A couple of years ago, one of my younger brothers signed up for a citizen’s police academy, during which he volunteered to be tased. Yes, you read that right. He volunteered. The footage of this epic experience circulated the ranks of our family for a few weeks, and all of us—including him—were both horrified and amused by his electrifying reaction.
To me, it looked like something out of a nightmare; to him, it was a rush of pure adrenaline, like mountain biking or skiing on black diamond trails. I couldn’t understand it. I’ve never considered myself an adrenaline junkie; the most extreme sport I’ve ever done is paddleboard yoga in the pool. Why would a person seek out that kind of thrill? What is to be gained?
Recently, though, I’ve come to realize that I’m not as different from my brother as I once thought. I, too, thrive on a certain kind of rush: the rush of accomplishment.
I’m a checklist junkie. I’ve known this for some time, but I’ve only just caught up with how deep this obsession goes.
For example, I design, print, and bind my own personalized planner every semester. Each daily page has no less than three separate, to-do lists; one for home tasks, one for work, and one for school. I have been known to complete a task and, once I realized it wasn’t on my list, write it down so I could check it off.
There’s nothing like the sense of well-being I get when I look back on the day and congratulate myself on all the stuff I got done. I’d say it’s even better than reading comments or counting likes on social media posts for me. It feels good, it’s how I measure success, and it’s sometimes the only thing that keeps me going.
My husband calls me hyper-productive, and I guess that’s true. And he means it as a compliment. But over the years, I’ve noticed being a checklist junkie comes with significant challenges, particularly for the people who have to live with me or be my friend.
It’s easy for family members and friends of hyper-productive people to feel lazy or incompetent. They’re not! But no matter how much I emphasize this fact, they often feel like they are. When I make a long list and then run around trying to check everything off that list, people around me feel indolent by comparison, no matter how much they get done, and no matter how much time they spend getting things done.
Another drawback of being hooked on checking off to-do items is that I tend to overdo it. I do too many things for too many people, and it robs them of the opportunity to do what they can for themselves. I’m so anxious to get a task done that I often forget to ask myself who should really be doing it. I need to remind myself that it’s okay to let some items remain undone, and it’s okay to let other people do things, but I often forget this in my quest for the particular adrenaline rush tied to checking off tasks.
So what should you do, if you, like me, are a hyper-productive, over-enthusiastic accomplisher of tasks? And what should you do if you spend significant amounts of time in the company of someone like me?
The first step for us checklist junkies, I think, is to be deliberate and mindful about the tasks we put on our lists. Just because it needs to get done doesn’t mean we are the ones who should do it. Perhaps, instead of listing “fold laundry,” we could try something like, “help Sam fold his laundry” or “kindly remind Amy to put away her clean clothes.” If you think about it, it’s selfish of us to keep all those good feelings of accomplishment to ourselves. We can share the tasks and share the euphoria of checking them off.
Another way we can prevent our hyper-productivity from overrunning others’ senses of competence is to include self-care items on our list. Tasks like, “take a bath,” “read a book,” or “watch a mindless (but wholesome) television show” are more likely to get done if they’re on the list. So while we’re enjoying the rush of accomplishment we thrive on, we’re also giving our family and friends permission to relax in our presence, and that is truly a gift.
If you are on the other side of this relationship, however, as a person who lives with or befriends a checklist junkie, might I suggest you try to understand what makes us tick? We’re not hyper-productive because we’re trying to make everyone around us feel bad, and we’re certainly not trying to show anyone up. We just like crawling into bed at the end of the day with the feeling that it was a day well spent, that we accomplished what we set out to do. I’m telling you, it really is an adrenaline rush.
And if you want to help out, if you get the feeling that there are too many tasks on our lists and you worry that we’ll burn out before we check them all off, well, you may be right. In fact, you probably are. But here’s a secret: the rush usually comes from checking off the task, not doing it. So maybe the best thing to do is sit down with us and make checklists together. Encourage us to share items and delegate tasks. When those to-do’s are done, we’ll feel just as good about checking off that task as if we’d done it ourselves. And who knows? You might even get a taste of what it feels like to be a checklist junkie.