Forgiving Yourself for Not-Done To-Do’s

“Congratulations,” a colleague told me yesterday.

“For what?”

He smiled and pointed at the cloudless blue sky through the window behind him. “For surviving the winter.”

His statement implied two things: that it was no longer winter, and that I had survived.

Cherry blossom trees on Washington, D.C.'s tidal basin. Photo courtesy National Park Service.
Cherry blossom trees on Washington, D.C.’s tidal basin. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

I do not consider myself a person of weak constitution, but I have spent more days over the last four months fighting various viral and bacterial infections than I have not. I am just now recovering from a bout of laryngitis that, when I was able to form audible words, made me sound like a child predator.

It turns out I was not alone this winter. Wall Street Journal reporter Sumathi Reddy faced the same struggle, but she went and documented why so many of us struggled with a great article titled “Sick Again? Why Some Colds Won’t Go Away.”

I entered this winter with great plans. I had new creative writing pieces to draft, others to edit. I had high ambitions on submission plans for completed manuscripts. But I also found myself struggling to get out of bed, and then to formulate complete sentences in my mind. That coupled with something I’ve already chronicled on this blog, my struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Somehow I managed to keep up a reasonable blogging schedule during the illnesses, but a lot of to-do’s went undone.

I suppose my colleague is right in saying I survived, because I am here now writing this post. But is the winter truly gone?

I’ve told myself that it is. On Sunday I took my fast-growing teenage son shopping for some new shorts. We found a few pair, but had to navigate temperatures in the 30’s and a bitter hailstorm that left store parking lots filled with icy slush. Yet while my colleague was commenting on yesterday’s blue skies and relatively warm weather (highs in the 60’s) my son was playing basketball with friends in one of his new pair of shorts. Has this winter-spring swing that keeps recurring finally stopped on spring?

As I write this ode to a spring-that-I-am-desperately-trying-to-manifest-with-positive-thinking, my whiteboard wall looms behind me. There are far too many tasks related to my art-committed life that do not yet have black dry-erase lines through them. But I must allow myself to accept that, and look forward. I can dive into that to-do list this weekend.

But perhaps I’ll also take a moment to join the throngs of tourists that will be descending upon us here in D.C. for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. A live cam of the tidal basin shows the blossoms are not yet here, but the National Park Service thinks they’re only days away. I’ll be more productive with my creative time if I also allow myself to enjoy the spring once it’s finally here, yes?

53 thoughts on “Forgiving Yourself for Not-Done To-Do’s

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  3. Aaaaah, to-dos… the bane of every creative person’s existence, I reckon 😉

    Be kind to yourself, Patrick. You’ve just come through a grotty winter and all sorts of nasty-sounding ailments (never realised you had such a bad time with laryngitis, hope you’re feeling better now.) Sometimes I wonder if illnesses are the body’s way of saying “okay then, if you won’t slow down and take it easy for a bit, I’ll MAKE you do it.” I certainly only seem to come down with all sorts of lurgies when I’ve finished a load of jobs and am about to plan a ton of stuff to fill up my downtime…

    I’m really hoping the winter’s over too – bored with floods and galeforce winds now. You can never be too sure in the UK though – I don’t know what it’s like in DC, but over here it’s not unusual for us to still get heavy snow in April. (Although admittedly by that I mean ‘UK heavy,’ which is “oh my god it’s nearly up to people’s ankles, stop all public transport and tell the nation to barricade themselves indoors and burn all their furniture for warmth we’re all gonna DIIIEE!!”)

    But take the time you need and don’t feel bad about the pace of ticking off those to-dos, whatever that pace is. Even a sloth gets the stuff he needs to do to be a sloth done. 🙂 And there’s no way you could ever be as flaky as a friend of mine who takes longer to write out his to-do lists than he ever does to do the items on it. The day I saw him write “15 – find my to-do list from yesterday” was the day I had to suggest that “mate, I think you need a better system.”


    1. Love the to-do anecdote! I suspect I have occasionally added “Rewrite my to-do list,” which is also a bit meta (as things get crossed out and added it can be harder to read).

      I know a bit about UK winters. It was when I was living in the UK in the winter of 1987 that I discovered I had SAD, although I wasn’t diagnosed formally for another 10 years or so. I’m actually working on a personal essay about that experience. Yes, you don’t get a lot of snow, but there’s rain, and of course all that cloud cover.


  4. Mythoughts76

    What does a “child predator” sound like? That a creepy way to describe yourself even in a joke! I know, I know.. you’re a creative soul.. but really! ; ).

    I have lived with Chronic laryngitis for 2 winters in a row, about 10 years ago. I couldn’t yell in anger anymore when my son or husband upset me, (teenaged boys have a lot of angst and stuff, my husband has no excuse for egging me on) . Every time I did I strained my voice box over and over again. First I had a cold, then post nasal drip.. before I knew it I had a sore larynx and the post nasal drip and constant straining of my larynx cause damage to it. Over the years all I have to do is yell a few times too many any my voice is cracking.. the weakness is there waiting to cause a new strain. That whole winter (I had it for over 3 months) I couldn’t raise my voice in anger, and believe me I had a lot to yell about.. ANYWAY, did I learn to NOT raise my voice in anger when my husband and son manipulate me into defending myself? NO! And I do know how to meditate and clear my chakras, yet I don’t do that often enough! (Look I was raised in a house full of yellers, it’s hard to break the habit!) Am I boring you yet? Sorry but I DON’T ‘digress” (I hate that word!).. All I have to say is.. light up that SAD lamp and get out and exercise somewhere to get rid of that monkey on your back!


    1. You know, I found in raising two children that sometimes you could get your point across most forcefully when, while they’re anticipating the blow-up, you take a deep breath, look directly at them, and then speak sotto voce. So laryngitis is perfect for that! But wow, two winters in a row. My spell was only for a couple of weeks. The tough thing is that my day job requires a fair amount of talking. People in meetings would say, “Oh, don’t worry, don’t talk,” but then they’d need an answer from me! 🙂

      As to the monkey on my back, I’ve written a bit about monkeys, which one reader told me is my spirit animal. So I’ll get him off my back and hang out with him instead. Maybe we’ll play some basketball.


      1. Patrick, if it ever happens again, and laryngitis rules, can you hook your computer up to a large screen of some kind and TYPE your answers? 🙂 Just a thought—well, if you’re a pretty fast typist 😉


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  6. Seems to me SAD is on the increase – I wonder if this is yet another effect of climate change? I also find that I suffer more in early spring now than in what I used to call ‘winter’. However, I’ve managed to steer clear of colds & flu this time, so many commiserations to all of you who have succumbed. These irritating illnesses that just won’t go away can wear you out mentally even moreso than physically, I think, because you keep beating yourself up for losing productivity & momentum.


    1. Interesting point on climate change. It’s the same old thing for me, overcast days, but there’s so much more volatility in weather now that I could see that having a negative effect on mood.

      I realize now I had several winters in a row where my health was pretty good, like you apparently had this winter, and so I should be glad for that, and hope for its return next winter.


  7. Patrick, I think this is an unfortunately common problem *sigh* And the more creative, the longer the lists! Of course, anyone with several children has pretty long ones, too! For years I’ve had To-Do Lists that make WAR & PEACE look like a post-it note, so…*sigh*

    Of course, my To-Do Lists have long been flashing neon signs in my head—relentless beasts. The only list that’s relatively easy to check off is a grocery list. Other than that, it generally takes a lot of time to check things off lists, especially when many of those things are big, time-consuming projects. It’s been years (I think 7 or 8) since I’ve been trying to settle in and write my novel series. I’m finally on what APPEARS to be the cusp of that endeavor, I’m happy to say, but life is one virtually-constant detour. There’s nothing we can do about it, either, when unforeseen circumstances throw up roadblocks. We can only do our best to steer ourselves through the detour.

    This winter’s been a rough one, with strains that don’t want to let go 😦 I got a bout of flu-turned-bronchitis that only recently seems to have lifted. Easily, it lingered for 2 months. Got me quite concerned at one point, hoping it wasn’t becoming chronic in the process. I was incapacitated, too 😦 Initially, I wasn’t able to work on a revision of a storybook I wanted to submit, or the query for a specific agent, or work on my blogs so I can launch, or any of those type things on my lists—things that required some measure of brain power (which I already lack!). After a couple of weeks of also not being able to form a coherent sentence (like you), I had to pick something to TRY and accomplish ’cause it was killing me thinking of so much wasted, precious time. Ultimately, I picked a big project to drudge through, and though it took me longer, it got done (having been strewn about my living space for over a year). Big thing checked off a list, regardless of its ranking in priority.

    Though not in the order and time we’d prefer, things DO eventually get done when they are things of importance 🙂 In fact, often times it is those delays that are ultimately beneficial, even when we see them as the opposite. Over the past few years, I’ve seen that come to pass, many times over. Not to say it’s not still frustrating when things get in the way of my plans, but it’s helped me “let it go” much more quickly and easily 🙂 We want as much control over our lives as we can have, but acceptance of the reality that we have control over little is key, I think. Whether we like it or not, there are only 24 hours in a day (oh, I DO hate that) and we’re fallible humans, often disrupted by distraction or disturbance. A quote that always comes to mind (which you’ve all heard before), which I long credited to John Lennon, but actually originated with Allen Saunders, is:

    “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”

    Great post, Patrick (as usual) and I’m really enjoying the comments, too! 😀


    1. What a quote! It reminds me of one from a 1980’s movie called “The Sure Thing”: “Spontaneity has it’s time and it’s place.”

      So sorry for the rough winter you’ve had. But you’re right, we do get done what needs to be done (eventually). I’m not happy to be told I can’t have complete control over every aspect of my life, however. Nooooooo!!!! 🙂


  8. Hear! Hear! Patrick, get out there and smell the roses. Your ‘to do’ list needs to be flushed down the toilet. It’s stopping you. Time to turn the page and start afresh. Hope this spring is great for you and your creativity gives you pleasure. B


  9. I’ve managed to stay healthy and feel I’ve had a fairly productive winter. Look at it this way: beautiful weather is just another distraction. Crummy weather? Less distraction! Wishing you a productive spring.


  10. “I’ll be more productive with my creative time if I also allow myself to enjoy the spring once it’s finally here, yes?”


    Once an activity becomes an item on my to-do list, all the joy is sucked out of it. It sounds like it would help for you to reconnect with joy, and delighting in the signs of spring is a great way to do that. Then you can reconnect with the joy in your creative work and get more done in less time because your efforts will be coming from a place of enthusiasm rather than obligation.

    When spring arrived last year, I was still actively grieving my mother’s death. I felt a huge resistance to the beauty of spring because the external world was so at odds with my internal world. I even wrote a poem to Spring that ended with, “Stop being so lovely outside.” But Spring was not deterred, and eventually that sense of beauty and renewal got under my skin. It can take a little time to let an emotional winter go, but it sounds like you’re ready to do that.


    1. Sue, what a powerful comment. Thank you for sharing the mindset you were in last spring, and the (understandable and misplaced) anger you felt. Along with your explicit message, you’ve also reminded me that I could have far more serious challenges in my life than a scratchy voice.

      I hope you’re feeling charged and ready for spring, physically, emotionally and spiritually.


  11. Yes, by all means take some time to enjoy the spring! As for that pesky to-do list, I make an effort to put fun stuff on mine in addition to the non-fun things I must do and even the semi-fun things I want to do. Somehow, putting “Read a novel” and “Walk the dogs” and “Schedule coffee with [insert friend’s name here]” on the to-do list and then marking them out with a black line when I’ve done them really helps me feel like I’m being productive.


    1. “Read a novel.” Yes! You know, on a side note, it’s been hard for me to read much this winter because my concentration level has been lower. Thank goodness for audiobooks–I listen to them during my commute–but many things I’d like to read are not available in that format.


  12. pjreece

    I feel sorry for all you people who live in places that have “weather.” We don’t have weather here on the west coast of the great Northwest. Clouds just are. Drizzle just is. Four degrees Celsius is just what it is (which is about 38 Farenheit, I think). Too warm to skate, too cold to swim. But just right to write and perfect for drinking coffee and making ‘to do’ lists. And remember, there’s another place on earth where they don’t have weather — the tropics. Gringos living there too long yearn for a dark dank day to hunker down into forced reflection upon the meaning of life. Maybe that’s it… come April, we’re fed up with meaning. We want to do something bacchanalian… in the sun! Oh, look… I see a dim orb-ish glow behind that dome of gloom. Yes.


    1. I grew up in the Arizona desert–where Jessica, above, lives–and while I certainly bitched about the summer heat and the August monsoons, what just is there is bright blue skies. Mmmmm. Perfect for lounging by the pool and reading a good novel, perhaps by a Canadian living on the west coast of the great Northwest.

      I’ll see you at that bacchanal, PJ.


  13. As someone with a chronic illness, I think the top priority item of any to-do list should be “Roll with the punches.” You never know what your body will allow you to do, and every day is something you co-create with it in a brand new way. It sounds like you’ve done a fine job of rolling. (Of course, rolling with the punches doesn’t mean you don’t actually feel them…)

    The second item on a spring to-do list — especially after a long, weary winter — should be “Enjoy the cherry blossoms.”


    1. Stacy, I too have chronic illness and couldn’t agree with you more as far as rolling with, of course, your PERFect statement in mind: “Of course, rolling with the punches doesn’t mean you don’t actually feel them…”


    2. Thank you for this, Stacey. As I told Sue above, one thing that I’ve learned from writing this post and reading the comments is that I should probably just man up and be grateful for how good things have been for me with my health overall. I admire your persistence and perspective regarding your condition, and offer my sympathies and support.


  14. I’ll be visiting my daughter in the DC area in a few days, so I’m glad to hear the cherry trees are about to bloom. Since they were a little early here in Western Washington, I’ll get a double dose of cherry blossoms.

    We had an easy winter–no snow that I remember. But being even farther north than you are, we never get much sun in the winter. I’ve been looking into taking more vitamin D3 to make up for the lack of sunshine. We used to live in the tropics, and it seemed we seldom got sick there. (Of course, I was younger.)

    Best wishes with your to-do list. Stay well and enjoy the cherry blossoms.


    1. How fun that you’re coming out East! It has been alternately cloudy and sunny lately. We had a hailstorm Sunday and 70s today. I expect more schizophrenic weather in the coming weeks but yes, you should get a second dose. I went past the Tidal Basin today, as it happens, and saw no blooms, but there is a tree in my northern Virginia neighborhood that has just started to bloom.

      Have fun!


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  16. Perhaps have another whiteboard with the heading “Congratulations! Done today” On bad days I even included “got out of bed, ate breakfast” or “made basin sparkling clean”. So even if I haven’t managed anything else, I have managed SOMETHING!


  17. YES! Cherry blossoms are essential… I’ve been really trying to get out and do things to inspire me. It’s been (still is) a long winter in Maine. One of the coldest ever. I’ve been fortunate (*knocking on wood*) in the colds department but it’s been a tough winter in other ways, so I hear you. Here’s to a rejuvenating spring and not worrying on bit about the to do list!


    1. Glad you were okay on colds, Julia, sorry it’s been rough in other ways. As to the blossoms, they’re just starting to peek out. I’m thinking this coming weekend may be the time to check them out.


  18. I’m so sorry you suffer from SAD, Patrick. Though I was never formally diagnosed, I experience the same lethargy and mood changes with lack of sun/gloomy weather. In fact, it’s one of the key reasons I moved to Arizona (after counting 35 straight days with no sunlight, thanks to our Lake Erie-effect weather). Living in a sunny climate has helped me, personally, immensely with creativity as well. So, I say – YES – get out and see the cherry blossoms. You never know in what ways they’ll inspire your creativity, and, as you say, the TO DO will be there when you get home, all refreshed and rarin’ to go!


    1. I think we’ve discussed before your move to AZ (from PA, correct?) and what that has done for your mood and overall well-being. My wife and I will likely spend New Year’s in Arizona (we anticipate we’ll need a run to the sun then) but I don’t see moving there any time soon; our day jobs are tethered to D.C. It’s overcast and rainy today, but this last weekend was sunny with clear skies and I spent a fair amount of time outdoors soaking it in.


  19. What a great post…I feel like the more detailed lists I make, the more concrete the goals are, the less I complete; it goes something like, I fall just 150 words short one day, which discourages me, so I fall 500 words behind the following day, and snow ball….

    I am quite OCD though, so a few bullet points to guide me through a project is absolutely necessary. It’s a tough balancing act.


    1. Do you do NaNoWriMo? I never have (but it usually seems focused on fiction, and I write creative nonfiction) but I’ve always wondered if it’s like a crash diet, where if you fall short a couple of days you can actually find yourself bailing, so it runs the risk of being a negative for a few?

      Oh, and you don’t have to answer this, but are you diagnosed OCD, or is that a shorthand for how obsessively you approach projects? I ask because I’m writing a personal essay that involves in part our use of diagnoses in language in ways broader than their limited medical application (it’s a personal essay, I wouldn’t be mentioning you, just curious to see examples of where this happens).


      1. The only time I finished a novel it was during NaNo. It’s an interesting process but the quality definitely suffers. That said, you are totally right; 1200+ words a day or whatever it is, is hard enough. Fall short one day and the next day is essentially impossible.

        I am not diagnosed OCD, but it’s more than a shorthand. My mind is excessively fascinated with numbers and words and I’ve got a litany of rituals that prevent me, at times, from leading a normal life. These obsessions manifest during the creative process, but more so during editing. I understand what you are saying though, and I could see myself falling into the “broader OCD realm” when it comes to my writing.


  20. Patrick, enjoying the cherry blossoms could be inspirational, as well as healthy, for you. 🙂 Check out this interesting abstract on how spending time in nature can positively impact both the mind and the immune system. Happy Springtime to all…

    “In Japan, a forest bathing trip, called “Shinrinyoku” in Japanese, is a short, leisurely visit to a forest; it is regarded as being similar to natural aromatherapy. This review focuses on the effects of forest bathing trips on human immune function.”


    1. Patricia, I agree with this thinking (though my allergies keep me from being able to do this). People are meant to commune with nature and…there’s just something about trees… 😀


      1. You might read up on quercetin, in some people it diminishes the inflammatory response in allergic reactions.

        I’ve started walking 20-30 minutes a day, even if the weather isn’t the greatest. Sometimes I get a lot of new ideas and other times my mind is blissfully quiet.


        1. Patricia, thank you for mentioning quercitin. I’ve taken so many supps over the years, often forget what which ones are good for and can rarely tell if something’s helping : / I also can’t afford all of them. It’s an ongoing problem (along with lots of others! lol). I’ll look at it again, though, to refresh myself now that you mentioned it 😀 Thank you!


  21. Don’t worry, I think that spring is finally here. Even though the days will not all be sunny and warm, it has arrived. This is a perfect opportunity to celebrate art and nature. As far as the blossomed cherries, I have taken a look at a couple of pictures and found them incredible. I hope you went to see them.


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