I am a close friend of the “To Do” list. My work space is home to assorted spiral notebooks, paper scraps, and post-its, and it gives me great satisfaction to outline my tasks – all of them, as many as I can think of – and march through them, crossing them off as I complete them. Although I recognize the value of online task managers, and use them professionally, it will never be as much fun to click a check mark on a digital list as it is to carve a check mark into a paper list and then scribble-obliterate the item beside it.
But today, the sun is shining, the house is mine alone, and I am observing a pause in the domestic and creative frenzy that is my daily life. Today, it is time for the “To Don’t” List.
On such a day, my instructions to myself, in no particular order, are as follows.
- Don’t wake up in time for anything.
- Don’t eat lunch at your desk.
- Don’t vacuum. Don’t.
- Don’t get a jump on Monday. If you must jump, go outside and jump in the grass.
- Don’t make telephone calls. Your telephone is also observing a “To Don’t” Day.
- Bless it.
- Don’t sort closets, coffee tables, kitchen drawers, desk tops, or book ideas.
- Don’t read a single page you can’t get through without exhorting yourself to pay attention.
- Don’t forget to feed the fish. [Not everything can be part of a “To Don’t” list.]
- Don’t read the news.
- Don’t enter any space, virtual or real, in which you might read the news by accident.
Of course, a “To Don’t” list is more apophatic than the human activity it’s meant to inspire. I can’t cease existing for the day, nor do I want to. It is only an exercise in removing myself from the deep ruts of habit and responsibility. I need and respect these ruts. But I also need the space outside them.
Because I exist even when I lay the ordinary aside, I replace everything I’ve removed with that “To Don’t” List. Yes, that means I am writing a “To Do” List, but as you will see, it is not the kind you’ll find on the paper pile around my desk.
- Sleep until you wake.
- Eat when you are hungry.
- Go outside.
- Look out of windows.
- Enjoy the deep quiet.
- Be present, but remember this, too, will pass.
It will pass. I am an energetic adult. I am responsible for work, and I love my work. Work is part of my meaning, and I treasure that. A “To Don’t” List can never be permanent, in the way that a “To Do” List can. If I’m responsible for painting the deck or submitting a manuscript, the tangible outcome of those accomplishments will make a mark on my world that I will see for days to come. Whereas I can only look out the window for a time. That moment will end. I will step away from the window, release the day dream, open the door to the returning voices of my household. I will stop saying “don’t” and begin again to “do” the parts of my life I took exception to for this set of hours.
But the effects of this day I’m spending in the peaceful sunshine of imagination and stillness will linger with me. I will have strength for the journey, food for the thought, creativity for the tasks that return to me, because of this day I spent away from the working world.