Or, How To Let Problems Take Care Of Themselves
People often ask me, “How come you always look so calm and centered? I’ve seen your desk and it’s piled with stacks of bills, manuscripts, clown noses, leftover food containers, plumbing parts … I just don’t understand how someone with so much on their plate can approach their life with so much serenity. What’s your secret?”
Years ago I was like most people — stressed out, continually late, a full agenda with no place to park. I spent my day rushing to solve one problem only to find two more cropping up before I was through. I had two jobs, with barely enough time in between them to drive home for a few hours of shut-eye before I was stuck back in a morning rush hour traffic jam. Yet I was still falling behind in my payments, in a constant state of dishevelment and confusion, hyper and exhausted at the same time.
Then, almost by accident, I discovered a basic principle of life that saved me from a nervous or physical breakdown. Because I was trying to do more than was humanly possible, and therefore running so far behind schedule that I’d never be able to catch up, eventually a natural consequence occurred. Some of the things at the bottom of my to-do list never got done. There simply kept being more urgent things that would get added to the top of the list. Eventually the portion of the list that had some of these delayed action items got lost, but I didn’t even notice. I just kept scrambling to catch up. Then one day I stumbled upon that lost part of my to-do list, and as I looked at each of the undone items, I realized something profound. I didn’t need to do any of them anymore! It was either too late, or the problem had taken care of itself. Even though I had done nothing, I was able to cross all these projects off my list.
I thought about how hard I would have had to work to take care of many of these to-do items. For example, one of the projects had been to rebuild the carburetor of my car. But subsequently I’d lent that car out to a friend who had gotten into an accident and totaled it. I’d already collected the insurance money and gotten a new car. If I had been conscientious and fixed that carburetor, my friend would still have totaled the car, and the result would have been the same, except for the hours of painstaking work I’d put into rebuild the carburetor. By not doing anything, I’d saved myself tons of work and wound up with the same totaled car. What a revelation! Think of all the time, effort and mess I’d saved!
Or how about my gardening project? I’d intended to dig some beds in my yard to plant a garden, but never had the time to do it. Then one day, my sewer backed up and it turned out I needed to have the plumbers come and dig up my entire yard to replace the sewer pipes. If I’d had a garden planted there, they would have destroyed it. Instead, by procrastinating, they wound up digging up my yard for me. By the time they were done all I need to do was hoe for a few minutes and then stick some tomato and pepper plants into the ground.
Then there was the table that I had promised to build for my girlfriend. But before I got around to it, she dumped me for a furniture salesman. So I was really off the hook. I let him worry about getting her a table.
Once I began to see the pattern emerge, I started to have a different attitude about my to-do list. Instead of rushing around trying to take care of everything at once, or working feverishly to finish things before their deadlines, I decided that a far better tactic would be to only do the things on the list that I really wanted to do. I would pick the item I most wanted to do first, and then work my way down the list of favorites. Now each project I worked on made me happy and I didn’t want to rush to finish it; I wanted to savor each experience. The rest of the projects on the list would just have to wait, either until I was inspired to work on them, or until they became obsolete, impossible, or morphed into something more fun to work on.
OK, there were some consequences. I lost one of my jobs. But I never really liked being a pet food taster to begin with. I was only test tasting Fido’s dinners to try to get ahead on my various payments. Now I was forced to downsize because I could no longer afford to have a castle with a moat and drawbridge, equipped with cable TV in every room, including the dungeon. But, the truth is, I couldn’t afford all that even when I had it. Instead of working my butt off to try to pay for a life I didn’t have time for, I found that I had plenty of time to enjoy the life that I could afford. The more I simplified, the shorter my to-do list became and the more time I had to create a to-do life. I stopped making a list of what I wanted to do in the future and just did what I wanted to do in the moment.
So you’re right, my desk is a mess. But I can still find what I need when I need it. It’ll be exactly where I last left it. Occasionally I will dig into the bottom of some of my piles, kind of like an archeologist doing an excavation of an ancient civilization. The civilization of the old me. Usually I’ll find some long lost project, the reason for which I can only guess at, that doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. Into the recycling bin it will go, to make room for something more exciting on the top of the pile.