What’s on your list?

Suspecting that my recent trip to Africa would challenge me to change, I took along a book that had been sitting patiently on my shelf — Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More. The 20+ hour plane trip abroad seemed like the perfect time to finally give it a look and hopefully let its words soak in my soul.

The book is divided into 100 little “chapters” (2-3 pages each) in which author Elaine St. James provides practical tips about how to move towards a more streamlined existence. I found several of her pointers to be very helpful, yet there is one in particular that really hit home at this point in time. I’ll share:

#21: Reexamine Your List of Goals

When I made the decision to simplify my life, I had a full-sized three-ring binder time management system in which I had a goals page for each of the major areas of my life, including personal, career, social, financial, spiritual, and civic. In each of these categories I had a to-do list that included projects I thought I wanted to start.

For example, my personal list included the following projects, among others:

Start painting.
Start drawing.
Study landscape gardening.
Learn to write.
Join a choral group/study voice.
Learn Spanish. Brush up on French and German.
Learn speed reading.
Learn flower arranging, especially Ikebana.
Study art history.
Start bird watching.
Study the Middle East situation in depth.
Get into hang gliding.
Start writing letters.
Study screenwriting.
Study filmmaking.
Learn Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata for Christmas recital.
Become a gourmet cook (!)
Learn the basics of interior design.
Learn about growing roses.
Start mountain hiking.

This time management system also included the following: time lines with starting and completion dates and to-do sheets for each of the items within the above mentioned categories; a mission statement; a purpose statement; and a three-page constantly expanding reading list. It also, of course, had a two-page spread for every day of the year on which were outlined the activities connected with my daily schedule. 

Obviously, if I was going to simplify my life, one of the first things I was going to have to do was to reconsider my goals. 

Though it’s difficult for me to believe this now, before I simplified my life I was committed to the idea that I’d eventually – and sooner rather than later – be able to do all the things I had on these lists. 

If you’d asked me at that time what really matters, I’d have insisted that it all mattered. It never occurred to me to give up any of it. 

I look at this list now and I can laugh. The only reason I have the courage to reveal the absurdity of these lists is that now I know I was not alone. There are millions of other people out there who believe, as I did, that we can do it all, have it all, be it all. Or at least do most of it; and who perhaps even yet are carrying around their similar lists – comparable in scope if not in content – in their leather-bound time management systems. 

I know that keeping lists can be beneficial in terms of helping us figure out what’s important. But if, as many of us did, you got carried away with your lists, you may have to reconsider and cut your lists back to more realistic proportions. 

I found this to be an ongoing process that unfolded over several years. I made continuous changes and adjustments to my lists as I learned how to be more realistic about the time we have available and to make wise choices among all the options we have to choose from, and as I got better about figuring out what it was I really wanted to do. 

In the next chapter, St. James writes that her one list now includes only five items:

Spending time with her husband, Gibbs
Pursuing her writing career
Having quiet time alone for her inner work
Spending time with family and friends
Having quiet time for reading and drawing

What a remarkable transformation.

To me, that short list evidences St. James’ humble acceptance of her humanity, and it also shows the serenity and contentment she is now able to experience living in her own skin. Her incessant drive to be more, to do more, and to appear more to others, has been replaced by rest and a new conviction: “I’m enough just as I am today.” Rather than investing her time and energy in self-improvement and self-actualization, she now cares most about cultivating intimate connections through a beautiful blend of quietude and communion. While her simplification process may not have been easy, it sure sounds like its spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical pay-offs are well worth the effort.

What’s on your list?