popped in to see my wonderful downstairs neighbor with whom I visited for over an hour. Usually I feel too overwhelmed to make time for visiting, but isn’t that silly? I did some chores and then Jake suggested we walk out on Peebles Island nearby. On a normal weekend I would feel stressed by such an offer, calculating the hours left in the day subtracted from the time the hike would take, but not now. Now I choose my wellness – and walking in a small forest is the epitome of a healthy activity! Here are some pictures from my day:

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(Somehow my lists are making it into this dumb slideshow – sorry! Lists were not a big part of my stellar day!)

On a normal weekend I might feel pressed for time today, but I don’t. I will simply get done what must be done and the rest can wait. I had a great day. I felt happy, and fulfilled; productive and connected with my community. It was the perfect day and I felt the best version of myself. It’s been a long time since I haven’t felt the fear of failure that results in the lack of achievement. And that is the gift I am trying to give myself now. And the funnest part? I actually got a lot done!

Happy spring, all.

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2 thoughts on “A life without a list…

  1. WOW. Jen, you are totally right, we are riding the same wavelength and it’s unreal how similar our stories are! It just completely confirms for me that there is so much validity to pushing the lists aside and making time to just BE. I am so glad you and Jake had a day out! Breakfast, the market, nature… Fresh Air! That sounds like the most perfect day, and I bet today you felt a sense of ease like never before :) Your words are so affirming and honest, and I am touched that the Kripalu experience was such a catalyst for this shift toward prioritizing Joy. I truly believe that if we can somehow commit to experiencing sensation fully, rather than being driven by achievement, we will organically get the “right” things done on our to-do lists and accomplish more than we ever thought possible. Namaste, darling! :)

    (By the way, I know the Pickle Guy! Pucker’s Pickles, right? I bought the habanero ones, too! YUM.)

  2. Pingback: The Rather Unobligatory Gratitude Post | Be Nice.

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