As an adult, I’ve never had much trouble understanding that mistakes from the past can’t be changed. The present is really all we have to work with when it comes to building the future. You can’t fix what happened before, and you can’t re-do what’s already been done. Simple as that.
Of course, things aren’t as bleak as that might make them seem. Because while you can’t re-do what you already did—or go back and do what you didn’t do—you can try again…
…and you can try something different. It still won’t change the past, but it may well change the future. And that’s where the smart money is anyway. The past is for memories, therapy sessions, and historians. Not for living in.
I had no problem understanding all that when it comes to mistakes and misdeeds. As ol’ Jukebox Jenkins used to say, “once the groove is in the record, the song is gonna play”.
That’s because our actions impact the world around us and other people, often leaving a permanent trace. (Just ask anyone who knew me during college.)
(Also, I made up Jukebox Jenkins.)
But for whatever reason, it took me nearly 20 years to accept the same premise when it comes to my to-do list.
You’ve heard me refer many times to my “backlog” of papers and recordings and dreams and plans—and that’s exactly how I’ve thought of it. Since shortly after I left college, I’ve thought of myself as being “behind”. That’s always had a growing physical component (papers, files, notes, and eventually recordings, videos, etc.) and an accompanying abstract/mental component (my to-do lists, both written and imagined).
Both of those elements of my former backlog had been growing bigger for basically my entire adult life. And not at a normal pace, either—at a ”building the world’s largest to-do list” pace.
It was like a petri-dish experiment gone awry, where the scientists come to work one morning to find their little culture is now towering over the entire building, a seemingly unstoppable mountain of shadowy goo.
It was several years ago now that I had my own “unstoppable mountain of shadowy goo” moment—though unlike with our scientists, it wasn’t an overnight revelation. My experiment had been growing gradually and visibly, and when it finally blocked out the sun it was no surprise, because it had been casting a longer shadow with each passing day for the better part of a decade.
My self-imposed “burnout” was in recognition of the problem, as was my post-burnout quest to simplify my life, and even the launching of this very column. All were (at least in part) efforts to curb and/or control the looming shadowy presence of behind-ness that greeted me each morning and followed me around every day, weighing me down and blocking much of the light in my life.
But fortunately, like a scientist, I too have the capacity to suddenly see things in a different way, and to make an amazing discovery that helps avert a catastrophe. And like Jukebox Jenkins, while I can’t regroove the record of the past, there’s nothing stopping me from just laying down a whole new track.
Translation? I’ve simply decided to be caught up. (Ta-da!)
The final straw came a few weeks before my recent house disaster, when circumstances forced me to confront the most physical part of my backlog—boxes and boxes of old papers, files, memorabilia, and whatall. (Lots of whatall.)
When I did the “backlog” math that I’ve done so many times before, the results came out much as they have for a long time:
Time to clean up physical stuff + time to clean up digital stuff + time to fully integrate entire massive to-do-list = potentially forever
And as usual, I couldn’t see how I would ever get caught up on that mountain of past stuff, so that I could really start moving forward.
Here’s the thing though: I don’t mind work. I don’t mind having a lot of stuff to do. Almost all of what I have on my own plate is there by choice—even the stuff that’s been dogging me for all these years.
I very much want a life full of challenging things to do. So in theory, having umpteen gazillion to-do items shouldn’t be a problem, right? That thought was nagging me. Why were all these things that I want to do such an annoying and imposing presence in my life?
Follow-up question: Why/how did all that stuff from the past manage to not get done, year after year, while I have no problem diving into new tasks on a daily basis?
Ding! Lightbulb moment. The stuff from the past is strangely hateful and doesn’t get done, but new stuff is exciting and hope-full, and some of that actually does get done.
So in a span of about 5 seconds, I solved a problem that has been casting a shadow on my life for more than a decade. The biggest existing problem in my life, in fact. And I didn’t even have to lift a finger.
The solution? Take the giant backlog container in my brain, and move it from the past into the “new tasks” area. Cross out “backlog” and re-label it “to archive and integrate into to-do list”.
It might sound crazy, but that minor mental re-organization made a dramatic difference, immediately.
I think it goes to what I said at the outset: you can’t change the past—so if there’s something in your life you’re trying to work on, fix, finish, or whatever, labeling it “the past” is not going to help. It could even keep you stuck in a seemingly unsolvable dilemma, for a long, long time.
Because there is nothing you can do about the past. You can’t change what you did do, and you can’t do what you didn’t do. As Jukebox Jenkins would have said if he existed, what’s done is done. And what’s not done can only be done in the present or the future.
Luckily (said Pollyanna), it only took me about 15 years to finally untangle that knot and realize I could just decide to be caught up, and bring my “backlog” to the present where it belongs. My old papers have been reduced by at least a third since then, and the rest have lost their power to haunt me. Instead, they bring me joy and excitement, like a good new project should. And I’ll never again get as “behind” as I was before. The days of shadowy goo mountains are a thing of the past…and that’s where they’ll stay.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have college notebooks to sort through. And a box full of contact info to type in. And a ton of old greeting cards to probably throw out. And photos to scan in, videotapes to digitize, cassettes to give away, newspaper clippings to archive…
Mmm mmm mmm…I love me a nice fresh to-do list!
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