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What Not to Do

Sept. 20, 2021
Sometimes, putting everything down on paper can help you get organized. Other times, it’s best to toss the to-do list.

I was fortunate enough to be a student worker in college. One day, I don’t remember the circumstances, but I happened to overhear two staff talking.

Janice* was relaying a story about how she shared some good news with Dr. Li*, a world-renowned expert who is also a prolific writer and has been awarded numerous grants. In response, Dr. Li said something to the effect of, “Congratulations. Now what are you going to do next?” Janice was miffed that she couldn’t simply enjoy her success. Instead, she was encouraged to push herself even further.

Both Janice and Dr. Li are knowledgeable, competent and respected by their peers. They have a good working relationship. To my knowledge, there was no malice or animosity because of this conversation, and I doubt either even remember it.

I am not sure why this interaction has stuck with me for years, but only recently have I been able to parse its deeper meaning. I believe this conversation reveals a difference in understanding about productivity at an individual and societal level—and the repercussions it can have for both. Our ideas of productivity seem to be conflated with our sense of accomplishment and even self-worth.

I admit that it is incredibly satisfying to cross something off a to-do list. That strikethrough line serves as a visual indication of progress. Conversely, not being able to cross anything off my to-do list is incredibly frustrating and can often be a source of stress for me.

Over the years, I have read countless articles about how to better manage my time, be more productive and organize my day. Some tricks worked for a while, but eventually the to-do list starts to pile up again.

This has been especially challenging of late as the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered my ability to get things done. I complained to my therapist about this, and she responded by saying, “So what?”

In fact, she said that measuring myself against an ambitious and ever-growing list of tasks is dangerous to my mental and physical health. Every item I add to the list reinforces the belief that I need to spend more hours per day working. Worse, I start to measure my self-worth by my accomplishments, so not enough items crossed off makes me feel like a failure.

I was relieved to discover an article from Harvard Business Review entitled, “You’re Never Going to Be ‘Caught Up’ at Work. Stop Feeling Guilty About It.” Author Art Markman writes that it’s easy to feel guilty or ashamed about what you have not yet completed. While guilt or shame can at times be helpful, he cautions that you must be proactive to avoid the negative effects of these feelings. He instead advises you focus on your accomplishments and feel good about what you have already done.

That supports some advice from an article The New York Times published earlier this year entitled, “The Other Side of Languishing is Flourishing. Here’s How to Get There.” Psychologists recommend that to flourish—a state of thriving that describes mental, physical and emotional fitness—we need to celebrate and savor small moments, share tiny victories and appreciate the good things around us. I suspect the reason this can be so challenging is that because we are so often focused on lofty, ambitious goals, we fail to acknowledge steady, incremental progress.

Knowing this, I am all the more thankful that Dr. Li stopped me as I was heading to the convocation center for my graduation ceremony. I was surprised by how excited she was for me; I had only taken one class with her. I was flabbergasted when she asked if she could take a picture with me. I was so focused on getting in line and starting a new chapter of my life that I didn’t let it sink in that I was graduating. Now, that photo serves as a visual reminder for me to pause, smile and celebrate my accomplishments in the moment.

There will always be more things to do, but sometimes, we have to remember it’s OK to stop doing and just be.

*Names have been changed to protect their privacy.

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