Why Success Means Never Finishing Your To-Do List

KATHERINE SCHAFLER       August 6, 2018   

Here’s a list of things most people think they should be doing more of, see if you relate to any:

●︎ I should be working out more

●︎ I should be finishing my to-do list

●︎ I should be eating more healthfully

●︎ I should spend more time with my family

●︎ I should wake up earlier

●︎ I should spend more time on my appearance in the morning

●︎ I should watch less Netflix

●︎ I should shave my legs more often

●︎ I should have a cleaner house

●︎ I should spend less on going out to eat

●︎ I should be more present

The list of “shoulds” traps you inside a hamster ball and makes you feel as if you’re scurrying through the day, banging into the wrong choices constantly and having to course correct every ten seconds. Do this repeatedly, and it gets very dangerous.

Moving through your day feeling a constant pressure to be a better version of yourself causes you serious emotional harm.

Moving through your day feeling a constant pressure to be a better version of yourself causes you serious emotional harm.
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Experiencing a chronic sense of inadequacy places you at greater risk for a depressive episode, not to mention makes you more likely to engage in those go-to self-destructive behaviors of yours that not only prevent you from feeling better, but actually make things worse.

Carrie Bradshaw called this habit “should-ing on ourselves.” The slightly more academic version of this tendency was coined by the pioneer of feminine psychology, Karen Horney, who called this “the tyranny of the shoulds.”

Horney supposed that we all carry two versions of ourselves, the real vs. the ideal. Dysfunction happens when the ideal is not seen as an ideal and is instead seen as who you should be. When you forget that ideals are not meant to be achieved, they are only meant to inspire, you basically spend the whole day feeling inadequate and like crap about yourself.

When you forget that ideals are not meant to be achieved, they are only meant to inspire, you basically spend the whole day feeling inadequate and like crap about yourself.
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There are two things to keep in mind that might help you remove yourself from the hamster ball of personal inadequacy, recover from the dizziness and move in the direction of a more purposeful and fulfilling life.

1. Don’t Let Your Real Self and Ideal Self Get Too Cozy

Please keep in mind that conflating your real self with your ideal self reflects a dangerous loss of perspective.

You need to recognize that one is fantasy and the other is reality. Another way to say that is that one is real and possible, while the other one is not.

Instead of conflating, decide that you will err on the side of the ideal self when you feel up for it, and allow yourself to be your real self other times.

But what if I never feel up for it? What if I ignore my ideal self and just live a life of underwhelming mediocrity?

That won’t happen, because of another simple but brilliant psychological truth: you have a natural self-actualizing tendency.

2. Trust You’ll Grow Naturally

Yep, just like the tiny acorn is naturally built to grow into the mighty oak tree, you are naturally built to grow into your full potential.

Just like the tiny acorn is naturally built to grow into the mighty oak tree, you are naturally built to grow into your full potential.
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You don’t have to do anything to make this process happen, except to get out of your own way. Your job isn’t to speed this process along, it’s to make sure the conditions are good so that what’s already set to naturally happen can unfold.

Allowing your natural self-actualizing tendency to unfold looks like making sure you curb the self-destructive behaviors that reverse the self-actualizing process.

It also looks like surrounding yourself with caring, thoughtful people who support you and believe in you. Perhaps most importantly, allowing your natural self-actualizing tendency to unfold entails supporting, believing, and trusting in yourself.

Allowing your natural self-actualizing tendency to unfold entails supporting, believing, and trusting in yourself.
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Trusting in yourself can be surprisingly difficult and requires an inner script of reassurance and self-compassion.

How to Start:

Give yourself permission not to be your ideal self today.

Maybe you have a picture-perfect vision of how ideal you would tackle that to-do list, pull off that 3rd grade birthday party, or navigate a presentation. Yes, use that vision to inspire you, but measure success as getting 80 percent there—not going all the way.

What that also means: Give yourself permission to not feel guilty for not being your ideal self today. As Marissa Mayer has said: “Success is never getting to the bottom of your to-do list.” Why: Because she’s not about doing everything, but about doing what’s most important.

“If I did (get to the bottom of the list) it would be a real bummer,” Mayer has said. “Because think about all those things at the very bottom of your to-do list that really shouldn’t take time out of your day.”

Space will always exist between your real self and your ideal self—the one who gets everythingdone. But that’s the way it should be so we can keep reaching for more but still focus on what matters most.

Space will always exist between your real self and your ideal self—the one who gets everything done.
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Aim high, but let your growth unfold on its own terms. And try to make self-compassion—not self-shame—the foundation of it all. You’ll be suprised at how much lighter growth can feel.

A version of this article originally appeared on KatherineSchalfer.com

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