Reconsidering To-Do Lists: The Deceptive Appeal of Productivity

Photo by Eve Moreno

Photo by Eve Moreno

Each and every year, considering the "what ifs" becomes all consuming. It’s as though they multiply so furiously that soon my internal, mental reality resembles some sort of cocoon built on the scaffolding of worry and speculation.

As someone who’s constantly battled anxiety, I’ve come to understand this worrying as my personal norm. Inherently, though, I knew that this year New Year’s resolutions just wouldn’t cut it. The need to do something different engulfed me as never before. Maybe a Bullet Journal would work. Or maybe I could color-code my Google Calendar differently.

So many methods, strategies, and random Buzzfeed article suggestions swirled around my head. Which, of course, means that I sought out one of my favorite coping mechanisms – I began procrastinating on social media and fell down the impending rabbit hole of memes.

One popped up with a random picture of Beyoncé in action at a concert. The text read, “Beyoncé has the same 24 hours in the day as you.” The formula was clear and perfectly executed. An insult cloaked as encouragement with a tough love tone and a picture of Beyoncé. Why did such a wide swath of people fixate on sharing the same 24 hours in the day with a superstar, and completely gloss over the reality that all of her hard work is amplified by a team? (A team that is composed of far more than 24 people.)

Your Productivity Can't Compare to Anyone Else's

As marginalized folks, we are constantly inundated with messages pushing productivity. American society always demands the most of those it values the least. So we greet that reality strategically. We understand that the more intersectional our identities, the further we are from an ‘A for effort’ reality being possible. If we’re Black, queer, non-Christian, femme, live with a disability, or any combination thereof, we are implicitly informed and explicitly encouraged to tip the balance of inequity by using our productivity.

So we control the controllables. We work harder. We are more precise. We get A’s and do the extra credit. We show up early and stay late. We generally exert more effort in a game that seems to take up all of our waking hours. The game feels especially intense for the relatively small percentage of us who are students at PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions).

Then, as often happens, inspiration struck randomly. While reflecting on the sage advice of an aunt, I thought about what exactly it was that I wanted to improve. How would this new magical approach to daily life make 2017 vastly improve from 2016?

Right now I’m in the midst of my junior year of undergrad, and everything feels like it needs to be done a year and a half in advance. Everyone else seems to be accustomed to that but me. There’s class, work, research and the ever-present albatross of belonging to a minority group that represents only 2 percent of students on campus. It’s a lot. These were the details of the circumstances though. The root cause was much deeper.

I wanted to finally rid myself of that abysmal never-ending cycle that says that I’m not enough. It arrives consistently but unannounced, this small voice that says that if I haven’t displayed a herculean effort in the last 24 hours, then the day has been a waste. It’s that feeling that ups the ante of expectations each and every day. It’s that feeling that makes me too busy to eat a full meal or causes me to spend an  entire day hoisting my energy on nervousness and Starbucks.

Somehow the difference between being “good busy,” “bad busy,” and “just plain overwhelmed” has often faded into a grey area. We stay in motion but make little progress. We stay afloat but have difficulty swimming against the tide. We avoid drowning but drift farther away from shore than we ever planned to. And of course, we beat ourselves up for it.

The "Done List"

Personally, as I continue the work of unlearning habits built by the politics of respectability, it’s become crucial for me to create habits that uplift my spirit. So this year, my solution was to adopt the “done list” as a daily practice.

It sounds exactly as simple as the two words imply: Any and everything that gets completed within my day goes down on paper with a check mark. Nothing is too small and everything counts.

This includes waking up (especially on time), showering, texting friends, talking with relatives, eating a meal, and everything in between. All of these relatively mundane things are immensely significant; yet, they fade into the background often as anxiety would kick in to tell me that 'I just haven’t gotten anything done today.'

Initially, the “done list” felt odd. It’s the polar opposite of the "to do" lists that I’ve come to know and love. The “done list” says that I’m conquering the day one step at a time. The “to do” list implies that each 24 hours is an uphill battle.

The “done list” says that I’m building a pathway through challenges progressively. The “to do” list says that Mt. Everest is around the corner and each pebble is another term paper.

The “done list” says that all manners of self-care are necessary. The “to do” list tempts me to rationalize the merits of a working lunch, whether or not I can accommodate better arrangements.

Ultimately, the “done list” reminds me that I’m highly competent, and the “to do” list berates me for declining to push through exhaustion.

Priorities over Productivity

Now, some three months into a (mostly) daily practice, life looks different. I want to say that the sun shines brighter, my credit score is higher, and I’ve finally escaped the debilitating awkwardness of my aversion to flirting. No such luck. What has happened is my perspective has altered.

My anxiety feels less debilitating when I acknowledge a clearer picture of the time, energy, and effort that goes into each day. My fears have less oxygen, and my passions find more clarity. The act of being busy feels less like narrowly avoiding drowning, and my level of engagement with “what is” has become more amplified than the endless “what if”s.

Yes, the “to do” list still exists. But I’ve chosen to re-frame it as a “priorities list.”

There is still more to do, more to accomplish, more to plan, and much more to unpack internally. However, incorporating the “done list” helps me to access what I can tackle by valuing things as they happen. In doing so it’s been a significant factor as I wrestle with societal views that constantly promote the insidious nature of hyperproductivity as a cure-all.

Sometimes the goal is just to take the next step.

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Image description:

Queer youth Caressa Wong (left) and Sabrina Farooq(right) express the injustices trans womxn and cis womxn face on the steps of city hall in Downtown Los Angeles. The two were apart of a contingent of queer youth that were marching at the 2016 International Womxns March hosted by AF3IRM, a transnational feminist organization. 

About Joel N Jenkins:

Joel N Jenkins is a writer, editor, and native of Queens, NY currently working hard to acclimate to the California sunshine. As a McNair Scholar at the University of California, Davis, his research focuses on Black queer men’s cultural contributions to our understanding of American English. When he’s not studying, you can find him at @joelscribes on Twitter.



About Eve Moreno:

Eve Moreno is a trans and queer multimedia artist of color living in South Central Los Angeles. Eve’s media work focuses on documenting trans and queer communities of color. Although their work ranges from writing, video and photography, their passion is taking portraits of trans and queer POC. Follow Eve's work on TumblrInstagram, and their facebook page.