Why Can't I Turn Off The F*&%ing To-Do List?

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

Every day, moments before I fully wake up, an electronic ticker starts marching across the back of my eyelids. It’s an endlessly scrolling list of things I need to do that day, starting with, of course, lift the screaming toddler from crib, change diaper, pour myself a cup of coffee, fix breakfast for the boys. Put on pants. Drink more coffee.

Then the “getting ready for school” mental list ticks by: tooth-brushing, lunch-packing, permission-slip-signing. Somewhere in there the list includes instructions for myself: Shower or at least wash face, jam contacts in eyes, eat something. Finally, once the boys are off to school, another list begins: Clean kitchen, dress myself, pack my own bag or set up for the day’s work at home. Even when I start my work and manage to get on a roll, the ticker intrudes: Buy rain boots for my older son. Think of something for dinner tonight. Take bags of stuff to the Goodwill.

Sometimes I feel like I need to just turn my brain off, or at least mute the to-do list, which is like a constant, nagging ding going off in my head every four seconds, but it’s impossible. I walk around mumbling to myself: Pack snack, call pediatrician for flu shot, don’t forget deodorant, rotate the tires, order Halloween supplies. Did I confirm that meeting? What do I need to get for dinner. Is it dinnertime? Make dinner.

Some people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety endure “intrusive thoughts”—unwelcome, repeating thoughts that are distressing. I’m not minimizing what people with intrusive thoughts endure when I say that my to-do list is annoyingly, distressingly intrusive. It’s always with me. The to-do list is never blank. There are always, forever, items on the to-do list. If and when I greet St. Peter, I’ll be asking him to hold on a sec while I cross off “get to Heaven” and write down “research places to eat in Heaven.”

Even when I make a conscious effort to relax, to read a book in the evening, for example, instead of running another load of laundry or cleaning the bathroom, the to-do list is still here, sitting quietly on my shoulder. I may be able to say to myself, “Look, you’re reading a book right now, relax,” but there’s still a nagging feeling that whatever time I take for myself only means more to do tomorrow.

Is this what being a mother is? Will the to-do list ever get shorter? The weekend always starts with a list of things to tackle (the last four weekends’ task has been “clear out home office so we can actually work in there”) and ends with the same number of items on the list (“keep working on cleaning out the home office”).

Now maybe my family is slow and inefficient, but I can’t believe that other people are that much more productive. It’s really that there is too much to do, too much for us two adults to manage, anyway. It means that non-urgent repairs are put off and I’m still wearing maternity clothes, two years postpartum, because I haven’t had time to go shopping. There’s a constant influx of stuff: The kids’ clothes alone have to be managed like it’s a job, because every three months they need a new bunch of things and the old things have to be weeded out, stored or donated. The meal planning, shopping and prep alone feels Sisyphean, even with all the timesaving hacks in the world (reading about time-saving hacks is another thing on the to-do list: “learn how to be more efficient cook”). Watching the kids while tackling household tasks is not especially productive, as every parent knows: You’re trying to clean up the office, but your toddler is quietly dismantling the printer.

Maybe someday it will get better—maybe when my kids are older and don’t require my constant attention. Maybe someday I’ll be able to work in my home office. Maybe someday I’ll be able to turn off this f*&#ing to-do list.

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