Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My wish list

Note: No, this isn't going to be another post about holiday shopping.

I carry a little notebook around with me in my purse. It's not exactly a diary, since I don't write in it every day: it's more a place to collect and save thoughts that happen to pop into my head at any moment. I use it to keep track of expenses on trips and cribbage scores when we play in coffeehouses (without a board); I make notes in it of e-mail addresses and interesting quotations that I'd like to remember and observations that I might like to discuss later on this blog. Most of the things in it, however, are lists. As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I'm a major fan of lists—lists of every kind, useful and otherwise. In fact, just to illustrate the point, here's a short list of some of the lists I have in my notebook right now:
  • Good chorus songs (for pub sings and round robins)
  • Things I'd do if money were no object (this list may become the subject of a future post, but it's not the one I'm discussing right now)
  • Best commercial jingles of all time
  • Things I associate with summertime
  • Green businesses in my hometown
  • Things to look for at yard sales
  • Questions to ask the landscaper
One of my favorite lists, however, that I refer to often and re-start every time I switch notebooks, is called, simply, "Things I Want." Some of the items on this list are physical objects, like a new pair of shoes (acquired) and a new fruit tree for the front yard (pending). Others, however, are wishes for events—things that I'd like to achieve or have happen, like "I want my foot to get better" (following a diagnosis of plantar fasciitis. It's nearly there.) As each of these wishes on my list is fulfilled, I check it off rather than crossing it off. That way, I can see not just what I still want, but all the things that I have wanted recently and gotten. This can be very a comforting reminder at times when it seems like nothing is going right.

Now, some of the items on my list are goals that I can work toward, like losing weight or creating a website for my business. Writing down personal goals is a popular motivational technique, recommended by health textbooks, life coaches and folks who live in the self-help section of the bookstore. The idea is that having your goal written down, in a place where you will see it often, keeps it constantly in front of you and reminds you to keep working toward it. However, I also make a point of including some items on the list that aren't goals—things that are pretty much guaranteed to happen with no effort on my part, like "I want spring to come." This may seem kind of pointless: after all, if spring is going to come anyway, what's the point of writing it down?

For me, the answer is that a lot of my personal goals—like New Year's resolutions that keep showing up year after year—haven't been reached yet, and in fact, haven't moved forward much at all. If my list includes "I want to lose fifteen pounds," then seeing that item on the list regularly can remind me of all the things I can do to make it happen: skipping seconds at dinnertime, passing up desserts, exercising more, and so on. But I also know that, if I adopt one or more of these strategies, there is no guarantee that I will stick with it or that, even if I do, it will actually make a significant dent in my weight. In fact, if past performance is any indicator of future results, I have good reason to suspect that it won't. So if my list said nothing but "I want to lose fifteen pounds," then every time I turned to that list, I would be confronted by that same unfulfilled goal, and I would shortly begin to feel like my life is a complete failure. But if I fill out the list with smaller goals that I can easily achieve (e.g., "I want to tear out that overgrown hedge in our front yard") and with items that are pretty much guaranteed to happen in time (e.g., "I want to get over my cold"), I can ensure a pretty much steady stream of items that I can check off as they happen. That way, when I look at the list as a whole and see all the items that I've mananged to check off already, the few that I haven't achieved yet don't seem like such a big deal. (Okay, so I may not have everything on my wish list yet, but just look at all the things I do have! Wow, my life must be pretty good!)

A couple of the items on the list could even be said to fall into both categories. "I want to pay off the mortgage," for example, is something that, barring some unforeseen disaster, will definitely happen, even if I do nothing at all to speed it along. If I simply sit back and watch our mortgage payment come automatically out of our checking account at the beginning of each month, then slowly but surely, the principal will be whittled down until it disappears completely. Yet at the same time, I can, if I choose, take steps to make this dream come true faster. Each time I put an extra thousand dollars towards our mortgage principal, it knocks a month or so off my sentence and brings me closer to that approaching goal line. Wish items like these may be the most satisfying of all, because they allow me both to take pride in my own efforts and to feel confident that, even if I happen to slack off, I will definitely succeed in time.

What's nice about this list is that it helps me see the ways in which my own happiness both is and is not tied to money. When I check off an item like "I want spring to come" or "I want my foot to get better," I remind myself of all the things that money can't buy, the little happinesses that come free of charge. Yet when I check off something more tangible, like "I want a pair of comfortable shoes" or "I want to finish my holiday shopping," I remind myself of all the ways in which money, properly applied, actually can buy happiness—and I keep myself motivated to keep on using my money as wisely as possible so that these little items will always be easy to move into the "completed" column.
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