As the oldest of three daughters, I always felt an acute sense of responsibility and a weight on my shoulders to prove myself. I had to be better than everyone else, excel against the boys and show that I was worthy of my place in the world. Yet, as relatives and strangers speculated over my parents’ future and lack of a son to provide for them in old age, I had a crushing and debilitating foreboding that I would not achieve anything.
Growing up in India, my mother made sure that we had the best education, even as my parents made monumental sacrifices, living in tiny one-bedroom rented houses, with no holidays or luxuries. I was clever and that became my identity. At times I would feel overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed, but with the optimism of youth, I was ready to take on the world. Admitting that I wasn’t coping was never an option.
From a young age, I started to make meticulous to-do lists, obsessively writing down tasks – “read two new books”, “do an extra hour of maths” – and crossing them off as they were completed, on whatever paper I could lay my hands on. This was a way to organise my chaotic mind as it jumped from one sparkling idea to another. My desk would look like a mess, but I knew exactly what I had to do and when. The problem is the list never seemed to get any shorter.
All through my teens, my father battled with alcoholism and I grew accustomed to being wary of the genetic nature of addiction. I would not even take painkillers for fear of getting hooked on them. But I did not realise that my own addiction was my slavery to my to-do lists.
As I moved to the UK to study for a PhD, and then started a lectureship, navigating a high-pressured academic environment and single parenthood, I continued to focus on the things that I needed to achieve to maintain a grasp on my life. The to-do lists became akin to a toxic relationship with a friend who was ultimately controlling me.
I did not celebrate moving up the academic ladder, winning a book deal, being invited to give two TEDx talks, or surviving the acute sleep deprivation and exhaustion after my twins were born with severe colic and reflux. Instead, I kept writing down all the things that I still had to do, always driving myself forward, looking ahead, never stopping to take a breath.
Last year, I had for many months been holed up in my office, trying to snatch every single moment through countless flustered days and sleepless nights to finish writing a book. Juggling furiously the demands of running a home and business, I felt the very foundations of our family life wobbling. I realised that something had to change to stop this constant churn of anxiety.
So I decided to start writing a “have-done” list every Friday evening. Initially, it was extremely hard to even remember any wins or achievements, but I persisted. And slowly, as the weeks went by, I started looking forward to writing down the things that I had achieved not only professionally but also personally: moments that had brought me real joy, or personal challenges that I had overcome. So, while I noted down a great talk and workshop that I delivered, or another 2,000 words written on my book, I would also record a situation when I managed to stay calm even as I was exhausted and furious, sent a tricky email or completed a Go Ape challenge with the kids despite having vertigo.
Instead of always looking at what else I had to do, I started reflecting on my achievements and celebrating the smallest wins. A tiny change, but it has already been monumental in helping me to evaluate how I perceive success in life. I wouldn’t say that it has solved everything, and it is sometimes not possible to do every single week. But it has been a huge leap forward.
I am still driven to succeed but by taking time to reflect on the things that I have achieved, no matter how big or small – from gaining another consultancy project to successfully getting my twins to bed – I am able to set my own standards and measure of success.
Writing them down reminds me of the tiniest victories that otherwise might have passed me by. And my self-worth and value are no longer measured by the ticks and crosses on my to-do list.
Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias will be published by Bloomsbury on 2 April. To order a copy, go to the Guardian Bookshop
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