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Overwhelmed by your to-do list? Try this…

At some level we all realize that we have a choice in how we spend our time, but very rarely does this actually feel true. We have to get up, get the kids ready for school, get ready to work, check and respond to emails, sit in meetings, get kids back home, shop, cook, clean, have fun… the list can feel like it’s never ending. It does not feel that a lot on the list is by choice.

So, with the fact that, indeed, the kids have to get to school fully dressed, with lunch and whatever the ‘project du jour‘ was this time, what can we do to feel like we have more choice and feel that life is more than just a repetition of a to-do list?

A big part lies in our mind.

The reality of our lives is often that there is a long to do list, so the question that we need to answer is how do we spend our time, not what do we do with our time.

This makes a difference. Research has shown that the spirit with which we do things makes a huge difference in how we feel during and after the ‘thing’ is completed. So how we spend our time is where our choice lies. Basically, we have two options: we approach what we need to do in a negative way, or in a welcoming way.

As you can probably guess, doing things in a welcoming way is much better for you than doing things in a negative way. This is all well and good to understand, but what can we do to change our attitude towards the activities of the day? When is a 6 am wake-up call ever going to be welcome?

Well, probably never. But that does not mean that we cannot make that 6 am wake-up call much worse by how we approach it. Welcoming the 6-am wake-up does not mean loving it, but welcoming means we are aware and accept all the feelings and thoughts that come with it.

Allowing yourself to feel and be with the thing you do not enjoy is one of the most difficult, yet powerful, things you can do to improve your wellbeing.

Accepting things that drive me crazy? What am I, crazy?

Why is it so powerful to accept things that are difficult? It’s because with allowing, we give ourselves the power to take effective action in increasing our daily wellbeing. When we dislike the things we have to do in the day and we are not giving space to that feeling, we are treating it as a threat. Your brain registers: I have to do this, I do not like it, I do not like this feeling it is a threat to my wellbeing.

This sets in motion our ‘threat system’. This system is very useful for an actual threat to our survival, but less useful for dealing with our frustrations about a 6-am wake-up. Yet, when we dread the 6-am wake up, think about how awful it is, fantasize about a life where we would not have to set an alarm or not have to go to work we are constantly telling our brain that the 6 am wake-up is a threat. Our body reacts to this as well, it tenses up, becomes more alert, and activates our mind to find a way to avoid the 6-am wake-up. But we know we cannot avoid it, because we have to go to work, because we have bills to pay and mouths to feed. So, all the effort the threat system is putting in to avoiding the 6-am wake-up is wasted, and it makes the whole experience worse.

Why not try to approach something that we cannot change with a different attitude, one where we will still need to get up at 6 am (sorry!) but where we don’t treat this reality as a threat. When we allow ourselves to feel our frustrations but not to get too caught up in them, we do not activate our threat system in our minds, but we actually active our approach system. With this system activated, our minds are more open, less contracted and more creative about finding solutions. While it may feel like a contradiction, when you are frustrated about all the things you have to do during the day, and feel trapped in this, the best thing you can do is be aware and accept that this is how you are feeling. When you do that, you activate a mind system that will be able to support you in changing what needs to be (and can be) changed. Easier said than done, but most certainly not impossible. You can actually take some very concrete steps toward this.

Transform your experience, having fun with dishes

First thing to do is to realize what you do every day and what gives you energy, and what does not. Write down a list of activities that you do on any given day. Things like, wake-up, take shower, prepare breakfast, chat to colleagues, go for lunch, walk in the park, shopping etc. Then look at this and write down next to each activity whether it gives you energy, enjoyment, nourishment, or whether it takes away your energy, fills you with dread.

Now take a look at this list and see if there are any activities that can be both – sometimes they give you energy, and sometimes they exhaust you.

Once you have done that, we can see which activities we might need to approach differently. As a start, pick one, maybe not the most difficult one, but one that you feel costs you energy. Let’s say, doing the dishes – or putting the dishes in the dish washer.

The next time you have to do the dishes see if you can become aware of what thoughts you are thinking about this activity. Maybe you are thinking: I cannot believe I have to do this again, why is it always me, why does no-one help me. Maybe you are already getting annoyed at your husband, your kids, your housemates, for not doing the dishes as often as you or maybe you are already telling them that, starting an argument.

Whatever it is you are thinking, feeling or doing, just let it be for now. Becoming aware of what is there is half of the challenge and already not easy. We are conditioned to move away from anything that feels unpleasant and it is a quite a radical act if we can stop, see and accept something unpleasant. Not to worry, acceptance does not mean resignation, throwing your hands in the air and saying there is nothing to be done, what it means is that you accept that whatever you are feeling, you are feeling.

From here, you can start to take skilful action. So, let’s go back to the dishes example. You are aware and accepting the fact that you are quite pissed off by the fact that you are doing the dishes again. What’s the next step? Shout at your husband/wife and demand that they do it? Possibly not. The best next step you can take is to start feeling all the sensations that are present in your body and notice all the things that are actually pleasant. I am sure you can find some – like the water on your skin, the smell of the soap, the movement of your hands or arms. You can also become more aware of the pleasure you might feel when the dishes are done, that the kitchen is tidy and organised. Opening up to both the moment to moment pleasurable experiences and the achievement of sorting out the mess, can transform the experience and make it much more pleasant. If you are not careful, you might actually start to enjoy something you always thoroughly did not enjoy.

Obviously, you might still have to have a discussion with your husband/wife/housemate to ensure that everyone carries their weight in the household, but you have the power to change your experience, no matter what the other person does or does not do.

This is true for the dishes, for the 6-am wake-up call, and anything else on your list that you feel is depleting you. Maybe you can go back once more to the list you made and look at the other activities and think about how you can try to transform your experience.

Remember, it is not about having to love them, but relating differently to them. You can do this by being aware and accepting all the emotions you have during an activity that depletes you, and then letting that be, not creating more stories in your head, not activating that ‘threat mechanism’. Then once you have that, you can be present for all the body sensations and being fully present for the activity. Turning towards it and activating your approach mechanism.

Being more present for all that is good

While it is important to try to transform your relationship with the activities of your day that are depleting, you can also change your relationship with the activities that are nourishing. Pick up your list again, and have a think about how you can increase, or savour more, the nourishing activities that you do during a day.

Maybe you can have a cup of coffee or tea without doing anything else. Just drinking your coffee or tea. Maybe you can make a little more effort to go for a walk in your lunch break, if this is something you know you enjoy doing. Even when the pressures of the job seem high and time feels like it is non-existent, go for that walk. You might be able to manage the stressors of the job much better after you have taken a walk.



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Maybe you can acknowledge for yourself which activities are key for your own wellbeing and ensure that they do not get snowed under by the demands from others, either your job, your family, your friends. Take time to nourish yourself with activities that are good for you, because it will make the other activities easier to manage.

It’s true that in our lives we have many commitments and many activities during the day that might not be the most enjoyable, and we cannot always change our day-to-day. But what we can change is our own attitude to our day and activities, and this can create space for you to find more freedom in your day than you might think possible.