Show of hands, please: When you have a long list of things to accomplish, who finds it impossible to decide which task to start with because they all seem equally important? Would you rather eat glass than make a phone call to, say, the accountant or pharmacy or doctor’s office or utility company?* Do you sometimes hop out of bed with obscene amounts of optimism and a plan to accomplish a Superman-sized list in a single bound? And by dinner, do you feel like a miserable failure because you have 14 pages of things left to do and you’re as tired as a toddler after her first day of preschool (and just as weepy)?
Most telling: Do you then give up completely, throw the list in the trash, and sit on the couch for the next week, binge-watching Gilmore Girls and eating Doritos, because what’s the use of even trying?
This sounds like the beginning of an infomercial, but I wanted to set the scene for this excellent thing that my friend and I invented, even though it turns out it was already invented before us.** This excellent thing is making me far more productive, optimistic and hopeful about life in three short weeks. No, guys, it’s not drugs. Just because I live in Colorado doesn’t mean… oh, never mind.
Rather, it’s about getting shit done. It’s about the strange fact that it’s easy to organize someone else’s life even when you have no clue how to figure out your own…
The Excellent Thing
A few weeks ago, my friend DeAnna and I were talking about how, sometimes, we are completely incapable of doing stuff – you know, just the billions of things that make up a life: cleaning, errands, work, household management, parenting tasks, financial tasks, grooming, and on and on. We also talked about the anxiety that creeps along with these things and makes them harder to accomplish.
That anxiety, by the way, is an asshole. I hear it saying, “Ha ha! Look at how much you have to do! You’ll never get it all done! And guess what? I’ll be back tomorrow! In fact, I’ll be so loud about all the things you didn’t get done today that you won’t be able to get anything done tomorrow, either! And so the next day will be even worse! Isn’t it great?”
Anyway, DeAnna and I decided we needed to be nicer to ourselves, because it’s probably easier to move through life and get stuff done – and avoid that anxiety asshole – if you’re not constantly worried that you’re basically a fucking loser.
On the other hand, we realized, you can love yourself ’til the cows come home and it’s not going to help you get shit done unless you actually, you know, try to get shit done. So we decided to help each other.
Three weeks later, I feel less overwhelmed and I’m able to prioritize better. And when I’m not able to prioritize, DeAnna is here to help. My self-esteem is taking fewer kicks to the head, because I’m spending less time berating myself for not getting shit done.
Here’s our 5-step Excellent Thing:
1. Daily to-do lists (hint: include the shower)
Sending each other a list of what we hope to get done each day helps us get started. If I tell DeAnna I’m going to do certain things, it feels more important. If I just tell myself what I’m going to do, I tend to sit down for “just a little while” to read a good book. Five hours later, nothing has been done, I’m mad at myself, my self esteem suffers, and my to-do list grows at the same rate as my anxiety.
Once I tell DeAnna, it’s real.
Examples of our texts to each other:
- “Today I have to work, then have a doctor appointment. Clean the kitchen. Take a shower.” [Yes, some days even a shower can be a victory and thus merits being put on the to-do list…]
- “I have to call the pharmacy. Go to the vet. Vacuum. Watch a video or two for the new job. Get the house ready for book club.”
- “Have to write my articles, go to a class, go to the grocery store, make dinner. Call the financial people (ugh!).”
2. Congratulations for all the stuff (hint: feel free to be stupidly enthusiastic)
Maybe it’s ridiculous, but I feel much more productive if someone else validates my hard work, even when – especially when – the “hard work” is something that is not necessarily hard to other people but which takes enormous effort for me.
Like this: Since making a simple phone is a major challenge, having DeAnna acknowledge my achievement after I make the call is insanely validating. It’s easy to acknowledge my own accomplishment when I complete a major goal. But it’s harder to feel good about myself for making a stupid phone call when all I can think is, “Big deal. Normal people would have made the call two weeks ago.” (Hey, normal people: please get out of my head – you are NOT welcome here!)
The point is, being recognized for doing something that is hard for me, even if it’s easy for someone else, lets me feel good about getting it done.
Feel free to snicker at these real-life examples of our congratulatory texts. I know they may be over-the-top, but I’ll take cheesy encouragement over self-recriminations any day:
- “That’s awesome! You’re doing a lot more cooking! I’m proud of you!”
- “Great! And look how fast you got it done! You’re a super star!”
- “Awesome! You rocked it today. Feel proud!”
Allow me to address the excessive number of exclamation points, above. When I was younger, I loathed exclamation points. Loathed them. If your words are chosen with care, you don’t need an exclamation point to underscore strong feelings, right? But with texting, we’re expected to convey thoughts and feelings with minimal exposition, and now I use exclamation points all over the damn place. I can’t help myself. If I’m proud of Dee for calling the pharmacy, I’m going to exclaim about it, by golly! Don’t try to stop me! She did a great job!
3. Prioritizing and checking in (hint: if you’re stuck, let your friend prioritize, even if you feel like a child)
Several times over the past weeks, I was overcome by the number of things I had to complete. Whenever I told DeAnna I felt overwhelmed, I’d get a useful text in return that helped me move forward. Like, when I freaked out about having to write my three articles, make a phone call, and fold 18 loads of laundry (I also sent her a picture of the laundry, which was terrifying), I received the following:
“Move the laundry over. Put the clothes that need to be folded into the basket and bring it out into the family room. Make the phone call to the accountant guy. Maybe it won’t be so bad. Fold the clothes while you’re on hold. Let me know when that is done.”
And then later in the week: “How’s that laundry?”
Still later, when I hadn’t responded to the above: “You’re avoiding the laundry. Make Michael fold a load. Tell him you will take him to Target only after the laundry is folded. No exceptions.” (See, I couldn’t come up with that solution myself, because I was too overwhelmed by the size of the laundry piles. DeAnna had an outsider’s view – unobstructed by laundry mountains – and could see what needed to be done.***)
More help from Dee: “The articles need to be done first, so start there. Text me when you’re done and we’ll tackle what’s next. Gather a bit of motivation and go do your work. Your treat will be to go spend time outside. Let me know when you need some help.”
Do I sound like a child? I mean, do I really need to be told how to get the laundry done and given permission to go play outside once my work is finished? Yes, apparently I do, and please don’t mock me because I’m trying to be okay with it and to accept that I need help. It’s okay to need help, people! Even for the small things! (See? Exclamation points are now habit.)
Note: I don’t think I helped DeAnna much in this area. She seems pretty good at prioritizing for herself as well as for me. For DeAnna, I think the most helpful part of our excellent thing is the encouragement and congratulations. As she says, “My husband doesn’t want to hear it if I tell him I wiped down the counters today. He’s like, big fucking deal. But I feel great when I get a text that says, ‘Oh my God, great job! You did it!'”
4. Like-to-do vs. have-to-do (hint: do something fun every day)
This may be self-evident, but we learned that if we fill our days with the stuff we have to get done and leave no room for the stuff we want to get done, well, life kind of sucks. When we think we have to move mountains every day, our motivation flags. So now we put the fun stuff on our to-do lists.
Doing the things we love, whether that’s drawing or spending time outdoors or reading, keeps us motivated. We need to do something that we love every single day, and we need to put it on our lists so that we make it a priority.
5. Weekly plans (hint: be flexible – it’s okay to move stuff around)
Daily lists are great, but it’s not always easy to predict how the day will go. We’ve found it’s helpful to create a rough weekly goals list, as well as one for daily goals. We may not be able to get through everything on our list every day, but if we have a list of goals for the week, we can shuffle things around. And if it continues to not get done, well, then we help each other figure that out, too (refer back to #3).
Crap, it’s 8:24 and I haven’t sent my list to DeAnna…
So that’s it: our revolutionary, excellent scheme to be a bit more productive in life. I’m so grateful that I have friends I can turn to who understand me and are willing to help – thank you, DeAnna! I love you!
Anyway, I’m off to write my list and check in with Dee.
Have fun until next time,
*So, I was writing this post at a brew pub while I waited for my friend Miranda Nicki (name changed to protect the innocent) to show up. When she arrived, she started telling me about how she had spent two hours online trying to turn on the utilities in her new apartment rather than just calling the utility company. She told me this before I mentioned the topic of my blog post or that I had already written that I’d rather eat glass than pick up the phone….
Phone call anxiety is apparently a very real thing. I asked my book club whether anyone else avoids phone calls like the plague and about half raised their hands in complete understanding (the other half looked at us in confusion, like, “What is wrong with you people?” I wanted to kick them).
**When I did tell Miranda Nicki what I was writing about, she said, “Oh, yeah, DeAnna’s your accountabili-buddy. You know, the person who helps you be accountable for stuff.” So I guess DeAnna and I did not invent this excellent thing. But maybe we’re perfecting it…
***Michael did help with the laundry. After he folded a couple of loads, he said, “That was easy. You always make folding laundry sound so hard.” I plan to make him Chief Laundry Folder from now on. It will be a title of great respect.