Should’ve

I had yesterday off of work.

I should have gotten much more done than I actually did.

***

How on earth do people decide what needs to be done? How does one decide what enough looks like? What is an appropriate response to failing to do enough?

These are actually very practical questions. In this regard, I find that fiction — my go-to guide for so many things — is a bit of a failure. In fiction, there is no end. There’s never enough. In fiction you give everything you have until you die, succeed, or shatter.

Which, you, know, is an approach with merit if one is fighting wraiths, leap-frogging a volcano, or stalling the Nazi interrogation team. It’s less worthy when one is doing the dishes or answering email. Pressing onward until one collapses, physically or emotionally, is not a Life-Skills-Plan-A.

So, presuming the emails must be answered, and presuming that they can wait some amount of time equal to X, what is X? How many naps are acceptable in a week? How many hours of television? How much school must be taught, how many errands run?

Is there, in fact, a calculus to balance work done against recreation taken? Is there an equation whose answer is “you have done well; take your earned rest”?

Well, no.

Not really.

***

I am a reformed slacker and procrastinator. I spent until about age 30 avoiding decisions, responsibility, authority, and work of any conceivably avoidable sort. I volunteered for no projects. I headed no teams. I answered no email, I made no plans. It was “see you around” and “we’ll catch up sometime,” it was “sure, maybe, if it works out.”

Something happened, the which precisely I cannot define or locate. Something to do with my kids, I expect. I am now a person who gets things done. I have a convert’s zeal, I know. I try to keep the hot light of fervor out of my eyes when I talk about projects I’m working on or things I hope to do.

If I don’t meet your eyes when I’m talking about scheduling, this is why. My laid-back, casual tone belies the utterly crucial centrality of a schedule in my life.

Yet, as a recovering slacker, I don’t have any kind of sense of an appropriate amount of accomplishment. On a day like yesterday I measure things I did:

worked out
three loads of dishes
showered (which is an accomplishment this week due to the stitches in my finger)
supervised the kids

Against the things I did not do:

answer all project emails
clean the dining room table
deal better (more generously, more thoroughly, more intelligently) with the kids
walk the dog
clean the shelves in my room
clean the kitchen counter
clean the living room
cooking

Against the mitigating factors:

twelve stitches in my left index finger
lingering head cold
fairly difficult parenting weekend

***

There’s a bit in Lois Bujold’s A Civil Campaign, in which Ekaterin is talking to Kareen about adulthood. To paraphrase, Ekaterin tells the younger woman that adulthood is not a prize awarded for being a good child. Adulthood is a thing you just … take. It’s a state you grant to yourself.

“Should’ve” is one side of that grant. “Well enough” is another. There’s no-one to make you do what needs doing. And there’s no-one to tell you when to stop. All there is, is muddle. A jerking stop-start-stop of working, and resting, and getting more done, and falling down the YouTube rabbithole for two hours, and replying to your publisher, and looking up the poem that’s stuck in your head no wait that’s the wrong one after all, and cleaning the gutters and cleaning the garage, and watching all of the Anna-and-Bates scenes from Downton Abbey again, and getting the oil changed in the car and picking up the birthday cupcakes, and staying up until one a.m. finishing the book, and …

And.

And.

Sometimes there’s should’ve.

Sometimes there’s enough.

No-one will ever tell you which is which.

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8 Responses

  1. This is a thing about adulthood which is CRAZYMAKING, isn’t it? I have a vague background looming GUILTWAVE at all times, no matter how productive I have been, because wow, there’s always SO MUCH I haven’t done.

  2. @spuff I know, right???

  3. Yes, this.

    I’ve been making lists to keep track of what I want to do compared to the things that jump out at me around the house. Right now 95% of our stuff is not where it ought to be. That’s counting by boxes. If I was counting by individual items including books it would be 99%. It feels like a giant stick puzzle with lots of ends poking out. Every time I see an end that I can find a place for, I want to grab that thing and put it away. While random organizing does make some progress, it is not the most effective way to attack the problem.

    I have been trying to hit a balance between doing things that are important to life (cooking and laundry), things that move the process forward, and putting away the thing that is poking me most at the moment. I completely agree with you and spuffyduds about getting stuck on the things not yet done.

  4. @Lynn One of the reasons I like UFYH is that they have a sensible 20 minutes of cleaning, 10 minutes of break. And, ohhh, yes, LISTS. I love my lists. Love them. Love them to pieces.

  5. WordPress wasn’t working when this first posted but I remembered to come read it because I’d guessed at what the title meant 😉 I commiserate as you know. Yesterday walking home this new song played: “When we were young, oh oh, we did enough” and then the chorus is “keep your head up”. I liked it.

  6. This is interesting because “should’ve” and lists nearly defeated me. It’s always been the case for me that I could at any time make a list of a good 30 things that I ought to accomplish in the next week – more things than I had any possible time to do, especially if I were to feed my needs for personal time / downtime. It was a constant heavy weight. Learning to let go of “should’ve” and embrace a minimal list of “enough” – am I fed and clothed? have I done my work? good! nothing else matters THAT much – has made me so HAPPY.

  7. I have a folding set of closet doors in my office, it makes 4 columns since each door is in 2 pieces. Voila, 4 columns of to-do list. One post-it note for each task. Leftmost category is “broken, hurting someone, deadline.” Rightmost category is “now you’re dreaming.” If the leftmost category gets dealt with properly, I really just don’t stress about “enough.”

    Especially were I to have twelve stitches in my left index finger.

  8. @Skye oooh, and closet doors leave so much room for scope ….

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