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  • Jess Hutchinson

The Simple Pleasure of Achievable Goals

My husband and I are taking a quick tripligation (obligatory trip. please clap.) this week to his home state. We're leaving tomorrow afternoon, and before my friend who is also my neighbor and our cabysitter (cat sitter when your cats are also your babies. I'm here all week.) comes into our home, I needed to hide the evidence of how we really live so that she won't think less of me. By which I mean, I needed to tidy up the apartment.


a white board checklist with all the tasks checked off
well begun is, as they say, half done

I was keeping the tasks in my brain, when I had the presence of mind to jot them down on our kitchen whiteboard.


And then, Reader, I did the things. Yes, there were only four of them. And yes, there are a variety of other tasks that would be welcome additions to the constant project that is "keeping a nice house."



But and also - creating a more exhaustive list would have, probably, been counterproductive. I'm reminded of one of my very favorite Hyperbole and a Half comics. Maybe you know it/love it, too.


The tl;dr of that comic is the rush of achieving a bunch of Adulthood tasks is soon replaced by the understanding that those tasks are ongoing."It's like I think that adulthood is something that can be earned like a trophy in one monumental burst of effort and then admired and coveted for the rest of one's life," Allie writes. And that's when her brain rebels. First by still doing the things, but more reluctantly. Then, by not doing them at all.


My brain, in all of its Socialized as an Overachiever glory, has a hard time with "good enough." It also has a hard time with overwhelm and failure and fear of rejection and tends to power off if it senses that we won't be "exceptional" at whatever it is we're going to do. Even after four decades on this planet and marrying the world's (objectively - it could be scientifically proven) Most Supportive Partner, I still have a lot of self-worth wrapped up in my actions and attributes being appraised as Great. So, if even the potential for failure is peeking up over the horizon, my brain sounds the alarm. It would be better to conserve our energy, it says. Make base camp here. We'll try to excel again tomorrow.


What my little whiteboard to-do list is making me consider is the disconnect I experience between an exhaustive plan and actual progress. Don't get me wrong - your girl loves a plan. Failure to prepare is preparing to fail, etc. But - maybe writing a to-do list that overheats the nervous squirrel who lives in my skull isn't planning - not really. A cruel thing to call it is "an excuse" - a more compassionate take is that in an attempt to be so good, so thorough, such a productive little achiever, I'm actually doing the opposite of creating a vision for the work ahead. I'm expecting perfection from myself, even in the phase where we just write down all the tasks. If we can't get a perfect list of tasks, and then if we can't do them all, perfectly, right now? Why do any of them at all? We can't fail if we don't try.


So, maybe if you, like me, have a brain that cos-plays as a feral cat with a PhD in self-sabotage, I suspect you are more capable of completion than you think. Maybe your list is too long, too complicated, too overwhelming for anyone - even a smarty pants like you - to complete. Maybe see what happens if you shorten the list to what feels essential: for housework, work work - all the kinds of work you're working on.


Also - the checkboxes are important. After I checked the last box on my list, I said aloud, to myself - "Good Job." And I actually meant it. And that, I think, means something, too.


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