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?