Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.
A better measure of success than getting everything done—and a surer path to contentment—is learning to be present regardless of what is happening around us.
It’s possible to be calm and at ease in the midst of a messy home (although less likely), and we can still be anxious and unfocused even though our floors are shiny and our calendar is up-to-date. Whether or not we are ‘caught up’ is no indication of how completed we feel.
The drive to completion is normal and healthy, but like anything taken to extremes it can be counter-productive. Overdone, it comes at the expense of what is most meaningful and it kills flexibility. Managed well and with a light touch, it supports a complex and wondrous life.
How do we know when we’re done anyway? When there’s nothing on our do list, when the house is spotless, or after we’ve resolved any relationship issues? And do we mean caught up externally (the house is tidy) or internally (a calm mind)? It could be argued that our inner world is more important anyway; trying to force completion outside ourselves can be a salve for the messiness we feel within.
We’ll always live in a balance between the done and the undone. I’ve been thinking about some ways to make this easier, and this is what I’ve come up with so far.
- Figure out what you actually want to get done. A better method than trying to get everything done is to try to get our priorities done. If we say our relationships, our work, and our interests are most important—then let’s give them our freshest energy and leave the rest undone. As the Chinese writer, Lyn Yutang, said: “The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.” Once we know what is non-essential, we don’t have to do it and nor does it deserve to be done.
- Refresh your point of view. Slowly and gently practice being comfortable with the uncomfortable. Any time you feel yourself getting worked up over something incomplete see if you can shift the way you see the situation. A different approach can dissolve the tension. For example, you may be upset the kids have left the dining table in a huge mess right before dinner, but it might be a good opportunity for a relaxed dinner at the kitchen bench or in front of a movie?
- Embrace the undone. I dare you—and I dare myself!—to be at peace with the way things are, to let go. Make it a game or a challenge: can I let go and survive? It sounds silly but sometimes these are the subconscious stories we tell ourselves. I like to get the house in order before I walk out the door in the mornings and before I go to bed at night. I feel pressure to do this, like it puts me in control and I won’t be able to cope otherwise. But that’s not true and it’s not helpful.
- Set up good systems. Capture all the tasks you could possibly work on in an action system, set up a workable calendar, and establish routines for housework. Funnel tasks through your systems so things like cleaning that will never be fully done are taken care of in a workable way. The reassurance of knowing everything is safely within your life framework means you can be done for now. (I talk more about how to set up a life framework in my ebook).
- Change the focus of your action lists. Instead of trying to cross everything off, aim instead to keep the lists fresh and current. Keep tasks circulating through by adding (and doing in a timely fashion) new ones and dropping stale ones.
- Give attention to your inner life. A clearer mind feels wonderful and at ease. There are lots of ways to nurture this: meditating, paying attention to one person or task at a time, having downtime to process your thinking, unhooking from unhelpful thought patterns, and addressing problems that nag you are a few ideas.
It’s often said that writers write about what they most need to learn and this post is true of me. I chase the holy grail of being caught up as much as anyone. I love an empty inbox, a completed list, and every last thing taken care of. Many years ago, I even tried to get everything done at the same time :) Clean house and yard, to do list ticked off, and calendar cleared for the evening (this was way, waaay before I had kids). At the end of it all, I remember standing—rather tired!—in the backyard with a cold drink in hand, watching an approaching thunderstorm, feeling satisfied and self-righteously current. Everything was done and now I could simply be and get on with more important things.
But of course the feeling was as fleeting as the high of an impulse purchase. Was everything really done anyway? I certainly hadn’t edged the lawn or cleaned the gutters or sorted through my boxes of memorabilia. I realised getting to done was a matter of perception. And there’s no way I could keep it up beyond that one short moment of holding back the incoming tide anyway.
My mother is a master of finding the done within the undone. When I was growing up, we lived in a reasonably tidy, clean home but it wasn’t perfect. While I was wondering how she could function with messy Tupperware drawers, she was busy getting on with life. She juggled many roles well without getting bogged down in minutiae. She’d leave what didn’t need doing to do what did.
It’s taken me a long time to learn that being caught up is an illusion. My aim now is a relaxed and accepting mind that is open to the life I am living and all its blessings, challenges, and possibilities.
There is much that is good in the midst of the undone—there is even beauty there. And delightfully, we are enough—an excellent equivalent to done—just as we are.
What do you think?