October 2016

10 Things You Must Do When Making a To-Do List

The first thing on your to-do list should be making a to-do list.

A handy to-do list can help you get organized, separate important tasks from trivial distractions, and give you more time at the end of your day to read advice on time management. Here are ten simple steps to get you started.

1. Think Big

Your dreams should be so big that they require their own plane tickets. You should be able to make the floorboards creak with your mind. Think so big that you rip your pants. If you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it. If you don’t care enough about it to put it on your to-do list, you probably don’t deserve to have it.

In the planning stages, it’s important to go buck-wild. Promise yourself the moon with stars sprinkled on top. Make a list of the twenty things you most want out of life, and then add twenty more things. Don’t forget to add all the things you should do, such as flossing your cat, along with the things you don’t really enjoy but want to be seen doing, such as complementing other people’s children. Put it all in there.

Make your to-do list a living document, and keep giving yourself new things to do until all of it is done.

How to make a to-do list2. Get Going

Now you’re off to the races! You have a whole lot of work ahead of you, and it’s important to not get overwhelmed. Start with the first, most important thing, say, getting your shoes tied. Hey, that was easy! Now you’re laced up and on your way out the door. The world better watch out, because you’ve got big plans. You’ve got such big plans that it’s hard to keep track of them, but fortunately you’ve got a to-do list.

3. Determine What Really Matters

Painstaking prioritization is one of the best alternatives to doing things.

Before you move on to tackle item number two on your list, take stock of your priorities. You can’t do everything at once because you’re not a machine(Robots don’t get adult acne). You’re a person with a to-do list, and one of the things on your to-do list is to practice mindfulness. So be mindful of what really matters to you.

Of all the tasks you’ve set out to complete, which do you need to do? Which do you want to do? Which best exemplify who you are as a person and what’s in your heart of hearts? Rearrange the list like a symphony to harmonize with a mindful awareness of your priorities. Now lay it over a disco beat and get pumped.

4. Procrastinate

It’s been a week since you started on item number two and things aren’t going too well. You bought the Lego set. You read the instructions and you put a few pieces together, but the project has been sitting on the kitchen table for days, and you’ve been eating in front of the television to avoid looking at it.

You tried meditation, which wasn’t very productive at all — you probably weren’t doing it correctly. You took some vitamin supplements to boost your energy and you ended up with less money and more colorful urine. You’ve been lazy and useless, and you haven’t even been able to enjoy it.

You notice that your shoe has come untied, and you have no idea what to do about it.

5. Sabotage Yourself

If you were being brutally honest with yourself, you would admit that you’re half-assing it because the idea of pouring your soul into a project and failing scares you more than the idea of not doing it at all. If you never write your first book, no one will ever read it or love it, but at least you won’t have to deal with one-star reviews from idiots. “Let’s not and say we did,” is what the kids say, and the kids are the best judge of anything. You cross item two off the list, confident that you could have done a hell of a job at it had it been worth your time and trouble.

6. Fail Completely and Bitterly

What started as a low murmur of self-doubt now crescendos into a chorus of self-loathing. You’ll never get through your to-do list because you’re not smart or tough enough to finish your chores, honor your commitments to yourself, or obtain the things you want in life. You are, simply put, weak.

Most of us feel this way sometimes, because, except for a few CEOs and celebrities, we all suck and should probably give up. Your life isn’t worth much if you can’t compete with the guy who came up with Snapchat.

7. Give Up

Now you are free to fall apart. You are at liberty to do all of the things that would have previously brought you shame. Now, you are fish and shame is the water in which you swim.

So, give up. Quit your humiliating dead-end job. Drink until your sweat eats through paint. Toast dumpster bagels over a trash can fire. Life is suffering, as the Buddhists say, and the path through suffering is greased with Everclear.

Keep sinking until you break through the bottom and land in the abandoned basement. Rediscover shame as the last few people who love you have to come in and clean up your mess.

How to make a to-do list8. Revise Your To-Do List

Start with one basic thing, like tying your shoes. Do that one basic thing every day.

Do something that seems simple to some people but that you find challenging, like, oh, feeding yourself. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, but I once spent 72 hours curled up in my bed, had a pizza delivered, and could not eat the pizza because of anxiety. If I had just eaten one piece of pepperoni, I probably would have felt better and that would have been progress. Start with one pepperoni.

Do that one basic thing until it becomes a habit. Then, and only then, consider adding a second basic thing to your to-do list. Add new basic things as you can handle them, and no sooner. Get in the practice of building habits for their own sake.

9. Get Bored

Soon enough, you will feel better. You’ll get a boost in morale from all of that successful pepperoni-eating and shoe-tying. As you reassemble the fragments of your shattered life, you have some time to rest and reflect, and that rest, more than anything else, is helping a lot.

Now you wonder what you’re missing, out there in the dangerous and exciting world. You feel ready to go out and conquer it, or at least go on a crazy and colorful adventure. You are, simply put, bored. And you fear that all of this rest is making you rusty. There is so much you are capable of, so many goals you want to pursue.

So you start making a list…

10. Repeat

Now you are right back where you started. Progress!

As you can see, a to-do list doesn’t have to be simply an inventory of tedious tasks. A good to-do list is a recipe for adventure and delight, along with harrowing terror. When you get good at making to-do lists, you will get used to the insane mood swings that come with them. Start making your to-do list today, and don’t be surprised if you learn a lot about yourself in the process.

If you wind up exhausted and humiliated, you may find that you prefer using a productivity app.

A Late Adopter's Audition for the Anti-Self-Help Bandwagon

Most of us could use some wise advice. Most of us distrust forced positivity and new age pabulum. Thus we see the rise of the anti-self-help guru, a writer who gets to have it both ways and be raw without sacrificing authority. The ASHG gives you the whole truth, not just the good parts. When they reassure you that things can be better, you trust them, because you know that they have suffered.

Penelope Trunk worked this angle for awhile before she got too depressing to really qualify. James Altucher has been doing it brilliantly for years and has spawned conspicuous imitators. Mark Manson is the hot ASHG of the moment.

Since it seems like a good way to make a quick buck, I decided I’d try my hand at it. Let’s see how it goes.

Fuck you.

Okay! I think I might be phoning it in here. There’s no way it could be this easy. Let’s try putting a little bit more of my own flavor into it. The secret sauce that only I can add is the flavor the readers will savor.

4, 3, 2…

ashgI have some good news and bad news. The good news is that the bad things you think about yourself and the bad things other people say about you aren’t accurate. The bad news is that the truth is way worse. It’s worse than you can imagine, because you aren’t smart or creative enough to really visualize how bad it is.

People are afraid to tell you this because they want to be nice, but there’s not much to like or trust about you. Fortunately, there’s not much reason to think about you in the first place, since you are, in truth, a boring and forgettable mediocrity.

There is a voice in your head telling you not to take risks and to avoid putting yourself out there or asking the world for what you need. Listen to this voice. It is smarter than you, and it is trying to protect you from humiliating yourself.

You don’t have any special skills. You are too weak and lazy to put in the required 10,000 Hours To Mastery. Don’t sweat it too hard. Someone else will take care of whatever needs to be done, and that person is more qualified and competent to do it.

The most useful thing you can do is to get out of the way.

Doesn’t that feel good? This worked out pretty well for you, when you think about it. You’re getting off relatively easy. Now you don’t have to do anything. You’re off the hook. You can relax. You can call in sick and stay home. You can go back to doing what you normally do, which is to take up space, behave awkwardly and without charm, and die by installments.

You can make those checks out to “Emerson Dameron.”

People Who Need People

As a condition of employment, I took a creepy personality profile that revealed I am more “people-oriented” and care more about building rapport and being liked than I would like to. If any suggestion can provoke the sort of rage that that one has, and does, in me, it’s a strong indication that there may be some truth to it.

cherry-150077_640I may as well admit that I have always wanted to be liked. There are some people who truly do not care what others think of them, and those people are known as “sociopaths.” As much as American culture may reward and romanticize sociopathy, it simply isn’t available to all of us. Like many, many other people, I am driven to bond, to amuse, and to keep the peace. Perhaps if I liked myself a bit more, I wouldn’t hope for someone else to come along and make up the deficit. I’ll let you know if that happens.

I admit that, in my case, this business of wanting to be liked can get a tad ridiculous. Even as I believe that there is no “self” to transcend, I wonder if my self is adequate, and if I am transcending it correctly. When I look for this self, it is nowhere to be found. But I still sometimes indulge the thought of, if not transcending it, then perhaps trading it in for a better model.

The unfortunate thing about wanting to be liked is that it by necessity requires being more trusting than is sometimes wise. If you want people to like you, your trust will be burned by those people who do not care one way other the other. And you may become bitter, or at least hypervigilant about avoiding further abuse of your trust.

I admit that I harbor some anger toward certain people whom I believe have violated my trust. A very small part of me wants to lash out and hurt someone else in turn. A much, much larger part of me really, really does not want to do that. That much larger part keeps the smaller, angrier part in check by repressing it, which adds to its sense of resentment. Eventually, predictably, I lash out about some inconsequential thing and wound (or more likely simply confuse) some poor soul who had nothing to do with any of this.

The way out of this is to feel that rage fully, as it arises. Pay attention to those sensations as they bubble up and pass away. These are merely thoughts. They need not be woven into some grand and silly narrative about some fictitious person called you and some other bit-player who slighted you in some way. The story is fiction, and neither character is particularly convincing. And that angry cluster of energy will dissipate, given room, for that is what clusters of energy do.

This is not some keen strategy for getting more out of life. It is a simple acceptance of the way things are. At the same time, though, if you’re anything like me, you may find it much easier to build genuine rapport, and avoid being manipulated, if you’re not behaving like a repressed, passive-aggressive basket case.

We try to win over others in the interest of our survival and flourishing. We preceive it as an existential threat when we fear we may be expelled from the tribe. But the tribe is full of people who are just as nutty as we are. That fear is not something to embrace or something to fear itself — it is merely there to be felt. Feeling bonded to others leads to frustration and anger. Feel that, too, fully. And then, for a moment, you may see beyond our day-to-day status angst and kabuki theater and catch a glimpse of our real and fundamental connection.

A Digression on Dreams

I forget most of my dreams, and that’s a shame. Whether or not they’re transmissions from a collective unconscious or simply the brain taking out the garbage, dreams can be at least as much fun as the movies, since they’re at least one less degree of separation away from experience.

I am running around in an MC Escher house. I take an ambitious jump. I wake up in the hospital.

dreamIn my most common recurring dream, I am back in college and near the end of the semester. I realize that I have one class that I have almost entirely forgotten to attend, and the final exam is imminent. I have heard that this motif is rather common and that it indicates that there is something going on in the dreamer’s waking life at that time that warrants closer attention. Maybe something is going wrong behind the scenes. Maybe there’s an opportunity that the dreamer is at risk of passing up.

I am walking through a gentrified neighborhood in a whipping wind. A detached ambulance door flies past, almost hitting me. A calm kid in sunglasses hops on it and rides it like a surfboard.

Lately, I have cultivated the habit of writing down what I remember from my dreams. (I recommend Jeremy Taylor’s book Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill for practical advice on how to do this along with broader observations on why it might be useful.) It only works if I do it within five minutes of waking up. If I think a dream is so awesome that there’s no way I will forget it in the shower, it will be gone by the time I reach for a towel.

A guy takes my picture. I blink. The guy is now out of film.

Few things are as difficult as describing one’s own dreams, and few things are less interesting to listen to. But we spend about a third of our lives asleep. We may as well get something out of it.