Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Sept. 23, 2011

To do, or not to do? THAT is the question!

Last Saturday when I awoke, my to-do list began percolating in my brain. First on the list was to take Cookie, our 14-year-old calico cat, to the vet for her annual exam and shots.

The next items were writing my column, sending September birthday and anniversary cards, paying bills and straightening up around the house.

Then my mind drifted to my list of less-immediate projects: painting our bedroom, getting new carpet, landscaping the yard, repairing the deck and others.

Somewhat frustrated by the number of tasks at home, my attention shifted to work. The annual Huck Boyd lecture would be Tuesday and a number of last-minute details needed my attention. Thursday, I would head to Albuquerque to lead a symposium at a national newspaper convention. That involved public speaking - not a favorite task for an introvert like me. And, of course, there were the routine obligations - evaluating student papers and posting the grades online, helping a student with a DVD and others.

By the time I completed my mental assessment of what lay ahead, I was fully awake with a headache and my stomach in knots.

"I hate it that no matter what day of the week it is, I start thinking of my to-do list," I told husband Art. "It seems that I can't ever really relax."

"Take a deep breath," he said calmly. "You know you don't HAVE to do all those things on your list today."

"But it just seems like there are so many things to do and not enough hours in the day to do them," I responded, waving my arms in frustration and flopping back down on the pillow.

"That's just life," he said.

Much as I hate to admit it, he's right. No matter how many things we complete, there will always be more to do.

Art's shift in attitude started the summer before last while we were in Wisconsin. We had a bunch of projects we wanted to do on our cottage, but since it was also our vacation time, fun things were at the top of our priority list. Yet when our time was over, he was surprised to find he had finished all the tasks, but it hadn't felt as if he had worked much at all.

He decided to try the same approach at work. Whenever he became tired of some task, he'd stop and work awhile on something he enjoyed more. He said he was apprehensive he might spend too much time doing what he wanted to do and not enough doing what needed to be done. But he discovered that didn't happen. Instead, he attacked less-enjoyable tasks with such increased vigor that he completed as much in a day as he ever had. The big difference was he enjoyed the day much more.

"I would do well to follow his lead," I told myself.

So I took a deep breath, got out of bed, had a cup of coffee and asked Art to make me his "breakfast pizza" concoction. He fries both sides of a piece of bread lightly in olive oil and then tops one side with shredded cheese. Just as the cheese begins to melt, he adds a thin layer of salsa, and tops that with sauteed orange, green and yellow peppers along with some sauteed onions and a dash of garlic salt. I like it as much for its pretty colors as its taste!

After breakfast, we put Cookie into a carrier - something she resisted mightily. But soon, I was off to the vet's office.

While the vet ran some tests, I began reading the notices about feline ailments. Soon my attention was drawn to a photo of a kitten rolled over on its side with one leg in the air. The photo was accompanied by a quote, attributed to poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire:

"Now and then it's good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy."

I smiled. Was that appropriately timed or what?

I returned home with Cookie and started doing whatever came to mind instead of following a list. I did the breakfast dishes and washed a load of laundry. But I also planted a "baby orchid" a friend gave me and a purple violet that had caught my eye in the store a few days earlier.

Later, I went back into town to run a few errands. I picked up some items I had taken to a local frame shop earlier in the week, smiled as I passed the thousands of purple-clad fans at the K-State football stadium, had dinner with Art and our two girls, shopped with youngest daughter Katie and stopped to see Mom.

Following his own advice, Art had spent a couple of hours scanning a book for his high school class's 50th reunion next year. When he tired of that, he switched to doing family history. Eventually he tired of that as well, so he shut the computer down and asked me to help him finish a repair on our plumbing he had started two weeks earlier. He considered that to be work. For me, it was mindless as all I had to do was hold the flashlight.

After that, Katie, who had come home for the night, and I watched an X-Men movie. It was well after midnight when we all headed off for bed.

Reflecting on the day, I thought about how most of us don't enjoy being told what to do. And a to-do list can easily become a set of orders to be executed. Stopping to do something I enjoy can feel as if I'm wasting time or being irresponsible.

But by giving myself the freedom to do what came to mind next, rather than rigidly following my list, I discovered I had truly enjoyed the day. Somehow, all the tasks I had dreaded seemed far less daunting. And some even became downright enjoyable.

An old expression by Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu says "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." The idea is if people focus on the goal, it can be overwhelming. But if they instead just start, they will still arrive at the destination, but the trip will be much more enjoyable.

I guess my lists aren't much different. Now when I look at an item, I just ask, "to do, or not to do?" That is the question!

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