You Did That

Dr. Sarah Marie Story
5 min readMar 29, 2022

Slack is down this morning, as is Peloton. So now, I have a legitimate excuse not to get on the bike with this extra time I have on my hands. I left my bullet points for a presentation I had to do in a Slack message, and just had to do it untethered. It’s the 2022 version of leaving my debate note cards in my mom’s car in Middle School.

There is this pervasive expectation that we will fill empty moments with productive pursuits. The 15 minutes I inherited when a meeting ended early should be used to chip away at the report I need to write. I should be listening to LeBron James walk me through managing emotions on a Calm app meditation while I make coffee because now I’m not only getting caffeinated, I’m getting inspired. Sometimes I will be sitting, staring out the window at a snow flurry dancing in the wind, and get gripped by this fear that the stillness is laziness, and someone else out there is writing the next great American Self-Help book and I’m here watching a stupid snowflake flit around.

This obsession costs us precious moments of silence. Silence is where great ideas and realization prosper. It’s dangerous to disallow moments of nothing. There are days I have closed my laptop, or sipped a tea in bed, and thought “what did I even do all day?” I didn’t scratch off my top three tasks, I didn’t write, I didn’t check all my daily habit boxes — and so I fall into this spiral of confusing my to-do list with my actual contributions to my world.

So, for a whole week, I did an experiment. Instead of focusing on my to-do list, I made an “I did” list. This wasn’t the first time I tried this approach. 17 years ago, as a new mom, I made a list like this to show my kid’s dad how much work it was to have a newborn, and prove that my day was not just sitting around watching the Today Show. While that was an exercise born out of spite, this time around it was healthier.

I wrote everything, even the small stuff. I wrote down the type of stuff you might look at and think “isn’t that just part of being a grown person?” and scoff. But it was important to me to get a full picture of the things that take my time and energy and to have evidence that even when my “priorities” get shifted, I’m doing a lot of work.

For the sake of brevity, here are some top takeaways from the “I did” list. I present these takeaways without judgment or feeling the need to shift anything. This list just is.

  1. My average number of “things” I wrote down was around 20…21 if you count “writing my things” as a thing in and of itself. This is much longer than any sane to-do list. I’m sure I left out stuff that took my time, so overall just looking at the list felt really good.
  2. My favorite list of things was on Monday when I took a “self-care” day. Even when I wasn’t working, I was still doing things. I got my hair done for the first time since the pandemic, I took a pottery class with my partner, I ate Mexican Food without drinking alcohol (I’m on day 78/85 of sober curiosity) and I meal prepped for the week. It’s possible to feel satisfied with a productive day, even if you didn’t answer one email or solve one work problem.
  3. I take care of a lot of people, more than I thought. It’s not just my kids — it’s my dog, my friends, my co-workers. Things like “texted a funny picture to my sister and best friend and had a conversation about life”; “took a birthday present to my neighbor”; “had coffee with a co-worker and let her vent”; “led a bible study”.
  4. Part of the reason I might feel unproductive at work is that a lot of what I do does not result in a concrete deliverable. So many times throughout the list I see the words “planned”, “dealt with”, “handled”, “solved”. These are results that aren’t in PDF form, or a slide deck.
  5. Man, I really enjoy cooking and doing dishes when I have a busy day. I saw a clear pattern emerge, where a day that required a lot of brain energy also included household tasks that soothed me. It helped me resist the urge to outsource all domestic tasks because it’s clear that these simple problems to solve help me tackle the more complex ones.

Because I am a data nerd at heart, I analyzed the rough hourly estimates of where I spend my time. As I added all the hours together, I felt something was missing. Some category was left out of the pie chart, and I couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t until I was dozing off in bed one night listening to the fake waves on my sleep machine that it hit me…

“Did I have any FUN today?”

I went back to my list and skimmed all the entries. “Fun” was definitely limited. I started to try and justify some of the things as “fun”, even when I know they weren’t, just to feel less weird about it. It’s not to say I didn’t laugh or enjoy myself; rather, time devoted to things that were just about enjoyment was rare.

So, I am committing to the idea that just having fun is OK. I don’t need to be working on a slide deck while I’m watching garbage TV. I don’t need to be going for a run while I’m listening to the podcast that always makes me laugh out loud. I’m also intentionally skimming my weeks to make sure I’m allowing for time to be silly or frivolous because so much of the stuff I care about is heavy and I need a break.

My “I did” list experiment was eye-opening, but not in the way I expected. I felt proud of all the plates I can spin at once, but also unexpectedly sad at the belief I held that every minute of the day needs to be adding some sort of obvious value or it’s wasted. I wouldn’t wish that way of living on my children, so I don’t know why I was so lax about it for myself. But, brighter and lighter days are ahead for me… my to-do list this week says “find and plan 4 fun new things for next month.”

I can’t wait to check it off.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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Dr. Sarah Marie Story

Lover of politics, data viz, storytelling, tech, and oversharing. Public Health champion, Policy PhD, reader/writer/runner/eater