Have you ever sat down and thought about everything you have to do? I mean everything. This isn't an exercise I recommend doing unprepared. You may want to grab a drink, a paper bag, and even a good friend for moral support. It is overwhelming. The sheer number of things we are responsible for is completely and utterly ridiculous, and on most days seemingly impossible. I was once in the midst of this thought process at a traffic light – I admit timing isn't my best asset. I began to cry and sweat while the cars behind me honked.
When I finally got home, I decided there had to be a better way to manage all of these to-dos. So I listed out everything. Everything. Then I spent 20 minutes crying in the bathroom wondering why anyone wants to grow up. When I pulled myself together, I asked, “Why do I have to do this?” for every item listed. I eventually came up with four reasons and made a list under each reason.
There are four lists of things to be done – Things I Must Do, Things I Want to Do, Things People Expect Me to Do, and Things I Think People Expect Me to Do. If these four lists are out of balance, life gets, well, out of balance. I can always tell when I need to reevaluate my list.
It’s the middle of the night and my mind won’t turn off. It is running through a list of things that didn't get done, and then it runs through the list of new things to do. I toss and turn, certain that if I can just find the right position, I will hit the off switch to my brain. But the trick that turned it off last time isn't working tonight. So now I turn on the instant replay of that incident. The one where I felt like a failure. My mind inserts different scenarios, but it’s always the same outcome; I feel like a failure. Eventually I drift off to sleep again, but my alarm immediately sounds, and the list begins running again.
After a few nights of that insanity, I realize that I have too many things on my Things People Expect Me to Do and Things I Think People Expect Me to Do lists. And my Things I Want to Do list is running short.
So how do you know what “to-do” goes on which list? Here are some guidelines I use.
Things I Must Do: There are a couple of things to consider here. First, there is literally no one else to do it. I didn't say, “No one else wants to do it.” Secondly, actual harm (physical, mental, legal, financial) will come if you don’t do this. Think bills, taxes, medications, meals, hygiene, etc.
Things I Want to Do: This is the best list – but I find sometimes the most difficult to create. What do YOU want to do? Is there an old hobby you want to pick back up, or maybe a new one? Perhaps it’s just a bubble bath or glass of wine with a friend. Whatever it is, big or small, write it down. Include things to do today, this week, this month, and this year.
Things People Expect Me to Do: Do you take off work for every doctor appointment your parents make? What have you taken on simply because someone asked? A committee at church or your child’s school? An extra project at work? Grocery shopping for Mom and Dad? Write it all down.
Things I Think People Expect Me to Do: The first thing on this list is holiday cards, birthday cards and thank you notes. You have my permission to stop sending them – pick up the phone and extend your best wishes or thanks. Next, list everything you do because, “If I don’t do it nobody else will.” If you don’t iron Mom’s bed sheets, no one else will. If you don’t make homemade mashed potatoes, no one else will.
Now you have your list. Cross off everything from the “Things I Think People Expect Me to Do” list. Keep this list clear. None of it matters. If someone expects you to do something, make them ask for it. And then, feel free to say the magical word, “No.”
Your goal should be to find one or two things on the other lists that you can ask for help with.
Perhaps you have a teenager or other family members who can pick up grocery duty for your parents. You and your siblings can split appointments or pitch in to hire a caregiver for these things. If you need help cleaning your home because you spend so much time as a caregiver, perhaps someone at your church would be willing to help. There’s that neighbor boy who might like an extra $10 a week to mow or shovel. And don’t forget about your Things I Want to Do list. Ask for help learning a new hobby, ask for some respite care so you can go on that weekend getaway with your husband.
Don’t let all of your to-do lists run your life. Tell every task where it belongs. And if you need a friend for moral support, let me know. I’ll bring the drinks.
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