self-care through recognizing and honoring what we *DO* do in a day
a mentor of mine recently shared that a goal of hers was to work less on to-do lists and more on ta-da lists. as a lover of lists and reckless ruiner of legal pads in the pursuit of organization (a task that doesn't come natural to a feral rock-and-mud creature like myself), my ears definitely perked up. a ta-da list, she shared, is the list that you make at the end of the day enumerating what you DID accomplish. it's like the kinder, gentler, more affirming bookend to the looming, judgier to-do list. i was sold!
before we dive in, backing up a bit for some personal context:
for six years, I held various administrative positions at a midwifery school. the last three of those was as an academic dean, and the last one-and-a-half of those was as an academic dean through a pandemic, transition to non-profit, academic calendar rework, and complete administrative restructuring. let's just say many, many legal pads died noble (usually) deaths keeping that all afloat, one to-do list at a time.
and there were many shades of the to-do list. there were large-scale on-going to-do lists of projects that spanned weeks across different staff positions; there were daily to-do lists of the acutely "now" stuff; there were sad, dusty lists of old tasks that had been demoted in the increasing plate-spin required during the national/organizational/personal crisis of covid 19; there were dreamy "could do" lists for the future...
the tough thing, especially for the daily to-do lists, was that the items always seemed to be overshadowed by acute and unpredicted fires. students in crisis, teachers headed to births that needed complicated class reschedules, class dynamic issues that needed immediate addressing, individualized student plans that needed to be pulled from thin air for this or that reason, student or staff health emergencies that required medical attention, someone that's backing out of teaching a class that starts in a week and how-on-earth-will-we-fix-that, 75 emails, 10 phone calls...
the problem was always that, after an impossibly full day, those sad little to-do lists glared up at all of us with their very-few-things checked off and their robust list of "undones" silently judging our "productivity" (don't get me on that soapbox--a tear-down of capitalist ideas of productivity is coming--don't you worry). we all left work feeling defeated, overwhelmed, unaccomplished, and unresolved, and this state of affairs has a real impact on health, happiness, and even the dreaded "p word" (prrrrrroductivity).
a fine psychologist/psychiatrist named bluma zeigarnik named that part of the problem way back in the 1920s. she pointed out that the human brain tends to remember and fixate on "open loops" (things left undone or unfinished) and to forget all of the things that we actually did accomplishing a day . you can see the evolutionary benefit to this, but it's a sad, saggy weight around the neck for the modern workaday human. the vicious cycle of this wiring is that when it's hard to "turn off" or "wind down" after work because of open loops, our productivity the next day suffers due to lack of rest. and when our productivity suffers, our number of open loops increase. and when our number of open loops increase, we're less restful. rinse. repeat. repeat. repeat.
the problem with living via to-do lists is that it tends not to honor the mountain of things that you DO accomplish that just-so-happened not to be on your radar that morning when you got to work. the acute "fires" are no less noble (i do, on some level, love a good calendar reschedule puzzle); neither are the mundanities that we don't think of as accomplishments (i managed to cook an amazing dinner for my family after a 12 hour day that involved at least three crying people in my office and one student trip to the emergency room--hooray!! go me!!)
at the height of the pandemic admin madness, i actually started adding those unforeseen things to my to-do list and immediately crossing them off. at the time it felt sad to me to need to do that, but it turns out that it served a very important function: it validated in an organized way that i was accomplishing an inhuman amount of work each day, and it reinforced that i was being productive even when some needful tasks were being left undone. my lists had sort of morphed into a to-do-ta-da list. i was halfway there already!
i imagine there are many ways to approach a ta-da list, but here's a suggestion for getting started: carve out a time at the end of each work day (or before bed if you prefer), to make a list of everything you've accomplished in the day. if you find this overwhelming, you can also start your ta-da list at the beginning of the day, adding to it as you go. you'll be amazed what you've done if you're truly honest and holistic in your approach. things that can go on the list (content and scope are up to you):
items from the to-do list that are completed (closed loops)
household chores that you've done
errands that you've run
meals that you've cooked
spiritual practice tended to
homework completed or tests passed
emails and phone calls that you've answered (even just the numbers of)
self-care that you've accomplished
steps/miles logged on a smart device
intentional physical activity sessions
relationship tending (called mom, scheduled visitation with dad, wrote sister a card)
research completed (looked into grad schools, found a daycare)
appointments that you've scheduled or completed (car inspection, doctor)
if you're finding that you barely have enough spoons to simply human every day, be sure to include even the "simplest" of tasks on this list, since getting dressed, bathing, feeding yourself, and sending a text message are all enormous accomplishments for folks who move through the world alongside clinical depression, chronic fatigue, debilitating illness, or chronic pain. no thing is too small for a ta-da list.
it may seem hokey, but try it--just once. at the end of your day today, make a lovely list of the tasks of humanning that marked your day. see what you find, and see if and how it affects your ability to feel settled, accomplished, proud, wrapped up, and at peace at the end of your day. i invite you to comment below and let me know how it goes and what you discover! and come and see me if you find anything that you'd like to talk about. it's amazing what you can figure out when you chat with someone who offers deep listening with honest, open questions instead of advice or solutions.
be well, keep growing, keep going.
abby hall luca
the hearth chaplain