To Do Or Not To Do – A Downsizing Question

downsizingThe act of downsizing, whether tackled out of a sense of opportunity (you want to lighten your load a bit, make room for some new things) or necessity (you can’t find your bathroom), can be surprisingly difficult.

This is because the downsizing process, with its emphasis on getting rid of stuff, always involves an experience of loss – the loss of our possessions, certainly, but also (we fear) the loss of the memories and meaning associated with them.

Sure, there are lots of potentially happy endings to a downsizing story. You finally get to stop paying for that storage container; you can fit all of your clothes in your closet; you can find your bathroom. But before you realize the benefit, the very first thing that happens when you start a downsizing project is that you lose something, and feel a bit more empty than you did before.

Downsizing is scary for precisely this reason – because we know when we start the process of letting go of things that we are facing the possibility of emptiness.

Which is, of course, why some people will spend a lot of time and energy trying to avoid a downsizing task. I may or may not be one of those people.

Hey, we get busy. We get distracted. We get involved with something else. And eventually, in a funny kind of turn-around, our stuff actually begins to serve as a buffer zone between us and the possibility of emptiness (I am tempted to bring the hidden bathroom joke back here), and so we are even more motivated to keep it around.


As my family and friends will no doubt attest (go ahead, guys, comment away), I live by my todo list. It’s pretty much the first thing I look at in the morning (walk the dog – check) and the last thing I see before I go to bed (complete PT exercises – check).

In my defense, there are several very good reasons I engage in this obsession habit:

First, sticking to a todo list helps me stay productive, and I heard somewhere that’s really important. Putting something on my list means it will get done. I won’t forget it. It won’t get overlooked. It will get handled.

Second, keeping a todo list helps me manage my anxiety (and those of you who know me well know I need just a wee bit of help with that). When I put something on my todo list, I can take it off the list in my head, a list that can at times be downright paralyzing.

Third, checking things off of my todo list after I’ve done them gives me an insane amount of pleasure. This effect is so powerful, in fact, that I will frequently put an already completed task on my list just so I can have the satisfaction of checking it off. Can I have an “Amen, Sister!”?

Finally, using a todo list encourages my creativity, because putting something on the list frees up the part of my brain that was previously busy worrying about this thing so that it can do something else, perhaps something more spontaneous or interesting. Or at least that’s the idea.

The reality is that sometimes my todo list has just the opposite effect.

Sometimes I am so wedded to what’s on that list, so in the habit of referring to the list to find out what’s next, so committed to checking everything off by the end of the day, that I fail to engage in a more spontaneous decision-making process about how to spend my time, a process that might require that I actually notice and react to a new thing that’s right in front of me in that moment.

My husband calls this phenomenon “the tyranny of your todo list” and he is, as usual, annoyingly spot-on in his assessment.

Because in allowing my actions to be directed by a list about the future that I made in the past, I miss the opportunity to live in the present. And when this happens, my todo list, instead of being under my control, starts to control me.

But, truth be told, I love the list. I love the solid predictability of the thing, the way it keeps track of all the things I have to do, the way it assures me that I actually have something to do. Without the list, how would I know what to do next? How would I know I’m productive and that my life has meaning?

Ah. Wouldn’t you know it? Turns out my todo list is sometimes, like all of my stuff, a buffer zone between me and the possibility of emptiness.

And, yes, it so very clearly needs to be downsized.

I need to be willing to let go of all the things I think I have to do, so that I am ready to sign on to that truly important thing that appears to me in the moment.

I need to let go of my need to be insanely productive, so that I can perhaps produce something delightfully unexpected and unplanned.

And, so that I don’t get too spooked, I need to remember that when I downsize, whether I do it with my possessions or my todos, I do not make my life smaller or less meaningful. To the contrary, downsizing allows me to create space in my life for what’s really important.

So it’s a good thing to do.

What about you? What’s on your todo list? Is it really what you want to be doing with your time? Share your thoughts in a comment below.

And, if this post got you thinking, you might also like these on Embracing Emptiness or Taking A Snow Day.

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