At the tail end of 2016, I was faced with a lot of uncertainty and a lot of impending new-ness that was still foggy. I was interviewing for a job that seemed a really promising prospect. David and I were planning to move in together, which meant moving out of my state for the first time in my life. Moving to New York City and starting a new job would have shook up pretty much everything about my life, but without anything certain, I couldn't picture or plan for more than a day in advance. I was used to planning weeks, months, years ahead. And that was a big, terrifying problem for me.
I made plans for things like what my financial priorities would be when a full-time income kicked back in, what my days would look like when I started living in NYC, what my days would look like when I started working in NYC, how to deal with David traveling four days a week for work for a length of time to be determined, how to find a studio to practice and teach in, how to juggle marathon training around all of that... I had plans A through G written down so that when any one was set into motion, I could spring into action. I wouldn't have to make snap decisions, I wouldn't have to act without really thinking things through. (Because I have historically been the type of person who needs to really think e v e r y t h i n g through, no matter how small its true impact or risk.)
Except it never, ever happens like that. It never had, and I was clinging to a method of planning that had never actually been useable, and that I was desperate to make work because I was afraid to explore an alternative where I had to make quick decisions or adapt to changes as they came.
I had a 101 in 1001 list where I kept goals like "PR the marathon," "Travel to the Pacific Northwest," "Start an investment portfolio," and "Read every book on this list." I kept fierce track of the list, updating it more often than it needed updating to indicate whether something was completed, in motion, or—shocking—if I had a plan for how and when to accomplish it. Updating an item as "planned" gave me some false sense of progress. I wasn't able to yet make a thing happen, but I was able to fill it in on the calendar with some imaginary dates that maybe I might possibly perhaps be able to take a trip, want to read that book, have enough money to reach that financial goal. Because as I saw it, planning was almost as good as actually doing.
But I had an awakening brought on by a confrontation where I was forced to take a series of big decisions one step at a time. I was trying to make a plan for something that was five steps ahead, in an attempt to avoid feeling anxious about the first five steps that I couldn't control or couldn't put in motion just yet. It was the emotional equivalent of digging my nails into my palms and turning my knuckles white in an attempt to hold on as tightly as I could to the illusion of control. About two months ago, I finally let go.
I have been easily tagged a Type A control freak for as long as I can remember. It's not just because I'm organized and color-code my Google Calendar and have more spreadsheets than any reasonable person needs and organize my bookshelf in a very specific way only I can understand and have never gone running without some method of tracking the data. All of those things are true, but none of them harmful. My insistence on being one step ahead in The Plan—it was harmful. My insistence on having a massive list of "goals" and running to do, to buy, to research lists that were forever growing—it was harmful. It just took me until two months from my 28th birthday (the 29th of this month, for anyone following along at home) to realize it. Here's why it was harmful:
It stands to reason that a person obsessed with this type of planning and tracking gets some fulfillment from accomplishing such tasks and putting said plans in motion, right? Of course. Well, the inverse is also true: The more boxes I left unchecked, the worse I felt about myself and the harder it became to continue on, to feel accomplished in any way, to feel motivated to try again or keep trying. I was draining myself of confidence and self-worth by maintaining a life on paper that I just wasn't in a place to enact in real life.
Here's the thing: I realized my 101 wasn't much of a goal list. Not in the way we really talk about *goals* for our lives. It was a long to-do list of things that I once really wanted to or thought I could do in a reasonable amount of time, that I no longer cared about making a priority. Either that, or I realized I didn't need a damn spreadsheet to get them done or hold myself accountable to them. Facing that list plus the many, MANY others I had outlining if/then steps and benchmarks and deadlines I had to constantly adjust to make up for the fact that my career was on hold became an exercise in self-torture. Seriously—I would open up the lists a few times a week and just stare at them, wondering how I would ever accomplish the things on them. I felt like a failure.
Until it dawned on me, over a series of conversations, journal entries, and list reworks, that deleting these lists was just as much in my control as creating them had been. Deleting the lists that served only to highlight the ways in which my life has gone off the course I had once imagined it on was the first best thing I did for myself in a lonnnng time. I wasn't a failure if I didn't hold myself to a to-do I wrote down a year and a half ago. I was a person who had lived through a series of big changes in a year and a half, a person with more information and insight than year-and-a-half-ago-me had. A person capable of assessing the situation and making a better decision today about where I am today than I had been many months ago.
Just from January through now, I: didn't get the job I was up for, went over a month without the phone ringing once, was put in a holding pattern as we waited to hear about our top choice apartment, had a procedure knock me out of commission (and emotional stability) for a few days, traveled to D.C. for a few days, and then moved to a new (and rather famously unforgiving) city. I was still unemployed and freelance income started to trickle, rather than stream in. I fell into a downward emotional spiral. My grandfather died and I had to go back and forth to NJ for a week. I went almost two weeks without following my marathon training plan. I was absolutely out of control of my own life, and for the first time ever, that fact wasn't yet another brick on the crushing tower of guilt and self-flagellating thoughts I buried myself under.
This week, I realized something: it's working. Not in so many words, I made a resolution this year to loosen the reigns, sit back and wait and watch a little bit, and continue to aggressively pursue only the things that were true priorities AND that would only benefit from my unrelenting charge. I decided to take things as they come, make the best decisions I can when I am actually presented with them and all the information I have at the time a decision needs to be made, and feel something other than heart-crushing uncertainty or self-hatred when timelines around me slowed or decisions came back in a different way than I wanted them to. Holy crap, it's working.
That's what I thought to myself this week as I arrived (99%—I still haven't pulled the trigger, but mentally I have) at the decision that I wouldn't run the marathon in April like I'd been planning. I'll drop to the half and sign up for a fall marathon. My training had fallen apart and rather than force myself to cram three months' worth of training into two and quite literally punish myself with the pain that comes from doing so, I made a decision that is actually in service to myself and the place I am currently in. A year ago, I couldn't have done that.
Another fun thing that's happened? Since I deleted all those lists I used to stare at and "update" or rework for hours each week, I have a lot of free time. Enough that I find myself actually feeling bored, which is pretty challenging when you live in New York City. I decided to pick up crocheting because I need something to do with my hands now that I'm no longer furiously typing on my lists and spreadsheets or journaling excuses for my failures.
I changed my idea of what a goal should be, and the difference between identifying life goals, writing a life plan, and writing a to do list. I still have a to do list, but it's made up of tasks, not accomplishments. I have a loose outline in my mind of a life plan that involves finding a job I can do and doing it well, being a good girlfriend, sister, daughter, friend, and making a positive impact on the world while I'm here. I wrote down in my journal some life goals that include my version of financial freedom, work/life balance, and happiness at home. But there's not a lot I need to keep written down, because I've eliminated the physical and mental clutter and noise and the NEED to hold myself on-paper accountable to the time I said I wanted to visit Yellowstone. I really don't think I'll forget to visit Yellowstone or run another marathon if I don't keep it on a list in Google Drive.
There are still a lot of things up in the air, and I will have to make some big decisions soon. Decisions that are going to have a big impact on my life. Previously I would have agonized over every possible circumstance and outcome so that when the time came to make the decision, I would "be prepared." (Spoiler alert, I still never felt prepared.) So now I'm waiting for the time to decide to come. And anxious as I am to get a few shows on the road already, I feel more at peace with myself and the path I'm on than I have felt in as long as I can remember.
I guess that's what letting go gets me.
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Note: This is 0% a commentary on anyone's version of setting goals, writing plans, or keeping a 101 in 1001 list (or whatever). This is my personal journey of finding myself trapped in those things and then finding my way free from them. If your 101 in 1001 keeps you happy, rock on.