A Completionist’s Reckoning

Relaxation does not come naturally to me. In fact, it seldom comes at all.

Today is a sterling example of that. It’s Labor Day, a day that is for the express purpose of relaxation and enjoyment. I’m in my house, alone. My wife is traveling for work, our oldest is away at college, and our other three kids are with their parents. I have no responsibilities. And yet, upon awakening, my mind begins its ritual of organizing what need to be done. Task after task fills the list. Within the first few minutes of my day, before I have put my feet on the floor, I have a to-do list. It is in my nature to want to complete things. Not just tasks, but most everything in my life is done in pursuit of completion of some sort.

To that end, I am a utilitarian at heart. Things should serve a purpose, and ideally multiple ones. For instance, how I dress and what clothes I purchase. I have four pairs of shoes: sneakers, work shoes, flip flops, and boots. My sneakers are combination of running and hiking shoes, a sort of cross-trainer shoe. My work shoes are, as their name implies, for work or if I have a need to dress up. Flip flops are for summer. Boots are….well, boots. Each shoe has its purpose. Beyond that, my shorts tend to be cargo style, for the obvious reason that they are versatile. I have two pairs of jeans. I can wear them to work, so again, multi-purpose. My shirts are geared towards comfort and the ability to be worn for a variety of occasions. My wardrobe is built to help me accomplish tasks.

My utilitarian bent pervades my life. This makes it even more difficult to appreciate the moment; any moment, really.

Parenting is like this for me as well. Instead of reveling in the glorious chaos of my teenagers becoming adults, I tend towards extrapolating out their current behaviors into their adult lives. Believing that nearly everything is a life lesson, and it’s my job to imbue those lessons to them. Another box checked.

Even with things I enjoy, I invoke my need to accomplish things. Video games have been part of my life since I was a child, and I still play quite a bit. Except now there are achievements to be had and challenges to complete. My brain simply cannot resist that beacon. As a result, games are not as fun for me as they used to be. When I play multiplayer with friends, I’m able to wrest my attention away from the list of things that are in need of doing. Happiness comes back to me in those games.

To say that me checking off things off my mental checklists is an obsession is a massive understatement. I keep believing that if I just keep plugging away and finish these inventories of jobs that are needing done, then I will find peace. The truth is that list never dwindles. I keep adding in more things to do. I am Sisyphus, and that list is my rock.

Stepping back from this way of living (and it clearly is that, since it rarely cedes control), I find this to be a rather sad system to navigate my days. It’s devoid of presence. I realize this mode of thinking has caused me to miss real moments with family and friends. I could have been engaged. Instead I leave that precious time to figure out ways to make it conform to my endless list.

I am aware of this glaring flaw, but I’m unsure what I can do to strip out the wiring of completionism that has governed me for so long.

I find that meditation helps…if I can force myself to stillness long enough to utilize that tool. Being motionless, coupled with the necessity of clearing one’s mind, feels antithetical to me. Worse, it makes me feel lazy. Even if logically I know this is the sort of self-care I need, conditioning rails against it.

As I age, this has escalated. My hourglass is closer to running out than beginning, so I dread leaving things undone. When I should be embracing the tiny wondrous snippets of life, I choose to plunge forward with yet another task. Why can I not simply enjoy the excitement of something happening in my children’s lives that has them giddy? Or sit in the breeze on the lovely patio we’ve created without plotting what’s next? To sit with my wife without searching for an activity to take me away from her?

Can I even do such a thing as nothing?

Certainly, there are times where I can do exactly that, but they are fleeting. It is never long before my hardwired tendencies overtake me again. Perhaps, I need a wire cutter. New breakers.

Whatever the solution, I hope I can find it soon. My time with my kids grows shorter. The world is opening up for them in many ways, and I want to share in that with them. I can’t do that if my mind is on that hill, stubbornly pushing a boulder that will roll back down.

Photo credit: Rajnish357