This weekend, I’m dropping routine habits and adding a thoughtless to-do list and a not-to-do list.
Many of my routines are good. I have a morning routine that involves putting in my contact lenses before I “emerge” to have breakfast and so forth (I’m quite a fan of not getting a headache first thing in the morning from squinting at the paper). Even my contact lens routine itself sees me (haha) always putting my right lens in before the left (because I also like having one contact lens in each eye, and the correct lens, rather than two in one and none in the other…which I have done…and not noticed at for a while…).
However, other routines and habits that I have don’t seem to yield the results I want. My routine for getting ready for work seems to take longer and longer all the time, and yet I can’t figure out how it’s any different to what I’ve been doing for the past five years. My “free” days are really study days and if I get a few hours of study done on each of those free days (with a little extra effort just before an assignment is due) then I should just comfortably keep up with everything and still have time to rest and relax. But my routines and habits don’t seem to produce the study results that I want and it usually feels such an effort to make myself not find something more interesting to do.
So I am going to try to mix things up a bit. I’m not completely sure how, because that’s kind of the point. I want to shake up my routines and the habits surrounding them – and shake up my mental habits in the process. After all, we know now that the neural pathways become strengthened the more we use them, making them the preferred route for thoughts and actions. I need to find different cues so my thoughts don’t follow the same patterns they always do. It might be sitting in the spare room instead of my bedroom to study or using paper instead of the computer. It might be getting up and doing a stretch or yoga pose every five or ten minutes. It might be putting on my makeup and doing my hair before I get dressed and have breakfast instead of the other way around. It might be eating lunch in the sun room, or wearing unusual cothes, or studying outside or skipping around the backyard for exercise! I’ll just try to be mindful of when I’m following old habits that haven’t yielded results in the past.
With the focus partly on study this weekend, I’m going to try to tackle it from a different angle, too. I could call myself a scatterbrained type of person. Really, my brain thinks about so many things at once that it can be hard to keep everything in there long enough, and so I write lists. Sometimes this is great, because it means I don’t forget things and they don’t have to keep swirling madly around my brain and distracting me. In other ways, though, they’re worse than useless. If I even look at my lists, they’re usually so overwhelming that I’m discouraged and then feel self-critical.
Life Hacker Australia have an article about making a “doable” to-do list. There are several good tips on there, but I think the one that has struck a chord is the idea of making items so clear, directed and simple that the action itself doesn’t require extra thought. This means “work on assignment for fifteen minutes” (which would have seemed like a manageable goal to me) is actually likely to create blockages. Instead, it should contain a specific verb and all details needed so the thinking goes out of how to do it. So, perhaps something more like “Make a note of the participant information in the research study that matches the example.”
(It’s actually funny how just typing those two examples here creates different feelings inside. I didn’t notice at first how anxious just the thought of the first example made me. The second example seems like it was such a simple, straightforward, almost manual task that I had an urge to just knock it on the head now, and with that came such a release of unrealised tension!)
So I will make a to-do list for my study that is so clear, specific and action-based that it takes all the thought out of it. However, it was also recommended to keep to-do lists to under 20 items, and I think I will try to keep mine to no more than three at a time! This is not supposed to be an ongoing list, but a single, achievable list for today, with a new one tomorrow.
I remember reading somewhere last year of a man who kept his thoughts in a notebook so he didn’t have to carry them around in his head. Whenever he thought of something that needed to be done, had an idea or saw something he liked, he would write it down in his notebook. It wasn’t a to-do list, but it was something he checked regularly for making his to-do lists. By writing the thoughts down, he didn’t have to remember them and knew they wouldn’t be forgotten. Life Hacker also specifies that a to-do list should not have anything on it that does not have to be done (even if we might ultimately want to do it) nor have to be done right now. While I’m trying to focus on my own to-do list, I will also try to keep a secondary list of things that I feel like I should be doing or would like to do or will have to get done at some point this week or month, but will not be doing today. It will be my not-to-do list! When I cross all the items off my to-do list, I can move items over from the not-to-do list, but I won’t be distracted by them in the meantime.