Why To Do Lists Could Be The Enemy

Every passing day brings rocketing new cases of COVID-19, with death rates on the rise, and vital public resources working in overdrive in an attempt to stem the tsunami of sickness. Bad news is on the rise, and with it, public anxiety.

Also on an upward trajectory is the number of social media posts imploring us to use this period of global crisis as a launchpad for our productivity levels. The newly listless may worry no more, as lists they are a-coming. From keeping a journal to learning a language, no Instagram ‘explore’ page is free from a seemingly endless range of self-improvement suggestions.  

While admittedly some of these sound appealing – almost comforting, in fact (‘How to Bake The Perfect Quarantine Banana Bread’) – there’s a risk that we are unwittingly applying mounting pressure to those already ten tonnes under it. When you’re dealing with the very real and very scary impact of this disease on yourself and people you know, alongside the crippling financial challenges a pandemic like this brings, the suggestion that your new “at home” time should be used to get more squats in or finally master Excel, can send already spiked anxiety levels into New York skyline territory.

It’s common, even for people not dealing with anxiety, to freeze up when they already feel mentally overloaded. How many times, for example, have you spent days putting off sending or replying to a text, a task whose entirety would likely take less than a minute? Or sat on your phone for an hour instead of just doing that 10 minute HIIT workout? It’s taken me over a week to actually write and publish this blog post. Why? Because I decided that hitting up the McDonald’s drive-thru was the priority. And then going for a long walk. And then FaceTiming a friend for 3 hours. And watching multiple movies under a duvet on the sofa. Was this because I was trying to manage the low level anxiety I currently feel, being away from home and not knowing where my next pay check is coming from? Maybe. But I also felt I needed to remind myself that things very rarely NEED to get done in the restricted time spaces we often set aside. Just because we’re not necessarily spending our working hours in the same way we once did, doesn’t mean a new, ‘higher’ standard of productivity has to set a new precedent for how we spend the day.

In the global quest to protect society’s physically vulnerable, our mental vulnerabilities are being pushed to the limit. The response to tragic consequences of tabloid targeting has led to the Be Kind movement – but are we forgetting to be kind to ourselves? As somebody who has struggled in the past to control my constant mental “striving” ; of moving life’s goalposts and therefore keeping happiness and fulfilment at arm’s length – the circulation of social media posts suggesting we should be doing more can trigger those just trying to be happy in the moment, despite the circumstances. (Because isn’t that what this thing called life all boils down to, anyway?).

For everyone out there weathering the effects of this pandemic, who are juggling the new challenges born of home schooling kids, perhaps while simultaneously trying to work from home themselves, or identifying and chasing new sources of income, or attempting to tolerate your partner’s presence (!), worrying – on top of everything else – about whether you should have nailed a new yoga pose or cultivated a thriving new herb garden by now shouldn’t be necessary (unless of course you already had a burning desire to do those things.) Since I began freelancing full-time in November, what I personally find helpful is writing out very basic to-do lists for the day, to maintain some form of structure and have a visual record of achievements. These include time slots for things as simple as making and eating lunch, going for a walk, FaceTiming friends and family and putting laundry on. Basic as they are, this is what keep me sane.

At this moment we should all recognise that we’re doing exactly what we need to to get by. If that means brushing up on French irregular verbs, then cool. If it means single-handedly sinking half a box of Malbec (guilty) or watching hours of footage of a mulleted tiger breeder on Netflix (again, guilty) – that’s also sweet. I’m not suggesting that society should allow itself to spiral into a permanent state of ennui. But I do think it’s important to pause, ground ourselves, remember this isn’t going to be forever, and give yourself ourselves damn break. Because the world certainly isn’t going to.

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