For as long as I can remember (probably since college which was twelve years ago) I’ve written ‘to do lists.’ They’re my way of helping me keep track of all the things I need/want to do. I don’t recall ever crossing off every item on any particular day’s list. I don’t know if I’m too ambitious with my planning or too poor at time management or just lazy, but my to-do lists never get done. Ever.
Often I’ll make a very large to do list that includes things on it I know I won’t accomplish for months (like write a novel). The purpose of those lists is simply a macro version of the same purpose for the smaller lists – to keep a record of things I want to do and help encourage me to do them. But regardless of how comprehensive or localized the list is (usually I make daily lists) I can’t finish them. It’s been a constant source of frustration and fuel for the self deprecating voice in my head to tell me I’m not that great. I mean that voice can honestly tell me I’ve never crossed off a complete list. It’s exhausting to think of myself as handicapped in an invisible way.
When I had a cast on my hyperextended ankle in 2002 I knew I was damaged goods. Negotiating stairs, showering and playing sports were just a few of the activities I could not accomplish either at all or without exerting a large amount of energy and likely also experiencing a significant amount of discomfort. My ankle eventually healed and I’ve never forgotten that I’m lucky as hell to have all my limbs in working condition.
But now, I face a mental handicap of sorts. It feels similar to another affliction I used to have – over eating. As of this writing I have not overeaten two meals in a row in over two months. That’s huge for me. I used to be a chronic overeater. I would eat past the point of satisfaction and deep into the realm of discomfort and pain. I didn’t enjoy the pain. At least, not in anyway I could ever understand consciously. But despite the overwhelmingly simple solution – stop eating sooner – being evident to my mind, I could not for the life of me stop. I might be able to sneak a meal in here or there where I didn’t feel bloated afterward, but rarely did I ever go two meals in a row without overeating.
Part of the reason I was able to stop overeating so much is the fact that I went to therapy and I realized for the first time that my thoughts are often saying super negative things to myself. It feels like there’s someone who is me, but at the same time isn’t me. Think of the voice more like a character I would portray in a film or better yet, cartoon. I can tell the voice is me. It sounds like me. But I’m not the one who wrote the dialogue for the character I’m playing. And therefore, that character feels separate from me in a meaningful way.
And I often hear that voice – my voice – telling myself that I’m a disappointment and that I’m lazy. Really, that voice says a slew of negative things. And I don’t know exactly how my overeating correlated to that voice, but I also don’t need to know. I just knew that any change I made to that voice would only help and not hurt. So, what did I do? Through the insight of my girlfriend, my therapist, several friends, a number of books and lectures on youtube and a podcast called Invisibilia I have been able to somewhat tame the voice.
The voice still speaks to me and still says negative things sometimes. But now those negative things are less frequent than they used to be. Previously, the felt like a backpack full of bricks. It was like a steady stream of negative thoughts pouring down on my exposed head like Chinese water torture. Now, it feels more like someone occasionally throwing ice cold water on me. It’s still not pleasant, but it’s also not constant.
And what’s more, I’ve also learned that I am under no obligation to take that voice seriously. Since I didn’t write any of his lines, I’m not responsible for what he says. And he has no authority over me anymore than a stranger on the street might. It’s still not pleasant with a stranger insults me, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to shrug off the insult from a stranger than from myself. So, it’s like getting freezing cold water thrown at me sometimes, but also I can sometimes jump out of the way.
A way to think about it concretely is to say that the voice used to throw punches on me nearly constantly and everyone of them landed. Some hurt more than others, but they all made solid contact with my face. Figuring out how to love myself was the metaphorical equivalent of breaking up the fight into rounds. Just like real boxers, after a few minutes of fighting a bell would ring and the fighting would stop for a little while.
Then, realizing that the voice had no authority over me was the equivalent of me subbing out the heavyweight boxer with a bantam weight. In other words, he still throws punches and they’re still strong, but their not even in the same weight class as they used to be.
Then, realizing that the voice was not in fact me gave me the ability to sometimes (not always) see the punch coming early enough to duck away or block it with my arms. So, in total I’m getting hit less often, by a weaker opponent who’s now slow enough to allow me to dodge some of his punches…yeah, I feel good about that metaphor. Hope you like it too.
So….back to the to do lists. Despite my rather miraculous and life changing ability to tame the nasty voice in my head a bit, I still don’t cross off my to do lists. Whatever prevents me from doing this is still getting it’s power from somewhere. I was hoping that voice was also responsible for this inability of mine. But since the problem persists even now after I disarmed the voice, I’m going to try another approach.
George Carlin was famous for his theory that the state of the English language had a profound affect on our individual thoughts and consequently our actions. One memorable reference I remember he made about death:
“And thanks to our fear of death in this country, I won’t have to ‘die’…I’ll ‘pass away.’ Or I’ll ‘expire’ like a magazine subscription.” -Doin’ It Again (1990)
His point was that we use certain words in ways to help trick our thinking. In this case, we used euphemisms for ‘die’ into tricking ourselves out of the fear of dying. He had several examples I won’t get into, but my point is that I agree with what I think he was getting at. I think words can be very powerful to the point that they can change our very thoughts and decisions. So, I’m going to conduct an experiment.
For the next month I’m not going to make anymore ‘to do lists.’ Instead, I’m going to make ‘action plans.’ For some reason the term ‘action plan’ fills me with a sense of urgency. It sounds more official and potentially more important than ‘to do list.’ Things I have ‘to do’ sound boring. And whether they are or not, the phrase paints them in a negative like. It sounds and subsequently feels like drudgery.
But the term ‘action plan’ sounds more like something a high powered CEO or a military general does. The consequences for failing to execute an action plan sound more severe and the whole endeavor sounds more challenging and exciting.
The funny thing is that the content of the action plan is identical to the to do list. I’m fully aware of this. But I believe that by merely changing the name of these documents will up my chances for completing them more often. Less often would be impossible as the number is zero, but the good side of that is that even minimum progress is 100%. As the old axiom goes, ‘you can’t fall off the floor.’ Honestly, I don’t know if that’s an axiom, idiom, cliche or some other category of phrases.
So, my hope is to change this part of my personality. I want to heal my metaphorically broken brain. I’ve been on mental crutches in this arena for far too long. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to write tomorrow’s action plan.