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Intervention: When Your To-Do List Is Running You

Who doesn’t love a girls’ night every now and then? It’s an opportunity to escape reality for a few hours, feeling rejuvenated by laughter and heart-to-heart conversations.

But at my last girls’ night out, we never made it to such subjects. As we scraped the last of the tiramisu from our dessert plates, we were still trapped in our own heads, reciting all of our stresses in a series of echoes:

My to-do list is running my life.

You should see MINE – I can’t say no to anything!

Me neither. My coaching practice is full but I keep taking on new clients… And I just agreed to sit on the board of a new organization….

That’s a lot of work…I sit on five different boards AND work full time! I don’t even have time to return my mother’s phone calls.

Though our voices were strained with unhappiness, there was a palpable undercurrent of something else… Something that felt a lot like competition.

This chronic cycle of chaos is obviously making society miserable, so why are we so anxious to prove our busyness to everyone around us?

As a career coach, I can’t help but notice that many of my 20somethings and 30somethings clients have fully bought into the idea that we are what we do. And by that logic, the more we do…the more we are.

In other words, busyness is a culturally acceptable insanity…. And it’s often a mask for unworthiness.

We keep adding more tasks to the to-do list, constantly exposing ourselves to the whirlwind of busyness that leaves us feeling exhausted, depleted, and depressed, because we’re terrified of the guilt and paranoia that are waiting for us when we slow down.

For years, I worried other people would judge me if I stopped to take a breather:

Why is she going on vacation? Why is she leaving the office at 5?

In my fear of being labeled as lazy  – by myself or others – I gradually came to believe that my significance in the universe was proportionate to how much I was doing at any moment of the day. My fixation on “getting things done” often led me to create work for myself just to feel productive, even if the work meant nothing to me.

Why? Because my sense of worth depended on it.

That realization became crystal clear as I talked with my girlfriends. Since then, I’ve challenged myself to embrace stillness instead of perpetuating a cycle that forbids it. This meant saying goodbye to my little old habit of creating insurmountable to-do lists every day.

Believe it or not, people are noticing.

“You’re so… calm,” clients and friends often tell me skeptically, as if they can’t quite believe what they’re seeing. I suppose I can’t blame them – these days, personal serenity is about as rare as the northern white rhino.

They ask what I’ve cut back on, assuming certain projects or priorities were sacrificed to accommodate this change they see in me. I tell them I haven’t made any sacrifices: I’m still running a full coaching practice, scaling an online job hunting program, and balancing my family obligations – I’ve just changed my mindset, and hence, my approach.

It all began with a personal inquiry into the concept of busyness, which inspired my new habit of scrutinizing my perceptions about what truly ‘needed’ to get done on any given day. I would start by asking myself: Is this actually important? If an activity or task felt significant, I’d ask myself why I was so attached to it.

Answering those questions helped me realize that busyness wasn’t feeding my brilliance, it was feeding my ego…and my exhaustion.

Why do I reach for my iPhone the second I wake up in the morning? Why is my first priority on family vacation to link to the hotel’s wi-fi, instead of joining my siblings on the beach for a pina colada?

Are these actions actually moving the needle in my life, or are they busyness habits that get me nowhere?

Whether it’s a ten-minute coffee break or a two-week trip to Mexico, we’ve allowed our relaxation, vacation, and personal time to become magnets for guilt and shame. The irony is that most of us do our best thinking during downtime.  Data shows that you’re in your most powerful, creative state when you’re calm. Instead of rushing through my shower, panicking when I couldn’t get cell reception in a foreign country, or fidgeting in the car during rush hour traffic, I focused on enjoying the peace of the moment. The world isn’t going anywhere. If you allow yourself even a short break from the chaos, you’ll feel more innovative, more inspired and more YOU. In my case, the more I expelled the panic from my downtime, the more I made room for my unique brilliance.

In addition to paying attention to my downtime, I also started scrutinizing how I used my working hours. There are days when creativity flows freely and I exceed my own expectations, but occasionally even the most rewarding and enriching work can feel daunting to the extreme. Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, says, “The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.” Now, whenever I’m feeling stuck and uninspired, I ask myself whether I’m resisting out of fear, or if my creative energies are just not in flow with the task at hand. If I need to refocus and re-center myself, I’ve found that stepping away for a while is much more effective than downing venti soy lattes back-to-back and praying for a miracle.

The happiness I’ve discovered by asking myself these tough questions has been worth the effort, even when embracing the answers pushes me in directions that feel unnatural. But the fiercest beast I’ve encountered on this journey is the word “yes,” and it’s a villain I’m forced to fight every single day.

For for those of us who strive to please everyone, “yes” always appears to be the right answer… And in our do-more culture, there’s no shortage of opportunities to use it.

We justify these yesses in strange ways: It’s just a short drive. It will only take an hour. It will mean so much to her. 

It’s a beautiful thing to help others or make people happy, but it got to a point where I was showing up for everyone except myself. I had fear of being judged as unkind if I said “no,” and realized I’d been living on autopilot, feeding my insecurities with a steady stream of yesses in the belief that I had to prove myself to everyone around me.

Not inspiring.

When you start examining the busyness phenomenon in your own life, you will often notice that the purpose it serves is to mask your feelings of unworthiness.

That leaves you with two options: you can continue chasing the ever-elusive carrot of success, or you can start building your life on a foundation of true authenticity, rather than fear – the fear of being judged for saying “no,” the fear of being unsuccessful, the fear of being “not enough.”

Ask yourself the following:

What truly matters to ME?

How much time and energy are you giving to those endeavors? How often are you saying yes to you, instead of to everyone else?

Once you have the courage to honor the priorities that light you up authentically and completely, your brilliance will flow naturally and abundantly.

So, go on…Drop the mask.

Spoiler alert: You have nothing to prove.

Originally Published in Forbes

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