Let’s start with the fact that this title is a terrible, terrible joke. But it made me laugh, so it’s staying. See, about two months ago now, I broke three bones in my ankle and tore a ligament, and I’ve been nursing it ever since.
How did I do this, you ask? I really need to come up with a better story, but the short answer is that I fail at walking, especially when gopher holes are involved.
Because of that one (literal!) misstep, I’ve been struggling for the past eight weeks with everything I used to take for granted, especially work. It’s impossible to pose with a broken ankle, but it’s also hard to write while on painkillers, do chores on crutches, or have one foot encased in a ten pound boot, or keep up productive momentum while losing two hours a day to icing and physical therapy.
Let’s just say I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, including my past self. But it has forced me to take steps (I’m not letting this joke go) to reevaluate how I approach my work and my time, and to—yep—get back on my feet.
It took three weeks to get a proper diagnosis and have the foot actually set. I’ll save some choice words about our medical system for another blog post, but suffice to say that during those three weeks I couldn’t get any work done, full stop.
If you’re a freelancer or run your own business, you probably have an immediate sense of gut-clenching dread at the idea of taking an unplanned three-week hiatus. You have to turn down and cancel gigs. Bills pile up. And nothing feels more daunting than a full inbox, stuffed with almost a month’s worth of unanswered emails.
So as soon as I could start working again, I wanted to, well, hit the ground running. I was incredibly behind. But I couldn’t—it turns out healing still takes time. I was left with fewer hours in the day that I could work, and less energy during those hours to use.
At first, I went to my go-to solution: I made lists of everything I “had to” get done and by when. But no matter what I put on a to-do list for the day that was “absolutely necessary,” I didn’t get it all done. I just couldn’t. I finally had to admit that I didn’t have the resources.
I finally came up with a solution. The basic idea came from something I’ve recently harped on at length: triaging obligations and embracing recovery and white space. Doing less whenever possible. It was extremely hard to admit that I just couldn’t do everything, and that I had to choose which of my “had-to-dos” would get done, and which simply would not.
Although I am now healing and writing and even posing again, some of those “had to’s” still aren’t done to this day. Deadlines were missed, gigs were lost, emails went unanswered. I had to come to terms with that as a perfectionist, and realize that even if I was “failing” at getting everything done, the tradeoff was that what I cared about most did.
I’ve talked about these concepts a lot at this point, so I’m not going to bore you with them again except to say that they were life savers. But they also reminded me of an old stand by productivity technique that ended up being surprisingly useful here: reverse to do lists.
Reverse to do lists are pretty simple. Instead of writing down what you want to get done for the day and trying to check all the items off, you write down what you do as you finish it. By the end of the day, you have a list of all the things you accomplished, instead of a half-crossed out mess. If you stay diligent and work to the best of your ability, this list becomes a catalogue of what you’re actually capable of in that amount of time.
It may seem counterintuitive, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed. But really, it’s a recalibration. You can only get so much done in a day (or a week, or a month, or a year, or a life). Focusing on a reverse to do list for a little while helps to show you how much that is—and how much you’re going to have to spread out the backlog. Overwhelm seems a lot less, well, overwhelming when I acknowledge that I can’t fix it immediately, no matter how much I may want to.
Well, this time my stint with a reverse to do list told me a few things. For example: getting my inbox under control is going to take a little while (sorry to anybody reading this who’s waiting for a response, but I did break my leg). But it also got me thinking about my longer-term goals.
I’ve spent a lot of my time setting and going after goals—and bitching about not getting those goals done fast enough. I feel like I’m never accomplishing enough. I should always be further along than I am, as if I can somehow reach the mythical state of “enough.” As if there’s some kind of end in sight, rather than an endless amount of things that I want to do.
Well, post-broken ankle, that just seems silly. What if instead I started looking at my life in the same sort of “reverse to do list” way? What if I stopped thinking about what I couldn’t do and instead embraced what I was capable of? That doesn’t just give me a leg up on my schedule. That also helps me heal my relationship with how I use my time, and makes me a stronger, happier person in the long run.