Few things affect me, and presumably others, like decision making. We’re fortunate to have many of our most basic needs, food, clothing, community, and shelter, met without much overwhelming action. But our genetic evolution has not progressed as rapidly in the last few centuries, leading to an abundance of anxiety over decisions that don’t threaten our livelihood. Optimistically, this is a positive that has given rise to many of the great, ‘unnecessary’ improvements in our lives. Countless technological advancements and social progressions have been made thanks to basic human instincts applied to secondary needs and wants. Reaching my goals does not mean life or death, but simply understanding that fact hasn’t remove the anxiety that comes with the endless choices I can make. Instead, I manage it all with numerous, constantly evolving lists.
When dealing with big problems and tasks, very few things capture my attention. Providing necessities hits deeper in the mind than looking good each morning or feeling fulfilled at work. Staying safe in a hurricane, even getting to work on time to avoid being fired, doesn’t require makeup and the latest fashion. When the basics are on the line, evolution kicks in and decision making is clear. Most of the time, fortunately, this isn’t the case.
Billions of dollars are spent and huge fortunes are made on the back of secondary decisions that we’re lucky to face. But the modern plateau that allows us to strive for a more meaningful existence has created a world of angst fed by freedom of choice. Not wanting to look like a caveman and feeling proud of a day’s work are understandable, proper desires in the 21st century. Marketing teams ride this and beg for our time and money, resources so abundant it’s easy to loose sight of their worth. A day spent on Facebook, watching YouTube videos, or kicking our feet up for a day-long House of Cards marathon probably won’t break the bank or destroy relationships.
For me, no situation makes this as clear as a trip to the supermarket. I’m fortunate to never have spent a night truly starving for food. Instead, I’m constantly looking for the diet that will help me feel, think, and act better than I would on porridge and water. But one step into a giant supermarket, and the simple act of eating becomes a toll on my mind. Thousands of choices, within budget, are at my disposal. Without a well formed plan and understanding of my goals, I cast myself as a pawn in the battle for dollars. Organic, whole grain, cheesy, crispy, or double stuffed. It’s a struggle I didn’t know I faced until I’m walking down aisle five with the frustration of a bad night’s sleep somehow guiding me. I’m looking for satisfaction and buzzwords are guiding my decision. The only way to regain control, to remove myself from the game, lies in my list and the choices I’ve made long before I pick up a basket.
Creating lists has become a constant part of my life. The key to my personal success comes from two main tenants of building lists: deciding my goals independently and sticking to the list. By finding space and time away from all else to figure out what I want from life, I regain control of my time and money. Regardless of my will to eat more vegetables and avoid sugary treats, the warmth and flavor emanating from the cheesy breadsticks at Trader Joe’s is too much to avoid if I don’t have a plan. Sitting down to a morning coffee, I can avoid the tricks, deciding for myself how I want to live and the food I want to eat. I may remember the breadsticks and decide they’re just what’s needed, or even throw a few wildcard snacks to give myself up to the man while I’m shopping, but I’m at least allowing a fair fight with the diet book I was pouring over the night before.
This quiet time to make choices doesn’t only pertain to food, of course. I can avoid unwanted, spur of the moment happy hours or TV binges by making decisions for myself, by myself, clear of influence. The act of sitting down to think through future actions isn’t a time to list possibilities and options, it is the decision making itself. This realization makes adherence to the list far easier. I trust the list because I know and trust my mental state when each item was added.
The easy rebuttal to this crazy, borderline OCD organization isn’t a stress free walk through life where decisions are made for me. Drinking beers on a Tuesday evening instead of going to the gym isn’t going to relieve my problems by letting me float through life with ease. I’ll still wake up Wednesday with a throbbing headache instead of a lust for life. I’ll feel far more stressed than thinking about a few goals while drinking those beers.
The proper rebuttal is that spur of the moment choices are fun. Choosing to go out on Tuesday evening might not be the best long term plan, but when a college friend arrives for only one night, skipping the gym is a must. But these spots are exactly where a list is crucial. Waking up Wednesday, still with a headache, I’m not afraid that I overlooked something important and don’t feel overwhelmed because there’s too much on my plate. At least I can see the plate. I may have to stay late at work or prolong my workout goals, but that choice was made before I stepped into the bar the previous night. I can sit down in the morning, sporting a nice hangover and satisfaction of having caught up with a friend, and reorganize to reprioritize. I make plenty of decisions that act contrary to my goals. I can’t go through a week in New York without a few unplanned trips to the bagel store and a spur of the moment, mid afternoon slice. But without goals, how could I possibly weigh the impact? Instead of mentally preparing for a meeting while hung over, I would avoid thinking about the impact of a few drinks and be scrambling to play catch up. No one can be expected to be perfect all the time, but ignoring the impact of decisions is unnecessary.
I write lists frequently. Several times a week, I’ll write the days goals on a small notecard and stick it in my back pocket. I might not finish each task that day, usually grabbing yesterdays card and reading through the unchecked items while drinking a coffee. I write lists on the weekends, thinking about bigger goals and building my daily lists from there. I write lists before new times in my life, new jobs, new locations, new seasons. My folders, both physical and digital, are filled with previous priorities and plans, rarely completed in full. But sitting down and prioritizing, on my own time, seems to set my mind at ease. Because there’s a million choices out there and I’d prefer to make them for myself.