THE BLOG
08/28/2014 08:03 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2014

My To-Do List Starts With Nothing

Epoxydude via Getty Images

2014-08-22-jumping_lake_470px.jpg

Scattered Post-it notes. Ringing cell phone alerts. Endless lists. Multi-tasking to the point of anxiety. A tight fist in your stomach. Clock-watching at 3 a.m. Get it done. Get it done faster. Can I ever get all of this done?

For many of us life is a treadmill of never-ending to-do lists. There is a mountain of laundry. The house is never clean enough. The dishwasher is crammed with dirty dishes. Work needs massive amounts of attention. Our email inbox is always full. Then there are children -- who require a list of their own. We spend our days completing tasks, only to add more reminders -- seconds later. When do we have time to breathe? When is our list fulfilled? When do we ever feel complete?

I recently spent time with a very successful businessman who had just returned from a "relaxing" getaway to Bali. He was explaining how he could afford the time to travel. He allocates time each day, while away, to work, and have Skype meetings with his office staff. He works throughout the entire trip and he makes sure that wherever he goes, he is fully connected to his life at home. He believes there is too much to do to truly get away, and that this saves him from the anxiety he would feel on Monday, had he not completed his list of regular tasks while on "vacation."

Growing up I was fortunate enough to take a family vacation every summer. My grandfather, father and uncle all worked together and each would leave the business behind for our annual trip. My grandfather's philosophy always was, "It will be there when I get home and I am allowed a break. Being present is what matters now." This was such a gift and the memories I have from those trips shaped my childhood.

But even though I grew up with this ideology it seems today the expectations are greater. Several years ago I was visiting my family in Florida. Out of habit, I decided to check my email midway through dinner. I had received an irritating email from a tenant deciding to suddenly move out of my office. Not only did this ruin my dinner, it also affected my parents. I will never forget my dad's reaction. "Your generation is really at a disadvantage. I never had to deal with emails or work calls after hours. That used to be left at the office. Today you really have to make conscious choices to leave work and all of your responsibilities when you are out of the office or it will always be there. You will never escape." Although I heard him, I did not know how to control it. I mean if I didn't check my email there would be so many more to sort through later!

Although my to-do list often relates to my work, for many, the "to-do lists" do not stop at work. I have a client who literally will not allow herself the time to sit on her couch until her household responsibilities are done. Even though she wants to watch television, and just relax, she gives herself permission to sit on the edge of an uncomfortable chair while watching, so she does not get too comfortable and negate her "responsibilities," like washing the dishes and putting away the laundry.

What has happened to us? Why have we allowed our lives to become robotic rather than organic? Why do we always opt for obligation over pleasure? Why can we not choose us? Why is responsibility more important than sanity? And why can we not find a healthy balance between the two?

It seems many of us have a fear of failing, or not doing enough, or not doing it "right." We are afraid that if we leave that inbox unattended, we will seem irresponsible. If we leave the dishes in the sink for that moment, we are just creating more to do later. If we do not get it all done now, we never will. Says who? If we do not wash that dish at that exact moment we never will? If we do not check email in that second the person will never hear from us? Why are we so hard on ourselves? Maybe if we take a moment for ourselves our email response will be more thorough, and maybe we will not resent washing the dishes.

Years ago I spent time a period of time in Italy. They have an expression, "Il Dolce Far Niente," translated into "how sweet it is to do nothing." But what does "doing nothing" really mean? When was the last time you did nothing? When you woke up and said maybe I will just sit here? Or when you had no plan? Maybe you meandered through a new neighborhood. Maybe you went to the grocery store just to feel inspired -- not to cross off items on your list. Maybe you caught a sunset and noticed it. Maybe you went to a café just to people watch. When was the last time you played?

Of course there are responsibilities that need to be completed. There always will be. But there are also moments to be had. There are experiences that take place in between the bullet points on these lists we create. The lists will never end. But children will grow up. People will move away or leave us. Moments are fleeting. It is up to us to create experiences. It is up to us to find balance and meaning.

Start your next to-do list with nothing, and just enjoy the day.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.