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“You are not a To Do list”

I recently finished reading The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by one of my favourite authors, New Yorker staff writer Atul Gawande. I’ve been interested in using checklists since the book was first published, in 2009—and increasingly find myself needing them to avoid dropping balls, both professional and personal. With that in mind, I was planning to use checklists as the subject of this post.

Before starting to write, I spent some time searching online for useful editing checklists and was soon reminded of Iva Cheung’s excellent series of blog posts on checklists for editors. I highly recommend them. But the topic had been covered and I had nothing of substance to add. So what to write about instead?

Thanks to Google, my “checklist” search also led me to Do Pause: You are not a To Do list by UK facilitator, coach, and creative business thinker Robert Poynton. Funny how the stars sometimes align. I had seen the book mentioned here and there but hadn’t read it. Over the last couple of years I’ve been reading other books and taking online courses on time management and productivity, looking for “hacks” as a way to shore myself up against a creeping tide of burnout. I’ve tried various systems, apps, and, yes, checklists in an effort to save time, be more efficient, fix the perennial work-life imbalance, and ultimately stave off a constant sense of being overwhelmed. Do Pause is a kind of antidote, not just to burnout but also to the productivity industry.

The word pause has been used a lot in relation to the pandemic, in both positive and negative ways. Poynton’s book, published in 2019, is timely. Of course, he uses pause in a purely positive sense; the important stuff in life is often found around the doing: “In general, we don’t pay much attention or give much importance to the spaces in between all the tasks. I think we should. In life, as in art, you need to step back to see that. The ‘negative space,’ which lies around or between objects or events, gives shape to the whole.” (p. 6) Pause is “an active presence; not so much an absence of thought or action as an integral part of it.”

Poynton attributes the squeezing of space out of our lives to the speed of technology—holding ourselves to the standards of machines, with speed of response trumping quality of response—and the culture of busy-ness, in which we associate pause with “delay and procrastination, not deliberation or wisdom.” And these two forces both draw from and feed a third influence, the deeply rooted fear of what might happen if we stop, and what we might find when we face ourselves: “If we are not ticking things off our to-do list, then who are we?” In the confluence of technology, the culture of busy-ness, and our fear of stillness, pausing becomes taboo.

At its extreme, Poynton argues, the cost of life without pause is burnout. “Less extreme but more insidious is the slow, suffocating smoulder. As we constantly push on from one task to the next, we can become our ‘to-do’ lists. Little by little, we learn to live with less of ourselves. It is death by a thousand meetings.” (p. 10)

Poynton suggests that there are many ways to pause, as short as a few breaths or as long as a year’s sabbatical. We can take a daily walk or a weekly sabbath, a week off every season, a month off every year. Any or all of these are good, as long as we don’t consider them just another task or a goal. The main thing is to commit to it. (Which can be especially challenging for freelancers!)

The book offers many notable examples of pauses—from John Cage’s iconic composition 433, in which the musician or musicians sit in silence for four and a half minutes, providing the audience with a “respite from forced listening,” to Bill Gates’s Think Weeks, two weeks he takes every two years in a remote spot with a carefully selected pile of reading material and no regular communications. Poynton also offers suggestions and tools for making pauses happen.

For me, Pause: You are not a To Do list couldn’t have turned up at a better time. It’s not that all the management and productivity reading and experimentation has been for nothing; I’ll keep plugging away with my bullet journal and Todoist app (I’m still using a hybrid analog/digital system), my electronic calendar and my checklists, to help me keep the balls in the air, but I will be consciously building in pauses—daily, weekly, quarterly, yearly—in which all the balls are put aside. (I did a version of Think Weeks, right here at home last month, before I knew about Bill Gates’s strategy, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’m already planning my next one, and it won’t be two years from now!)

The last word goes to Robert Poynton: “Thus pause is not just a means to an end, but an end in itself. It is an opportunity to experience time, life and ourselves in a different way. There is more to life than getting things done.” (p. 69)

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