Some of us live by our lists. We do whatever they tell us to do.
Others dig their heels in and rebel against whatever chores have been assigned there.
But who makes the list? Whoever does determines the power of lists to make our lives miserable or fulfilling.
If the inner tyrant makes the list on its own, the projects will feel like drudgery. And there could be rebellion.
But if the list is consciously curated, if it’s collaboratively compiled by diverse parts of the personality, it can be effective on many levels.
And this isn’t just practical.
It’s a reckoning with what you say is important to you.
The power of lists was made clear to me recently when a client whom I’ll call Linette found a way to make her lists work for her, rather than against her.
She was a communications specialist for a non-profit, and while she believed in her work, it did get redundant at times. And there was no end to how much work she could do for the organization.
Determined to use her compulsive superpowers to shake things up, Linette made it a point to put things on her list that she really wanted to do, but rarely allowed herself to do:
• Listen to music while taking a long walk
• Call three people about that community project she wanted to get started
• Call Uncle Timmy, who’s going through a tough time
• Play KenKen
• Take a nap
She usually didn’t do these things because her tyrant controlled her list. It said things like leisure, play, and meaning were frivolous and unproductive. Besides, if the list wasn’t focused on chores and work, the urgent stuff, she’d never get them done.
But despite discomfort, she let other parts of herself weigh in on what was really important to her and carried on with her new list.
She had a much better week. She got the dull chores done along with the more enjoyable and meaningful pursuits that usually didn’t make it onto her list. It was subtle, but she had a feeling of support from these other parts of herself that helped her to make good on her shift.
The Effectiveness of Inner Cooperation
How did she get the time to do it all? She was actually more productive because the parts that were usually excluded didn’t go on strike. It wasn’t as if she always did exactly what her tyrannical list told her to do anyway. Most weeks she would alternately comply and rebel against it—which wasn’t efficient.
Parts of her resented the oppressive list and did their best to keep her from working on it by going on strike. At times like this, she’d re-re-re-re-arrange her closet and drawers, and scour the internet for deals on a washing and drying machine combo, which–even with the best of deals–was not yet in her budget.
Typically her tyrant would threaten her with shame and embarrassment if she didn’t get everything on her list done, and she would dutifully get back to work and scratch off a few items.
But even aside from gaining back the time she usually wasted in rebellion, she was refreshed and more effective for the stuff that was usually a drag to do.
Think of your mind as a government. Is that government autocratic, just one set of values dominating all others? Or is it democratic, with all the different parts of the personality working together to choose agendas that satisfy them all?
You list shows what kind of government you’ve voted for inside.
The Myth of the Unitary Personality
We like to think that we are each a single, unitary organism, but too often we find ourselves at odds with ourselves. We talk to ourselves without acknowledging the split that that dialogue reveals.
Who is talking to whom?
One of the simplest and clearest maps of these parts acknowledges:
• Parent (shoulds)
• Child (needs and wants)
• Adult (reasonably seeks a balance)
Compulsives tend to identify with the Parental voice and neglect the Child. Children are not allowed a place at the table when lists are compiled. Compulsives often deceive themselves into thinking the Adult is running the show when really the Parent has become tyrannical.
These concepts are gaining more scientific support in a general way via the research on the significant impact of the unconscious, and more specifically regarding the the effectiveness of parts work in psychotherapy.
Acknowledging the different sides of ourselves can have great benefit. Trying to deny them will make a mess of your life.
Tyrannical and Harmonious Lists
Which brings me back to the power of lists. When you make your list, what goes on it reveals which of these parts are included in your life.
If the list includes only the “shoulds,” clearly the tyrannical parent is in control. If you can put a more balanced agenda on your list, you are operating more democratically, and including both Child and Adult.
Does the list include Play? Leisure? Things that you want to do but aren’t “productive?” Or things that have meaning but don’t pay the rent?
As I explore in my book, The Healthy Compulsive, that focus on work backfires. Rest actually helps us to be more productive.
The Power of Lists
When I write on my list “lie in hammock” and “listen to music,” they’re much more likely to happen. The list gives them status and respect.
I freely admit that this is a bit of an end-around or maybe even a self-manipulation. But I know this about myself and I do it consciously. The gratification of crossing it off the list encourages me to do it. It also justifies doing things that I might bypass for months or even years if I didn’t consciously make it part of my agenda.
I like the idea of doing things out of intrinsic motivation, but sometimes we need a little help getting over the hump.
Productivity, Sustaining, Meaning, Play, Pleasure and Leisure
When we make a more balanced list, there is less chance that it will cause the kind of feet-dragging rebellion that robs us of gratification.
Here are six broad, overlapping categories that you may want to experiment with in your lists:
1. Productivity—create that new spreadsheet your boss has been asking you for
2. Sustaining—call the insurance company, do the laundry, go to the gym
3. Meaning—call Aunt Mildred, volunteer
4. Play—Video games, solitaire, Spelling Bee, volleyball, Trivial Pursuit, FoosBall
5. Pleasure—Listen to your favorite playlist, go to the gym
6. Leisure—take a hot bath or a nap
You may notice that categories 3-6 are the kinds of things that Linette put on her list that made such a difference. We all tend to list 1 and 2 automatically–productivity and sustaining–but tend to neglect the other categories, and other aspects of ourselves. So the list ends up affirming tyranny and creating resistance, rather than eliciting cooperation and harmony.
Agenda and values
This is not just about getting things done or time management. It’s an expression of your values, your agenda for life. Does your list match your values?
That word agenda has at least two meanings. It can mean a list of things to cover in a meeting. But it also means a list of priorities, the things that are most important to us that hopefully get expressed in our lives.
But too often the urgent overrides the important.
So, if you’ll excuse, I have an important date with my hammock.
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