Life Is Not a To-Do List

New Orleans Cemetery

I adore the concept of bucket lists.

I love reading “life lists” my friends have posted online.

In theory, I think the idea of keeping a running tally of things you want to do before you die is fantastic.

In reality, I have to consciously, forcefully prevent myself from making a life list of my own.

I use lists every day to organize work and personal projects both big and small. I manage my days, weeks, and months with a series of interlinked and automatically updating lists and calendars. My appreciation for lists teeters on the edge of obsession, and it is all too easy for me to lose myself in the accomplishment of an experience rather than the experiencing of it.

I’m especially susceptible to list overload when I travel.

I have to see this, and eat that, and do all of those very necessary things before I can check off a place as having truly been visited. In order to meet all my self-imposed requirements, I deny myself rest, ignore my body’s signs to slow down, and inevitably end my “getaways” feeling fevered and fatigued.

Aside from the vacation hangover, the real problem with force-feeding myself an ambitious itinerary is that I miss the really good stuff. I miss the sounds and smells, the subtle feel of a place and its people. I miss the point, in other words, if I’m not careful.

I run the same risk with the rest of my life. With Life, capital L.

I want to do it all.

I want to tour the country and live in Manhattan. I want to ride a bicycle through rice patties in Cambodia. I want to write a book and make a photo journal with my children. I want to learn to meditate and take a vow of silence and become an expert yogi. I want to speak French in Paris and Spanish in Madrid and teach my kids how to set the table for a holiday meal.

Just typing the beginnings of that list makes my pulse pump harder in my wrists and throat.

There is so much to be experienced in life! God, it’s exhilarating when you think about it. But for me, it can also be a recipe for half-ass enjoyment and morning-after regret. I look at the possibilities of life like a middle class American faces an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet – with gusto and determination to get more than my money’s worth. Of course, that just leads to a meal where the tastes all blend together anyway, and the belly bloat lasts longer than the appreciation of any one bite.

I hate belly bloat.

And I don’t want a long list of beige memories that run together.

Last week, as I walked the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans, I had to keep pulling at my own reigns. You’ll be back, I tried to remember. You can’t see it all, but you can see the hell out of this.

I missed the Katrina tour and I only saw the Garden District from the window of a streetcar. I still have no idea what a levee looks like.

But I can tell you what the French Quarter smells like, and how that smell changes as you move back and forth across Bourbon street. I know what the Quarter sounds like and where both God and Voodoo dance to its music. I’ve tasted a charbroiled oyster and made friends with a woman from New England who insists you try the oyster shooters.

And I’ve learned that you can’t get to know a 300 year old city in one week anymore than you can master a craft in a weekend.

Or conquer a planet in a lifetime.

As our big RV trip draws closer (only 5 weeks now!), I feel like I need to pound this lesson into my cells as deeply as possible.

I cannot do it all.

There are corners of this country – of this world – that I will not see. There are facts I will not learn and memories I will die without.

But by God, the ones I do have will not be beige and blurred. I will see, smell and hear with depth. I will give subtlety time to make my acquaintance.

And I will not be afraid to die with an unfinished list.

music in the streets

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  1. Kim says:

    My grandmother taught me how to set a proper table when I was 6. My stepson was a pro at it by 7. I still remember polishing the silver with her and putting it and the crystal out just so. To this day I still love setting the table for our Sunday family dinners and OMG the holidays when we bring out all the finery? Best memories ever.

  2. I feel similarly about this. I just posted a new 29 Before 29 list to do, but I’m also trying to do a reverse version, where I note the unexpectedly good things that have happened. Instead of being so focused on the good things I want to do, I also really want to live my life noticing the good things that do happen, instead of the things that don’t.

  3. Nanna says:

    Lord, your photos are getting better, better and better.

    I LOVE the idea of smelling smells, feeling feelings, hearing the music in mundane sounds. Very few of us master that, but it’s so worth the effort, baby.

    Proud of you.

  4. I love the idea of you holding yourself back! Trying to put on the brakes is tough at first, but it’ll come naturally soon enough.

    When you first hit the road you will try to see everything and do way too much and taste it all and smell even the bad stuff. You’ll be trying to cram it all in because that’s what your previous experiences with short vacations is telling you to do.

    But it won’t be long before you will naturally feel yourself slowing down. At first it’ll be hard to take a day “off” to do laundry and get caught up on your latest novel, but soon you’ll realize your body needs it. It’s a shift in mindset from vacationer to traveler. It’ll happen.

    and it’ll be magic.

    Enjoy the ride!

  5. Love this post — and yes, you have exactly the right outlook!

    My only tweak — for me, it’s not just that life is not a to-do list, but in fact, my life LIST is not a to-do list. I think of it more as creating a painter’s palette. I wrote about it more here.

    No matter how you define it, however, I think the point is not to be afraid to make life more interesting. I agree with you — life isn’t a race, or a to-do list. But I do believe life is meant to be lived with intention. And the way in which we do that isn’t as important, I think, as that we do it at all. :)


    • Miss Britt says:

      Intention! Absolutely! I’m such a huge proponent of that – which is why I adore life lists in general. I would love for my husband to make one.

      But me? I would turn into an experience collecting lunatic.

      More so, that is. ;)

  6. this might just be my favorite post of yours. seriously love it.
    even if the memory of the smell of bourbon street did make me gag a little.

  7. I’ve been feeling the same way, especially just after my trip to Paris. I had to throw my itinerary out of the window and slow down so that my elderly grandma could enjoy everything. This forced me to enjoy everything, too. Instead, I found joy (and amazing food) in little corners of the city I would have never found otherwise.

    And, since you linked to it, my Life List isn’t a to-do list and I’d like to encourage others not to treat theirs like one, either. I would panic if it was! It’s a list of things I’d like to do, written down so I don’t have to constantly remind myself that one day, I’d like to learn how to throw pottery. (It’s also written down and shared so that if anyone, say, owns a pottery studio and would like to teach me, they can reach out.)

    • Miss Britt says:

      (It’s also written down and shared so that if anyone, say, owns a pottery studio and would like to teach me, they can reach out.)

      That is such a fabulous byproduct of “putting it out there”, so to speak.

  8. I completely agree it is so much better to travel with a bit of a wandering spirit able to take it all in than to have a hard core, to do list. I find that when we do that, we experience so much more of the culture and stumble upon some of the “best” places to eat and see by accident. I am excited to read about your journey.

  9. Sierra Black says:

    “I will not be afraid to die with an unfinished list” might be my new motto. Thank you!

    I don’t have a life list, but I’ve been thinking of making one since I got home from my sabbatical and haven’t quite known what to do with myself. A few people suggested it would be useful to have a list of things I can do in five minutes, in 10 minutes, in an hour, with a free day or weekend, etc.

  10. Jessica says:

    I stopped by after reading your hilarious tweets (you don’t know who I AM?) and went from snorting tea out my nose laughing to feeling heavy and thoughtful – really living – with a capitol L. How can I make sure I’m doing it every day and not just working it past? I feel that way with my children often, as well. I’m so focused on the next lesson, meal, activity, and keeping my work and house running alongside that I often feel like I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Loved your descriptions of NOLA!

  11. Jack says:

    This post outlines why I intend to live to be a 1000 years old. I have too much to do to die. Got good genes, at a few weeks short of 42 I still have a grandfather who is very much alive and kicking.

    All that being said I am the guy that refuses to travel with a tour group because I hate being rushed. I have learned to live life at my pace and found that I am much happier because I can’t get it all in. I can’t get it all done.

    It is not an easy lesson to accept because even though I know better I still think that force of will can make things happen. Really, with my Jedi mind trick abilities I have been known to move mountains. But that is information for a different post, er…comment.

  12. I don’t want a long list of beige memories that run together.

    Words to live by! I’m new here and officially hooked. :)

  13. Lisa says:

    I don’t have a life list. I like to take things as they come and, I don’t know why, but there are very few things I feel compelled to do. I’m either lazy or way too live-in-the-moment hippie dippie. When we were in Rome we only had 2 days so we drove all over hellandgone to see as much as we could cram into a day, and I would much rather have sat in a piazza and watched the old men play chess. Sometimes I think I should be more goal oriented, but when I let myself get competetive I make myself crazy so this works for me.

  14. Loukia says:

    There are so many things I love about this post. I tihnk you’re very fearless, and I look up to you for being able to do what you want to do, regardless if you don’t ‘do it all’. You’re doing what you want, what you can. I’m scared to even apply for a job in a city five hours away because it would mean leaving the city I’m comfortable in, and leaving my parents and support system, and built-in babysitters. Then, the guilt I have… how could I make my kids move because of MY passions? SIGH SIGH SIGH. I feel like I had a great shot at what I wanted in my 20′s, but I kind of didn’t focus and put it aside and then when I had kids, I had to settle for a government job (secure, good pay, benefits). I feel like there is SO much I still want to do – travel, work, etc. but with young kids, I can’t entertain those ideas. I wish I was more brave.

    • Miss Britt says:

      This kills me. My heart literally hurts when I read this because I KNOW this guilt so well.

      Loukia, you are so supremely gifted. You’re gorgeous and smart and charming. You were given those gifts because you can handle them.

      I don’t know you well, but I think you can handle anything. Even big, fat dreams. xo

  15. Laurie says:

    I so get this, the fear of missing out or of not SEEING ALL THE THINGS. I was so irritated the day I got back last week because I felt like we didn’t eat at the great places I wanted to or do this or that thing. And then I realized why I was actually there, and that if we’d tried to do that we would have missed out on spending some of the most hilarious times with you and the other people who were there in those groups, and that would have been just pitiful. I’ve been to New Orleans several times before, and I can go back on a food tour if I want to. It’s when I let myself go off the itinerary that I generally have the life-changing experiences.

    Loved this post, Britt. You expressed a feeling that I often feel too so, so well.

  16. the muskrat says:

    I think cities are best toured at 3am, so that I can assess the quality of its freaks.

  17. I had a list, but it’s so outdated now. I had considered revisiting it, but couldn’t quite pinpoint what I wasn’t as motivated to create it as before.
    I think you just summed it up for me. I want to be too busy enjoying the HERE and NOW.

    We call it “Purposeful Living” in our home.

  18. Darla says:

    Thank you. Another burden lifted. Sometimes life feels so heavy with everyone else’s goals resting on your shoulder and suddenly you realize, they’re not YOUR OWN goals. Shew.

  19. Karianna says:

    So wise. One of the things I didn’t really expect to take away from NOLA, but I did, was literally the whole concept of living for the moment. (As the dude on my jazz tour explained, “Hey, the whole city can be wiped out in an instant, so better live it up NOW.”) Not that I’m gonna go get drunk and join a second line every day with a fabulous parasol, but I love the “permission” to embrace the idea that sometimes it is best to just let the good times roll.

  20. Britt-
    I love what you have to say here. I am someone who lives by a list- always! And I have written a bucket list for both myself as well as for my family. But your article gives me pause and makes me think about all of it. I plan to share your picture and link to your post on my Sunday 5/1 “Links to Love” post at!

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