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Cooking Turkey: Accomplishments and the Tyranny of Lists

Recently, Aunt Toby became aware of a movement that seems to be sweeping over the world of Blogistan and that is this business of people’s coming up with huge lists of things that they say they want to do, accomplish, take care of , etc. etc. within a certain period of time.

As the kid says in the old New Yorker cartoon from the 1920s, while poking dubiously into a plateful of something set in front of him, “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.”

It’s not that your dear Aunty does not believe in being organized, or having goals, or even of making lists. I just think that making lists that stretch out aimlessly to a distance of what actually constitutes YEARS has a built in failure factor. The thing that appears to be missing from all of these programs is some sort of moving it back to NOW.

What can I do now? What can I do THIS week and next week and the week after that to get that thing off the damn list?

Your Aunt Toby (and I believe a lot of people are just like me) is really good on what is coyly referred to in golf as ‘the short game’ – getting stuff done now is always easier and actually more satisfying than looking at a whole mess of long term global goals and responsibilities. I once made a list of ‘stuff I want to do’. Better to do stuff I wanted to do now while I still had the health and energy to do it, so I sat down and made this list.

It went on for damn near three pages. Single spaced. Numero Uno was: Learn how to play the fiddle. Guess how many of the rest of the items I got accomplished or even started on?

Yep – zippo. That was 9 years ago. And I’m still taking fiddle lessons and enjoying playing music but I really do feel that I probably won’t be getting around to many of the others. I used to feel bad about that.

The point of making these lists is basically to prevent people from waking up at the age of (insert your lightbulb moment here) and saying to themselves, “Oh, jeeze..I haven’t done anything with my life.” Now, Aunt Toby would never, ever say that to anyone, that they had not ‘done anything’ with their lives. People tend to get caught up in ‘living’ and the stuff they really wanted to do, dreamt of doing sort of got left by the roadside, like so much excess baggage.

And we all tend to cling to our baggage.

Aunt Toby has put a LOT of thought into this whole thing – I am at the age where the horizon in front of me gets a whole lot shorter every single day. What I concentrate on now is this: what is it that is going to make me feel good about me? What is it about me that drives me nuts and makes me feel bad? Everyone is different. For some people, it’s the feeling of being out of financial control, not knowing what they’ve got, being in debt and not seeming to be able to change that. For other people it’s the seemingly endless ability to procrastinate. For others, it seems to be this ability to not be satisfied no matter what they do, where they live, what their circumstances are, or having the fear of taking risks so they do nothing.

For Aunt Toby, it’s the ability to start all sorts of projects that would never, ever get finished. Here is a technique (and I don’t know where it comes from, otherwise I’d give credit where it is due) that I use to organize ideas, thoughts, projects, goals, etc. in a way that breaks them down into chunks that I can do in the short term, in short bursts of ambition (my ambition tends to come packaged that way), and I seem to be able to get more things completed this way.

And that, my friends (as John McCain and Martha Stewart would say, if they were doing this together) is A Good Thing. I always feel better when I can tic one of these items off the list because I know I am moving forward, an important part of the thing is getting done, and I don’t feel like some sort of slug.

I call this technique: The Thanksgiving Dinner Method (you can call it whatever you like). Think about it this way: When we face some huge family holiday dinner thing, we have one goal in mind. Get everything on the table hot, in the bowls or platters, ready to go, AND ALL AT THE SAME TIME. That requires thinking through the problem in this way: Where am I going and how am I going to get there? In the Thanksgiving Turkey illustration, where I’m going is: table all set, and turkey done/sliced/plattered, veggies cooked and in their bowls, salad made, etc. etc. ) and the thought process for how I’m going to get there is this:

1) What takes the longest – if it needs to be all ready and on a platter at 4:00 p.m., when does that have to get put into the oven?
2) What’s next longest and when does that have to get put into the oven (if it’s baked potatoes, I can tell you that in a 325-degree oven, they take a lot longer than they do usually – trust me on this one)?
3) Do I have room in the fridge for a big bowl of salad? If so, then I can make that as soon as I put the turkey in and put that in the fridge. Depending on the time of the year, I can also make it, seal it up and put it out on the deck in the shade or something.
4) When do I start the veggies? If I’m scheduled to dish up at 4:00 p.m., I’d better have the water at the simmer by 3:45 so that they can be done, drained, and in a dish ready to get out on the table in the right time.

So, what does this have to do with your own list which has been staring you in the face for a while and about which you feel rather poorly?

Let’s go back to the number one item on my old list: “Learn to play the fiddle.” Now, Aunt Toby knows herself pretty well – I’m no good at all whatsoever at learning how to do things from books or tapes. I definitely require hands on demonstration, a little bit of coaching and harassment and so on. So, for me that process started as: Find a teacher who is willing to work with beginners. After several frustrating weeks of working with a guy whose experience of beginners was in working with children under the age of 10, I changed that goal to “Find a teacher who is experienced at working with adult beginners.” Whole different ballgame, that was and I found my teacher through contacting a guy who had a radio program of traditional music.

You see, it is not enough to setting down goals – it’s what is going to work for you in terms of how you can achieve those goals. Another example — what I really wanted to do originally was learn to play the Uillean Pipes (sometimes referred to as ‘parlor pipes’), which are the small pipes from Ireland, not the big bagpipes that most of us are familiar with from Scotland). Could I buy a set? Yep – over the internet you can get anything. I asked all over the place for contacts for a teacher for Uillean Pipes – nice try. The closest person at that time is 3.5 hours travel away – one way. I knew there was no way I was going to achieve THAT goal with that sort of barrier. Finding a fiddle teacher was going to be a lot easier – and it was – so that made achieving the goal a lot less taxing for me. It’s got to be convenient. Am I disappointed in myself that I’ll never play the Uillean Pipes? Only a little bit – but a lot of the music itself that is played on those pipes are tunes that I can play on my fiddle – so I’m a pretty happy camper.

Another on-going goal I have is health-related. Aunt Toby hates, hates, hates socalled “New Year’s Resolutions” – they just do not work for me. I don’t even believe in ‘Doctor’s Office Resolutions” – I used to leave my practitioner’s office feeling that she’d hammered me – again – with a list of stuff she wanted me to do about my weight, my exercise, life in general, my medications yadda, yadda, yadda. And I KNEW what I needed to do. And I KNEW that she was right. But I always kept putting off the exercise and other stuff because it just was not convenient to make those changes. So, for years, every six months, I’d go back to my practioner and my cholesterol did not go down, I did not get the exercise, and I ended up feeling like a slug and a failure (yes, I realize this is shocking to read but I’m not a superhero). I also felt somehow I was letting everyone down – and not holding up my end of things for some reason (I’ll have to examine that at some point).

I used the Thanksgiving Turkey program with that, too. I have to go see my practitioner every six months so that she can balance my meds and check my lipids anyway, so I know that I’ve got six months to get the turkey done. And that turkey is: regular exercise. And I know that I have to work that back to right now – this week on an every week basis. I am really no good at exercising at home except that the DH rigged a platform on a treadmill in the basement so that I can put a laptop on it and can do email, blog, etc . while I am walking (you will start to notice a trend here..). I also check the next week’s weather to see if things will be decent enough for me to ride my bike to work (sorry, I do draw the line at riding when it is absolutely awful but that has to do with safety issues). On the days when I can’t ride, I cheat. I carpool in with the DH and I have him drop me off at a point about 20-25 min. walk from where I work. Once I get on my bike or I’ve been dropped off, I’m stuck – I’ve got to get to work, so I have to get the exercise. In other words – make it convenient to do it..or make it really inconvenient to NOT do it. But in the end, it all comes back to working that goal back to right now – this week. That way, the goal does not get away from you and stretch out and out and out until you feel you aren’t getting anything done on it.

What are you going to do this week that will move that goal forward? Research resources where you can take lessons or classes in Mandarin Chinese or Taiko drumming or ballroom dancing and make a phone call to register? Call and make an appointment to have your doctor look at that funny spot on your cheek that is waking you up at night because you are afraid it’s cancer? Take a walk at lunchtime to take care of private banking and get some exercise? Research whether your local area has any musical organizations that you can join? Call your local school district to see if they need volunteers to come help tutor kids in reading and math?

Doing one thing that moves your goal forward is actually better for you and reduces your stress a lot more than making a huge list that you can’t see over the top of. Because in the end, the goal is NOT to make ourselves feel bad because we aren’t doing what we want or should be doing – it is finding ways so that we can. And that makes us feel good.

Much better.
(turkey photo courtesy of tm22)

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  1. Carolyn says:

    I have to disagree vociferously. I made one of these lists a month ago, and I’m slowly but steadily crossing things off, and about 20% of the tasks are things that I do on a daily/weekly/monthly basis. Also, one of the biggest parts of 101-in-1001 is that you recognize that you’ll fail to accomplish a fair amount of what’s on your list; knowing that the world won’t implode if I don’t manage to cross every single thing off makes it easier to get things done, somehow.

  2. Toby Wollin says:

    If it works for you, Carolyn – that is great! I have made lists over the years and have felt defeated a lot of the time. What I’m doing works for me – what you do works for you. Either way, we are both getting some stuff done that we feel is important and that is the important thing.

  3. Shannon says:

    I’m a list maker – always have been, always will be. Although I don’t always manage to make it through the list, checking everything off as I go, I do usually get a bunch of it done and that gives me a sense of accomplishment. I think some people are weighed down by lists and others are set free – I am firmly in the second category. I think it all comes down to your basic personality type – my type is typically the obsessive compulsive, neat freak, organizational wacko type, so it works for me! 🙂

  4. Carolyn says:

    I agree with Shannon, although I’m not particularly OCD or Type A. I think lists just help me put some structure into my day/week/month and help me plan out my life a little bit better than if I were just relying on habit or willpower to get me to do things. If I sit down and contemplate all the things I need to do + all the things I want to do, I tend to get overwhelmed, but if I can look at a list and break things down into smaller, digestible portions, it’s easier.

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