Or, how I discovered the mindfulness of the infinite list.
This post is illustrated throughout with projects we made at our annual family and friends craft retreat a few weeks ago. I’ll tie that in later in the post.
I’ve struggled on and off my whole adult life with a problem that boils down to this: there will never be enough time in my lifetime to make everything I want to. Much less will there be enough time to learn nearly enough new skills, or to read everything that’s so good, it might change my life.
I used to have a fantasy that if I could cut out all time-wasting activities, I’d have time for everything I on my love-to-want-to-do list. I really, really hate to break it to any of you who may be still thinking about this, but it won’t work. I got rid of the low-lying fruit a long time ago: I haven’t had TV since college, and one of the few benefits of being one of the millions of Americans paying too much for bad internet is that our connection is way too slow to spend hours watching video, or even reading content-heavy pages online. I fully support giving up time-sucks, but it’s sad and true that no matter how much you cut out, all the good stuff still won’t fit in.
So sad, right? Although, I do agree, as elegantly put in this article from the NPR blog, that it would be so much sadder if humans hadn’t produced more beautiful ideas than I can take in in one lifetime throughout all of our history so far.
After I figured out that no matter what, there would still be more lovely projects to make and music to listen to and books to read on my list than I could ever get to, the idea simmered on the back burner of my brain, sometimes seeming as if I had things under control & was making good progress, and other times like my available time was a thing with wings, or fangs, chasing me, or flying away at warp speed.
Then, just a few weeks ago, we had our annual craft retreat of family and friends, hosted at my house for the first time. I had a classic moment of semi-panic as I suddenly saw through the eyes of these people who I wanted to think well of me, some people who had never seen my house before, and my yard looked like a redneck junkyard in-the-making … I consider myself a decent housekeeper, and I did make an effort to get some stuff out of the yard on our last trip home … but there was this moment, about two days before the first arrivals, when I looked around and realized I could clean the house non-stop, without sleeping, until everyone got there, and still be seeing deeper levels of dirt, areas I had missed.
That’s when I got it. It’s not that the list is longer than I can ever hope to finish, it’s that the list is infinite. There’s a freeing, meditative aspect of mindfulness to the infinite list. Since it’s not just unlikely, but actually impossible, to do everything on an infinite list, any infinite list, a certain amount of letting go is perhaps an inevitable next step.
I’m still looking around in this infinite-list paradigm, getting my bearings. A few consequences that seem important have occurred to me so far. Priorities, for one. Since I can spend an infinite amount of time cleaning the house, I have to choose to stop at some point, even though of course I want things to look nice. As a guest, if I could arrive at either a house with sparkling windows, or one containing delicious homemade ice cream, I’m wouldn’t hesitate to pick the latter option. Your choices might be different from mine, but we all get to choose which of the current available options is the most important to us.
Since my to-do list is infinite, it makes more sense than ever to block out time for the things I love, which would otherwise get immediately buried under the small mountain of tasks I “should” do every day. Back around the time I gave up TV, I decided to pencil in an hour a day for myself to sew, and I was fairly astonished at how quickly I finished projects. I have more to-dos now than I could have imagined in college, but I’ve also realized that if I work on only one thing all day, even something I like, my brain slowly turns to mush over the days and weeks. Plus, the feeling of getting further behind on my personal goals really starts to drag me down.
I need a little “fun” creative time, and a chance to explore new ideas, to keep me happy. I reinstated the practice of giving myself an hour a day to work on whatever I want, regardless of whether it’s likely to ever make me any money, a few years ago. It’s a huge and immediate boost to my life satisfaction. If you can’t spare a whole hour, even 15 minutes a day can give you enough time to make progress on anything you’d like to fit in (Mark Frauenfelder of Make magazine says so, and I’ve seen a lot of sewing bloggers trying it out in the last couple of years, particularly after this post appeared on The Coletterie).
The infinite list only beefs up my justifications for scheduling my “free time”, since it makes clear that the time when I “don’t have anything else pressing to do” won’t ever come. I must choose to make time for the things I love, rather than waiting for the time to appear.
Perhaps the most freeing thing about meditating on the infinite list so far, is that since there’s no pressure to finish the list, it’s easier to give myself permission to to pay attention to what’s happening in the here and now, and to take care of some things right away. Or just to appreciate a lovely moment, rather than always focusing on the tasks already stacked up from yesterday.
Overall, I’m feeling pretty stoked about this mental shift from the incredibly long list to the infinite list. I’m hoping that it will help me focus on the things that are most important, leave some room for spontaneity, and let go of some of the unreasonable expectations I tend to hold over my own head. Sounds pretty good, right? What about you, any thoughts to add from your own experience?
You are so right, Tasha. All of life is like sitting meditation; our mind wonders, we gently bring it back to the breath, let go and are for an instant sitting in this moment….content or wriggling. Thank you for your eloquent reminder to focus. Having grown up with a mom that had infinite lists, I’m grateful that you also remind me that thoughtful, playful connection is equal to window washing. You and Bryan are wonderful at this. Perhaps of all things, that is your foundational pratice. I love you both so.
Thank you so much for you sweet words! You’re exactly right about the meditation I feel. I’m not sure how good at it I am, but I am trying… We love you so much too!
Amen, sister! What an incredibly liberating paradigm shift! Love your posts.
These are such wise words! I’m a serial list maker (of impossible, insane, ridiculous lists) and it’s so freeing to think that it’s OK that I won’t ever get everything done. Such a great way to think about this! In a similar vein, a few years ago I was telling a friend about how I just felt like “there’s more out there and I’m missing out on it!”, but didn’t want to live my life feeling discontent. He replied that those feelings are biological and evolutionary- they’re what keeps us moving forward as a human race! All exploration, all growth, all change comes from feeling like there’s more out there for you to experience than what’s in front of you and there isn’t time enough to do it! It was really freeing to realize that to a certain extent, we’re wired to want to experience more and do more, all while feeling that our time is limited. Pretty interesting, isn’t it? Thanks for this lovely post!
That’s a really good point—that we need to feel like there’s more out there in order to keep exploring and growing! Another reason not to worry if there’s things left on the list. Thanks Ginger!
Pingback: Weekend Reading: “effortless” beauty, infinite lists, and the Myrtle sewalong | Coletterie
Thank you for this post. As makers and creators, there really is never enough time to do it all. I’m a knitwear designer and I feel this is a particularly sensitive subject for me. While makers can do something that has already been created and put their mark on it, as a designer, the process is much longer. I have so many ideas! Sometimes, it is just too daunting to choice the best or my favorite and I end up designing nothing. I need to just let go and be a little less analytical and obsessive with the ideas sometimes.
I totally understand what you mean! I design a lot of the clothes I make, and even just doing it for myself I’ve definitely had to accept that I have more ideas than I can possibly ever make. I sketch a lot of ideas, and I’ve decided it’s Ok that some will just be a sketch and that’s all.
First off I am stunned/happy/rather jealous that you have family that gets together for CRAFTS! What a joy. Such a lovely post and I had to laugh because recently my best friend of 32 years was coming to visit and I spent almost a week cleaning and still felt like my house with dirty. As if she doesn’t have a clue as to how I’d rather sew/knit/do anything creative than clean. Oh, I like a clean house I just don’t want to take the time away from the good stuff.
The list is endless. This is a good thing. What a wonderful thought.
Thank you! And even though I’m the first to say that I have the BEST family, I think our experience in DIY craft retreat is something that other groups of friends/family could replicate … maybe a series of posts about it would be a good idea?
Love this post! Thank you. We all need to make time to do the things that make us happy and put the fun stuff on our lists.
Hi, a lovely post. I’m probably a little older than some of your readers and when I retired early I was eagerly anticipating trebling my crafting output. I had so many embroidery designs to sew, so much wool to knit up and then I started quilting. My lists seemed to grow and I started to panic: why? or who was driving this? Answer, only me. About a year ago I had a mind change. I realised that if I lived to be five hundred years old I would never get to the end of the ‘infinite list’ which existed in my head.As we are also downsizing it spurred me to free myself of ‘stuff’. Most of the wool went and tons of habby and I feel better, not having to deal with it. Now I only pick projects which I like and satisfy me, not that I feel I ought to do. My infinite list stays in infinity. I’ve learnt to ignore it most of the time and I live more in the present and am much happier as a result. Sending kind and calm thoughts to you and your readers and having found your blog I will follow it.
Pingback: Second Look Sunday 3 August 2014 | Ask Sarah
Pingback: I made this for you! | Maggie Makes It Better
Pingback: The infinite list: Fall 2014 version | Maggie Makes It Better
Just found your blog and enjoyed the musings. I am a constant list maker but a couple of year ago I started a parallel list that only has things I have accomplished, that way I can look at one with checks and exclamations instead of tasks not crossed off. I am a 4-5 grade teacher and we have started doing something called genius hour in my classroom, 1 hour a day where the kicks pick……anything! Things they want to learn, make, research, create. Sewing machines hum, wood being carved, animals researched, games created. It’s is the magical part of our day.
Thanks for taking the time to leave your thoughts. I like the idea of celebrating with a list of things you’ve accomplished. Sometimes I’ll feel that I haven’t gotten too much done in a week, but if I look back over what I did, there’s actually a lot.
Even more I love the “genius hour,” and that you’re doing it with kids! There are a lot of days when thoughts of what I’ll do with my free hour get me out of bed and moving. I need that magic to motivate me.
Pingback: On Scheduling Less | Stale Bread into French Toast
Pingback: Our Relationship with the Tangible World, or How I Learned to Spin | Stale Bread into French Toast
Pingback: Slow — What it Means to me Now | Stale Bread into French Toast
Pingback: DIY Fabric Shower Curtain | Stale Bread into French Toast