Impossible to-do lists: why magical thinking isn’t a solution.

A few weeks ago I visited my friend at the allotments. Covid restrictions prevent meeting indoors.  That, together with Manchester’s weather meant it could be a while before we would catch up again. This could be the last warm day of the year, and a welcome opportunity for a good conversation.  The leaves on the trees in the surrounding park were turning yellow. A frost had blackened the leaves on pumpkin plants and the vegetable plots were all starting to die back. Winter was definitely on its way.

We sat apart in a sunny spot between two greenhouses and made the most of the chance to catch up. I was telling her that I’d been feeling inspired to write again. I’d started by organising my old notes and articles. I told her I’d been re-reading an article by Inger Mewburn (aka The Thesis Whisperer) when this line hit me:

“We imagine our future self will have the clear calm thinking space that is eluding your present self, but just how realistic is this?”

Inger Mewburn ‘How to stop flipping and write a good to-do list’

I explained that reading this made me realise that I’m doing this all the time. And, no it’s not at all realistic! I add things to my to-do list in the belief that what’s not possible today will be perfectly doable tomorrow. Then reschedule again because of course, when the time comes I’m still not up to tackling them. I’ve been ill for years. My migraines refuse to go away. Why do I imagine my symptoms will magically disappear because I’ve scheduled a task to do? I avoid magical thinking when it comes to treatment options but not it seems when it comes to my to-do list.

A whole list of examples came to mind as I read the article. It was impossible not to laugh as I recited them to Mary. For instance, right now I’ve stopped doing practical work on the house because I’m not well enough. I’m supposed to be thinking about who else I can get to do the work instead. What I’m actually doing is delegating to my future self. In my imagination, she doesn’t have my current limitations so she’ll get on with it just fine! Right now I can’t manage to fill minor cracks in the plaster. But future-me, she’ll be up a stepladder repairing the bloody ceiling! I struggle with discussions on the telephone. Yet I’m happy to stick a long conversation with the builder on my to-do list for future-me to handle. Who’ll find a new bathroom supplier? Future-me! Who’ll turn all those scrappy notes into blog-posts? Future-me will do it! So what if it takes weeks to publish a post now. Future-me will be posting every week (at least)!

Describing my idiotic plans was hilarious. I was incredulous at how self-deluded I’d been. It’s so obvious to me now that those plans were completely detached from reality. I’m very glad I rediscovered Inger Mewburn’s article because it identified the problem for me. Once I could see where I was going wrong I resolved to change.

In my case, it’s not only more time and mental space that I’m imagining for my future self. In my mind, my future self doesn’t suffer from the same health-related limitations as my present self. Instead, future-me is always me on my best days. Sometimes, she’s as capable as I was pre-illness. I was certain that my unrealistic picture of my future self was causing the problem. I needed to adjust my mental image of future-me so that she looked a lot more like current-me does on an average day. I resolved to picture future-me as wobbly, disorientated and fuzzy – as I currently am. She will carry a walking stick, need her rest and get sore and tired. Whenever I add something to mt to-do list want to make sure those expectations are realistic. Future-me will be grateful.

And the outcome?

So how have I been getting on? A few days ago I had the perfect opportunity to put my good intentions into practice. My partner and I had a problem to solve. We need to get a new kitchen delivered to the house we’re renovating. So, what was my plan for dealing with a kitchen delivery that might involve a 12-hour wait at the house? Yes, you guessed. Future-me will do it! Martin had to tell me to stop volunteering to take turns to do things because I just can’t do it. I can see that he’s right. It’s unhelpful to suggest a plan that depends on me being well when I’m spending so much time in bed at the moment. So why do I keep on doing it?

While I failed with my resolution I have been thinking about what’s going on when I can’t resist the impulse to volunteer. It’s partly because I want to take the pressure off Martin. I hate that I can’t share difficult and unpleasant jobs. I know it’s not my fault but I often feel guilty all the same. I don’t like being this dependent on someone else. I don’t want to accept that I’m not capable of things I used to do. There’s grief and disappointment about the life could (or should) be living. In the past, I’ve compensated for feelings of inadequacy with work. Being unable to work brings up longstanding issues around self-worth, fear of rejection and shame. I don’t want to have those difficult feelings. I should have been working out a solution that could accommodate my limitations. Instead, I’ve been adding stuff to my to-do list and making it future-me’s problem.

Changing a habit takes a lot of effort and a long time. My past experience (and recent evidence) says that a resolution alone won’t be enough to undo a deep-seated habit. Especially one that’s tangled up with difficult emotions. It’ll take more than motivation – I’ll need to think of practical ways to support the change. Before I rush ahead it’s a good idea to take a moment and consider whether it will be worth the effort.

Weighing up the pros and cons of changing my bad habit

The consequences of my unrealistic view of what I’ll be able to do in the future:

  1. I’m avoiding accepting reality. This is a problem because it prevents me from coming up with genuinely useful solutions. Until we accept our reality we can’t begin to adapt to it.
  2. It’s not kind. Future-me is me. And she doesn’t deserve to have all these problems dumped on her. Compassion sometimes means doing the difficult thing because we know it’s going to be best in the long term.
  3. Deferring the problem doesn’t remove it. It’s still there unsolved and all these unsolved problems add to my mental load.
  4. Believing I’ll be well in the future might seem like optimism. But unthinking optimism can lead to false hope. The cycle of false hope and disappointment is exhausting.

The costs involved:

  1. Time and effort.
  2. Opportunity cost (while I’m working on tackling this problem I will have to give up doing something else).
  3. There will be some difficult emotions to deal with.

Anything else?

  1. It’s difficult to balance the need for goals and accomplishments with the need to take care of myself. Learning to be realistic when I’m planning and problem-solving could help
  2. Learning to be realistic and cope with difficult emotions is useful generally. Even if it doesn’t lead to symptom relief making this change could be helpful for the rest of my life. , even after recovery (see Pain relief through personal growth on PainScience.com).

My conclusion

I definitely think it’s worth making the effort to change. But is now the right time to work on this? My instinct is to start immediately. But, if I try to change too many habits at once I won’t be able to give any of them the time and effort they need. Instead, doing too much at once will lead to half-arsed attempts that generate lots of enthusiasm at the start but don’t stick in the long run. I’m already working on trying to exercise more, organise my notes and write regularly. I’m also working on improving my eating habits with a self-help book The Compassionate Mind Guide to Beating Overeating.

The first three habits matter but it makes sense to work on realistic planning first. It affects everything else. Improving my eating habits is different. It’s another tricky habit that I’ve invested a lot of thought and effort into changing. Meal planning was going well until recently when I’ve started to slip. I’ll revisit some of the self-help exercises from that book before starting a new project. I’m going to do this because I’d rather reinforce those good habits now than have to start all over again later. As soon as I can stick to my eating plan for five days out of seven I’ll start work on this problem. Then meal planning will sit on the back burner for a while.

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