Like a lot of you, I write a to-do list every day. I do this partly because I am not traditionally employed, so I can’t fall back on routine to make sure things get done on time. Also, I am easily distracted and if left to my own devices would flit around from room to room all day like a drunken gnat, so the list helps me focus. And of course, I am middle aged. My memory is already stuffed with decades of expired information and there is very little space for anything new. If you want to know the names of all my grade school teachers or the color of our kitchen floor on the farm, I remember those details — but current material must be written down.
My to-do lists are often unrealistic. There were 12 items on my list for last Tuesday, including several errands, a hospice visit, and an appointment on the other side of town. I ended up recycling the TUE list into WED. One of my sewing projects got carried over for 5 days before I finally finished it yesterday. Vacuuming likewise started out on FRI and eventually got done — but not by me — on SUN. I know the fate of the free world doesn’t depend on my crossing everything off the list everyday. There isn’t even a paycheck riding on my accomplishments. Still, leaving the list unfinished bugs me.
What bugs me most is what I leave undone. The words meditate and write top my list every day but are the most likely to get bumped when I am short on time, even though I really want to do them both. It would make sense, then, to do them first, before I go to the bank or answer phone calls or help Milo do his knee exercises. Instead, I usually look up sometime mid afternoon and realize that those top two didn’t make it into the top ten of what I’ve done that day.
Quiet, reflective time and writing are both important to my interior life. They’re good for me. But there’s a lifetime of habit compelling me to move those things further down the list every day. Our cultural expectations about what constitutes an accomplishment do not include sitting and doing nothing, or writing in a notebook that likely no one will ever see. If I make something tangible happen around our house, out in the world, or in other people’s lives, that’s an accomplishment. These things I do only for myself feel indulgent. Maybe I could justify doing them every now and then, but every day?
This reminds me of an analogy. It’s probably been around for awhile.
I can think of my time each day as a jar. A jar, like a day, can only hold so much. Into it, I need to fit several rocks (the most important activities) and a lot of gravel (all the other things I spend time on). I think the original analogy calls for sand but ironically, there is not a lot of sand in my desert so we’re going with gravel.
But that will likely mean that there’s not enough room for all the rocks — the things I care about. Some will inevitably get left out of the jar.
I love this concept, but clearly I have trouble putting it into practice. I do crazy mathematical manipulations to convince myself that a handful of gravel is equal to one big rock. Or sometimes I pick up rocks from other people’s piles, stuff they are perfectly capable of taking care of, and try to fit those into my jar too. I really, really need to leave other people’s rocks alone and focus on the big ones in my own pile.
Every day lately, I discover something that could make my life easier if only I could change some habits. I’d expected to have everything all figured out by this point, but there is a shocking amount of stuff left to work on. My grandmother used to say it took a lifetime to learn how to live. I guess she was right because here I am, more than halfway through my time here, still trying to understand how to get rocks into a jar.