Do you have a to-do list? Of course you do. Mine currently has 38 things on it, one of which is to send out this newsletter. (Click. Send. Now down to 37!)
If you’re feeling stressed or in a rut, your instinct (like mine) may be to hug that to-do list. To use it as the narrow path forward. To believe that the things on this list represent the wall between you and a clearer head. It shall guide you, you think! It’s the thing you wrote yesterday, which is here to serve you today!
But of course, we are not just here to build for yesterday. (Check the name of the newsletter.) And this means that, while everything on our to-do list may be important, the actual to-do list may not always be so helpful.
So add this to the list: Forget the to-do list.
Then make sure to do it. Because sometimes, you must remove the stuff you should be doing to make room for stuff you’re excited about.
Why? Let’s start with this question:
I learned the phrase “desire bind” recently, as I researched what boredom is for my podcast. I was curious about whether boredom is actually good for you, as so many tech critics claim like this:
Their belief is that phones inhibit us from being bored, and being bored is natural and good. But it turns out that, if you talk to boredom researchers as well as emotions historians (as I did), this narrative is not really true. Boredom is complicated, and people have been trying to escape it for thousands of years.
But as I explored the subject, I got to wondering what boredom actually is — from a scientific perspective. Dr. John Eastwood, who runs The Boredom Lab at York University, offered an explanation: “We would define boredom as this uncomfortable feeling of wanting, but being unable to be engaged in satisfying activity.”
Consider a six-year-old: They will say “I’m bored,” even though they’re surrounded by a roomful of toys. And they're not lying. They really are bored. Why? Because they are in what Eastwood calls the desire bind. “The bored person desperately wants to be doing something,” he says, “but they don't want to do anything in particular that's available to them in the moment. So they can't muster up an actionable desire.”
This, Eastwood says, creates the sensation of boredom. “It's as if they have brain power that's sitting on the shelf and not being used. And this feels really uncomfortable.”
As I heard this, I realized that it describes more than just boredom. For people who define themselves in large part by their ability to accomplish things — like I do, and as I bet you do — the simultaneous desire and inability to accomplish things can feel crushing.
That's why, when we're in a rut, our response is to beat ourselves up for not being able to pull ourselves out at will — which, in turn, sends us into an even deeper rut. It’s like a crisis of agency: We lose touch with our capacity to think about the future, to develop plans, to monitor ourselves and regulate ourselves as we engage in a plan — which is why I suspect we fall back on the to-do list.
At least that list, it seems, has some guidance for us.
But what if we need something else instead?
A few months back, a woman I know was struggling to find excitement in her work. When the weekend rolled around, she’d try to take her mind off things and read a book or enjoy something on TV — but every time she turned a page, she remembered how guilty she felt about how little she’d accomplished the day before. So she’d try to chip away at the backlog.
And then — who hasn’t had this experience — she went on vacation and came back like new.
"A week in the mountains sort of healed my brain,” she told me.
She stopped trying to tackle her to-do list, which enabled her to actually start enjoying the stuff not on that list. She enjoyed a good book, which had nothing to do with her work. She spent time thinking about things she hadn’t thought much about before. She gave her brain a chance to break the desire bind — and to engage with new desires. As a result, she said, she came back more energized for her actual work, including tackling stuff on the to-do list.
Without clearing the mental space to sink into those ideas, she would still be sitting bored and anxious at her desk. In other words, removing the "stuff I should be doing" was the key to re-orienting her brain around the stuff she was actually excited to think about.
I’m no brain scientist, but I suspect that our minds are kind of like an attic: You go to pull something out when you need it, but the more clutter there is in there, the harder it is to find what you’re looking for. Sometimes the piles of stuff are so daunting that you just give up and go downstairs feeling defeated. It’s only when you take everything out that you can access what you need seamlessly and move on with your day.
We all get bogged down in our own to-do lists, sometimes to the degree that they bury whatever actually gets us going. That’s not to say we can just ditch all the un-fun tasks that keep our lives moving. That would be irresponsible. But what we can do is make space in the calendar away from the hum-drum day-to-day to let our minds be completely free and pursue whatever happens to interest us at that very moment.
In other words, like I said above: Put "forget the to-do list" on your to-do list.
Those sparks of excitement in your free time are more than likely to come back around and jazz up the work you’re not intuitively excited about.
It doesn’t need to take a whole week for you to top up your brain battery. Just build in a little time every week to turn your “should” impulse off. It’s not a guilty pleasure. It’s necessary.