Take a New Approach To Writing A To-Do List

The House of Walker has been visited by pestilence and plague the last few weeks – one by one we have all succumbed to tummy bugs, colds, aches and pains of varying origins and intensities.  So no time for blogging but, in between hurling and holding basins for littler hurlers, wiping noses, administering painkillers and finding entertainment for grouchy offspring when I could out-grouch them all there have been little pockets of time to ponder my workload.  I have been conducting a little work-study on myself – keeping tabs on what I actually do all day, on what I think I should be doing all day and on what I would actually like to be doing all day.  Several things have emerged.

First of all, my workload as it stands – the things I think I ought to get through each week – is ridiculously out of proportion to the time actually available.  Secondly, tasks don’t require a constant amount of time.  I can get all the cleaning done for the week in a fifteen minute slot each morning, with a little extra wiping and swiping in the kitchen and bathroom each evening.  On the other hand, if I postpone the cleaning to later in the morning it takes me about forty-five minutes to get the same amount done.  Leave it until after the school run and it will take double that again.  The little Walkers need increasing amounts of maternal input as the day goes on:  the later the hour the less of it there is to deal with anything other than the kids.  Thirdly,  my family’s needs will expand to fit whatever time is available:  if I don’t schedule time to be unavailable, I won’t get any time for myself.  And, obvious as that statement seems, I have not been scheduling time for myself.  I have been expecting it to happen spontaneously, waiting for the childcare day to finish so that Me Time can commence.  But some days, the childcare goes on, on and off, right into and indeed through the night.  Unless I plan for it, time to do the things that fuel my Happy is simply not going to arrive.  I need a paradigm shift for my time management.  And here it is.

1.  Stop allowing a swarm of To Do’s to buzz insistently around my head all day:  when something occurs to me that urgently needs doing I write it down.  If it urgently needs doing by a certain day and time, then I add that to my note.  That’s all.  If I write it down it is In The System and I will get to it in due course.  Now I can let it go and just focus on the task I am actually doing right now.  This has been the most enormous relief – I realise now how stressful it has been for the past few months carrying all my To Do’s at the front of my attention.  The System, in case you are wondering, consists of file cards in a drawer with velcro tabs on the back so I can stick them up on the felt-board in the kitchen.

2.  Run a very short list.  Pick three things at the most to get done each day.  In the evening I now take five minutes to look through the cards in my little drawer and pick out any that urgently have to be done tomorrow.  If there are more than three I work out which ones could be shelved, abandoned, delegated or otherwise ignored.  When I get my cards down to three I stick them on my felt board.  There they are, waiting for me in the morning.  No anxious fretting over what I should do today – I can just get on with it.  On days when there are less than three I pick out whichever other card takes my fancy.  Sometimes my fancy appears to be on sabbatical.  Or possibly the Dog has buried it in the garden.  I pick a random card instead.  Three works for me:  it is achievable in one day.  Some days it is only just achievable, and some days it leaves me with free time to pick out a few more task cards and then glow with satisfaction at being ahead of the game.  Some cards go back in the drawer to be repeated at a later date.  And some I gleefully rip up and throw away.  This is a relatively small change – I am still getting through exactly the same amount I was getting through anyway but before I only saw what I hadn’t got through and berated myself accordingly.  Now I can see that I have achieved what I set out to achieve, and whisk the cards off their board with satisfaction.  And satisfaction has been woefully absent from my life for too long.

3.  Don’t treat all hours as equal.  I now realise that what I can do in the first half of the morning is not the same as what I can get through in the second half, even though they last the same time.  Mini-Walker needs more stimulation and attention in the second half of the morning, and a bit of down-time straight after lunch.  Then it’s the school run and two little people for the rest of the afternoon at their least self-occupying.  So when I write down a task on its little card, I now try to note whether it needs to be done early on while he is busy with his own little projects, or whether it is something he can do with me later in the morning or in the late afternoon.  I try (with limited success so far!) to estimate how much time it is going to take, so I can be realistic about what else, if anything I can fit in.  It seems obvious but I have been swamped for so long by the Dog’s special brand of internal chaos that I forgot that days with a toddler have their own rhythm.  Now I try to follow that rhythm rather than letting the Dog drag me along behind it.  So I only schedule one task each day that needs a lot of my attention (a.m. 1), one that can involve Baby Walker (a.m.2) and one that can be done with both kids after the school run (p.m. 2).  The third task will be something that doesn’t have to be completed that day – a task I can put down and pick up again easily – so that I won’t get frustrated if the kids constantly interrupt me.  And straight after lunch (p.m. 1) I sit with Baby Walker on my knee, watching one of his beloved Thomas DVDs and look out the window with my brain in neutral and a mug of coffee on hand.

4.  Show up on time.  Oh how hard I find this!  Mornings are the worst time for depressed people, and the meds I am on give me a blissful night’s sleep but a groggy start to the day.  But if I don’t get up and get on with the routine daily stuff – laundry, cleaning, making beds, packing lunches, etc they then take me all morning.  And spending the best part of the day on the least interesting part of my job makes me miserable.  So I have bought an alarm clock with a sequence of progressively more annoying alarm sounds and put it in the kitchen.  I stumble through to make it shut up and once I am there make myself a coffee.  After that, I begin to feel less appalled by the prospect of getting on with the day.  This little change has made a huge impact on my wellbeing.  I no longer begin each day on the back foot, trying to make up time and watching the morning disappear into dull, repetitive housework.  I now race through the dull, repetitive housework knowing there will be an hour afterwards to tackle an interesting project.   And I do love a project.

5.  Schedule time for me – daily, weekly and monthly.  This feels downright audacious at the moment.  I set aside a whole day to do whatever I want.  It’s not entirely decadent – Baby Walker is still with me – but instead of filling the day with errands and projects that benefit the whole family I focus on tasks that are just for me and fit them around his little rhythm.  So far, I have spent two days leafing through magazines I would not normally buy (festive ones because I do love Christmas) at our local softplay centre, done a little online clothes shopping for the first time in almost a year, started making a dress and spent silly amounts of time on Pinterest as well as going for a wander with the pram a couple of times and treating Baby Walker and myself to a venison burger from the van in the Botanic Gardens.  I feel almost like myself again on these days and – astonishingly – the rest of my life does not fall apart from lack of attention.  I am planning to set aside the week before my period is due (since the Dog goes nuts then anyway) to take my foot off the accelerator and just do whatever I want to each day for five days.  Oddly though, it’s finding time for me daily that is giving me problems.  Having found what a difference a day makes, I am determined to find that little slice out of each of the other days that I can claim just for me.


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Buy A Little Thinking Time

I have spent an entire week trying to quantify all the things I want to do, ought to do, and even the things I do do.  A whole week.  Did it actually take 7 days to list them?  No, it took about 3 hours – but it took me a whole week to amass 3 hours out of 36 five-minute nuggets of time snatched wherever I could find them.  And I wonder why I have felt so chaotic and stressed for the past 6 months.

This made me realise (specialist subject the bleeding obvious) that if I can’t find more than a few minutes here and there to think through something I consider important and worth thinking about, then I probably am not getting much time to just let my brain sit in neutral for a while, or to go off road.  And I need that – most days the only time I get completely uninterrupted to think, analyse, reflect comes after the children finally go to bed when I am completely used up and have nothing left of me for myself.  As I type this the Black Dog is lying across my feet growling something about how most mothers would just be grateful their children go to bed at all.

On the basis that the Dog seems to like me exhausted I decided last week to give myself time off when I am at my most alert, creative, optomistic and ‘thinky’.  For me, that’s the second half of the morning.  How to do it is trickier though.  We have one octogenarian grandparent between us who lives on the other side of the country and nobody else who seems inclined to offer free childcare (and why would they?).  We can’t afford childcare and Baby-Walker is too young for free nursery places.  But I have discovered that our local softplay centre charges less on weekday mornings and throws in lunch for free.  For a fiver I now get two hours of less frequent interaction with the little fellow as he hurtles joyfully down slides and hurls himself up scramble nets.  I sit with a journal and just write, or I take advantage of their free wifi and use my laptop.  Sometimes I just read a book or a magazine.  I say this like I do it all the time:  actually, I can afford this one morning a week but what a relief that morning is.  And what a surprise to realise how badly I have needed that head space and how simple and relatively inexpensive it has been to buy it.

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Tear Up The To Do List

I have been chasing my tail for months, trying to squeeze more hours out of each day, never feeling I am on top of everything I need to or want to do.  In fact, I am so overwhelmed I barely ever even notice what I want to do.  And whenever I engage in something I am constantly distracted by worries about the many things I should also be getting done.  Some days it feels as if the entire universe will unravel if I don’t get on top of my to-do list.

In reality, unless I forget to keep the children safe, fed and entertained, the universe will pretty much keep itself ticking over.  Nice universe.

Today, instead of revising my to-d0 list for next week, I wrote a Done List.  I wrote down everything I have done – from moving house to making new cushion covers to keeping the kids alive – since the start of the year and then stopped to read it through.  I am quite impressed with myself!  And also a little teary at the thought that I have berated myself for not doing enough for the last nine months when I have actually been rather productive.

It has got me thinking – I never actually recognise my real To Do list.  I don’t take time to notice all the little things I want to get done and as a result I don’t actually make time for them.  And then – surprise, surprise – they don’t get done.  So I religiously schedule time to do the laundry but leave it to luck whether or not I take time to feel the sun on my skin, smell the early frost in the morning air, do things just for fun, take time to let my mind wander, play with the kids, or even curl up with a book.  And, quite unnoticed, the Black Dog buries the impulse to do any of these things under a heap of Must Do’s.

So this week, I am scheduling time to do these things, as religiously as I schedule the shopping, and and the school run and paying bills.   Wish me luck.

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Take Stock

This is just another way of saying Count Your Cheesy Blessings again, isn’t it?  Incidentally, I have worked out why I hate the idea of counting blessings so much:  a blessing is something you haven’t earned, a little delightfulness in your day, dropped from the lap of capricious gods.  You are supposed to feel grateful for your blessings, and that implies (well it does if you are depressed…) that lucky though you may be you are not deserving.   You have no control over when blessings will be bestowed and when they will be withdrawn, and the relationship with these blessings is one of slightly cringing gratitude.  Well, in my experience gratitude creates an uncomfortable environment for the Black Dog, but cringing makes him feel right at home.  I think I do better when I try instead to be aware of the good things in my life, rather than grateful for them.  To savour, recognise, value the goodness of things.

That savouring, that awareness of the sheer goodness of things does not come easily when you are depressed.  This is such a defining feature of depression that it has its own name – anhedonia. An inability to feel pleasure.  It is like watching a locally anaesthetised limb being stroked with a feather:  it is your limb, you know it is being stroked but you don’t feel tickled.  I don’t often feel tickled at the moment.

I find it comes when I am absorbed in something else, or when I have relaxed for long enough that my mind begins to wander aimlessly rather than pursuing a goal.  Depression makes doing these things difficult.  I decided today that it was time to look back over the last few weeks and try to identify the activities that had brought me closest to that state.

I am encouraged.  They have all helped, but three of them really stand out:  I need, desperately, to take time to listen to myself think every day; I need to plan my days so that I take time to achieve identified goals but also take time to achieve nothing in particular; I need to start making most of the things I have tried out into regular habits so that I get the benefit of more of them more often.

The Dog has not moved out yet, but he does not follow me around quite as – forgive me – doggedly as he did only a few weeks ago when I began this blog.  And for this I am truly grateful.

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Play Hookey

A bad day.  Actually, the day was delicious:  the sky a stained-glass blue for much of it, the sun warm but the air crisp, and the things on my to-do list all a pleasure.  I passed through much of this lovely day in a bubble of sadness, observing the day from a distance, my misery and hopelessness much closer by.  At three o’clock  I threw in the towel and took the rest of the day off.

I can’t remember when last I did that.  The background noise of depression is a voice growling “Not good enough yet, not good enough yet…” and the downside of being a stay-at-home-mum is never actually leaving the workplace behind.  As a result I reach bedtime each day still trying to cram more into the day, never able to declare the end of work and the start of play, never satisfied with what I did today, and never free to say “That’s enough now”.  Well, today it dawned on me that nothing that was left to do absolutely had to be done today.  More importantly, I remembered that I have been here – far too often – before and learned this:  when a tide of the blues strikes I can try to ride it out but there is no point trying to turn it.  So instead of making myself better I should try to just make the most of the day.  I shelved the rest of my plans, stuck the toddler in his pram and set off for a wander along a favourite street and maybe on to the park.  No goal to fall short of, no tasks to fail to achieve, no hurry, no pressure.  Just a wander.

We window-shopped, the toddler and I, both oohing and pointing at pretty things just because they were there.  And because I didn’t have to make any decisions about what was for sale it did not, as is usually the case when I am secretly dragging a Black Dog around the shops with me,  become stressful.  Instead, after half an hour of looking at lovely things, and exploring alleys and lanes whose shops I have never visited before, my rested brain began to judder back into life and I began to think about other lovely thing –  things to buy or make, things to give, things to do, places to go.  In short, I began to imagine the possibility of feeling happy, and, having opened that door a little way, contentment crept back in.  I spent the rest of the afternoon going at toddler pace, stopping to examine the things that grabbed my toddler’s curiosity, taking time to share his delight in little things. The afternoon was my gift to him and his gift to me.

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Withdrawing from human contact is to depression what sniffles and coughs are to the common cold.  I am no exception.  Family life demands a certain level of interaction with at least some of the rest of the human race so I never become a complete recluse but the urge to interact fades rapidly away and I realise it has been weeks since I spoke to anyone outside the family beyond chit chat with a shop assistant or a quick hello to another mum at the school gate.

So my task today was, at the invitation of a very old friend, to meet for coffee with some other old friends.  I looked forward to this, or at least didn’t anticipate it with anxiety, for the last few days and it was indeed a lovely two hours.  We talked about all sorts of things, dropping back  into the verbal shorthand that comes with long-standing friendship, laughing often and loudly.  So I should be reporting what a positive experience this was and stating my intention to do it again soon.  In truth, by the time I left I felt edgy and dazed. There is so much information to process in a conversation – body-language, nuances of tone, spoken and unspoken questions and answers, the dynamics of different relationships within the group… I feel like a specimen pinned to a sheet and examined closely by the others, unsure if I am sending the right signals, unable in the melee of conversation to take a step back and guage whether my reactions to things are just the whining of the Black Dog or my actual, true self responding.  It exhausts me.

Maybe for now I need to limit myself to briefer social events, or make an excuse to leave briefly (phone call to make?  baby needing a little push around the block in the pram?  Black Dog about to pee on the metaphorical carpet?) and take a walk to relieve the tension.

I feel like a little hermit crab caught in the middle of changing shells – all my softest parts exposed and vulnerable but knowing that this is a process in which I must engage to move on.

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Do something silly

Depression is painfully serious.  You have no energy for frivolities and are in such a permanent state of emergency that you certainly don’t waste time on the trivial.  Sadly, the trivial and the frivolous are frequently where joy is hiding.

We went to the Botanic Gardens today.  Spending the last bright days of autumn in the Botanics is almost as much a seasonal observation as Halloween or Christmas.  The squirrels are scampering around in a pre-hibernation foraging frenzy, made even bolder than usual by the suspicion that every human is packing treats.  Children (and adults) look so cosy newly bundled into warmer clothes.  The leaves are beginning to do their thing.  The play-park, and indeed the rest of the gardens, are busy with people making the most of the last few weeks when it will be warm enough to linger in a park.  I stopped for a while with my toddler because it was urgently and vitally necessary for him to carefully examine a bench.  And while I was standing there confirming that, yes, this was a bench, definitely, the benchiest bench that ever benched in fact, a dog ran up and placed a stick at my feet, dropping back and looking up at me hopefully.  Of course I threw the stick.  And threw it again,  and again, and again.  A bench-fixated toddler and a dog with a stick – what a wonderful, trivial, frivolous waste of time.  I felt more like myself than I have for weeks.

So I have resolved to try to do one completely silly thing each day.  Tonight, as I cleared the table I announced to the boys that I would clear the table in the style of… the Tombliboos.  Squeeling “Tombliboo, tomblibooooo” they both joined in and chased me around the flat, feet kicking out, arms waving, all giggling.  It only lasted a few minutes but it left me released and happy, with a grin on my face every time I remembered, long after they had gone to bed.

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