How to Stop Living Off Your Checklist
As I was sitting quietly in my early morning meditation, I came face to face with an ugly fact. I am addicted to "my list". It is my never ending internal memo pad of items that need to get done and ideas which I wish to have come to fruition. You might think that the word addiction is a bit over-rated or perhaps even dramatic. After all, we all use lists to remind us to get things done each day at home and at work. Grocery lists make life easier; saving you time and gas from not having to return, yet once again, to the Goose Grocery. Workplace checkslists ensure that all the details of opening and closing a business are completed and are critical for an efficiently run office. Yet, I still found myself having to confront the degree of which my list has controlled me and how it makes my life less meaningful and joyful.
Having recently given a lecture where I explored differences between habits and addictions, it was simply enough to pull out my notes and see if perhaps I was exaggerating with this addiction idea. Here is one definition that I had used;
Addiction: def. A primary chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. It is characterized by impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain and subsequent diminished relationships.
Ouch. I was nailed. When I get past the disquieting connotations of having a chronic brain disease and think of it more as a state of dis-ease or a lack of well-being, I am forced to admit to myself that I am a list-aholic. On an unremarkable weekday morning when I find myself on the lower rungs of conscious self -awareness, I may Observe myself slipped into a potpourri of activities such as boiling water for coffee while toasting a bagel, folding cloth napkins fresh from the dryer, getting food and water for the dogs while eating some yogurt and checking Drewslist on my iPhone. Maybe you can identify with such a morning? Perhaps you are thinking, yeah, so what, is not that just a skillful application of multi-tasking? After all, there really are just so many things that need to get done in a day and there is certainly not enough time to move at a snail's pace. True, maybe, although I found myself this morning looking at the cost of living that way.
The irony is that I know better. I teach people the importance of knowing oneself and being present to their bodies. I know better when I stop whatever I am doing to be present with a patient. I know better when I stop and say a blessing over a meal with my family. I am present when I am making love with my wife. While I may not have a Ram Dass bumper sticker on my car that reads "Be Here Now" or "You Have to Be Present to Win", these tenets are listed clearly in my tangled neurocortex. But, simply knowing of healthier ways to be does not necessarily lead to a change in actual behavior. Wisdom is awareness brought into and through the body, when knowingness is translated into automatic patterns. In other words, it's just what you do without thinking about it. Despite knowing better, I can still get lulled in by my internal neural sirens whispering to me; "answer that phone, it's sure to be important" or "you will feel so much better if you just return that email right now" or "if you water the plants now you will not forget to do it later" and then all will be right. But it's never all done, who am I kidding? Or who is kidding who and who is really the one being manipulated? It certainly sounds a lot like longstanding habitual brain causing attention luring, life-sucking condition of "here kid want some candy" reward circuitry to me. I detect hints of impaired behavioral control along with a bouquet of abstaining resistant craving.
What is the real cost of this list-aholism? Only everything that's really important to me. The hamster wheel of completing an unending source of tasks serves up short bursts of satiating neurochemical cocktails that provide a quick temporary moment of pause, like a heroin junkie's fix. Since how often I give into its temptation, there is no end to its ravenous desire for my attention. What I know, is that when I am lost in my internal dialogue of why something must be done right now, there is no room for me to be truly present to what I am doing, to myself or to another. I found myself going even deeper than that in my morning's silent inward gaze. What I realized, was what I was missing most at those times. It was my connection to "the all that is" or source / creator / God, or whatever name you wish. For me, at fifty years old, it is incongruent to get lost in my multi-tasking and be at one with source at the same time. While I believe firmly that such a connection to the infinite is always present, it's just that I can not feel it while distracted and it does not feed me in the same way. Verdict: my addiction to completing my list separates me from an infinite source of love and well-being. Dang, that's bad.
However, before I went down my well worn path of self-punishment, I came to one of those right brain activated Aha! moments just in the nick of time. A thought appeared from left field (right-field peripher?). What if the motivating factor behind my compulsion to complete my list was just for the very purpose connecting? What if a part of me hardly wanted that connection and was trying in a rather ineffective, somewhat evolutionarily and cortically immature way to get all obstacles out of the way to have the time and space to reconnect with myself and God? For a moment, I felt as if I was peering through the veil; into the locked door of my subconscious mind long enough to see that there was truth to that very thing. A deep part of me has thought that if only I get my office and patient work completed, the garden watered, the chickens fed, the laundry folded, the dishes put away and dogs walked, then I will have the time and space to stop, rest, be able to surrender, connect to my inner self and to source. Then I will find that intensely craved deep exhale and well of love and acceptance. A wonderful deep truth that occurs rarely (though more than in my earlier years). Understanding the "habit cue" (ie feeling disconnected from source) according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, is an essential part of changing any habitual behavior pattern.
I wish that making this happened was as simple as the classic recommendation offered by Bob Newhart in a classic comedy skit he did years ago. After a woman client comes into his psychiatric office looking for help with overcoming fear she has about being buried in a box, he offers few words of sage advice. "Stop it! Just Stop it!" OK, so I should just stop it, stop doing what does not work. Stop being distracted from what's most important and focus on connecting to myself, to others and to source. Well, it's been two hours so far, and I think I am doing pretty damn well overall. I have had several very sweet experiences with my wife and daughter so far this morning that they are offering up nice reinforcement for my less distracted and more present behavior. The real challenge is this afternoon, and tomorrow and next week. Having the courage each day, possibly before bed, or the next morning allows me a pausing place to reflect on how well I did that previous day. That is one place that a scheduled time of self reflection / conscious meditation on the day can be of real support. When done with kindness and self compassion, for sure some days I do better than others, a regularly scheduled self review and opportunity for re-application of my intentions serve me to lean forward into my next day. I wish us both well as the sun yet rises on another blessed day of opportunity.
Source by Craig Weiner