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November 21, 2011

To do, or not to do?

Students shouldn’t feel guilty about leaving items on their to-do lists unfinished.

This column was originally supposed to be about how important it is to set goals for yourself outside of academics. Three weeks ago, I had a workbook sitting on my desk that promised to help me fix my terrible handwriting in just a month or two. Next to that was the novel I hadn’t touched since September but swore to myself I’d finish by Christmas. There was also the workout routine I had abandoned, the Spanish news website I had bookmarked but failed to use to keep up my reading comprehension, about 50 recipes I hadn’t gotten around to cooking, and probably a dozen other things.

I was going to tackle these lurkers at the bottom of my checklist. All of them. I was then going to sit here at my computer and smugly inform you that, despite our hectic lives, we can all find the motivation to pursue personal fulfillment in areas other than problem sets. It just takes a little burst of energy. And maybe an upcoming column deadline.

I’m not writing that column today because I didn’t end up doing a single thing on my list. My Ls and Rs are still indistinguishable. The most novel thing I’ve done in a kitchen recently was make cookies.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who goes through these cycles. First, there’s the excitement, the absolute confidence that this time you will actually do whatever it is you’ve been dreaming of doing. Maybe you even start it. Perhaps for a few days you make some progress.

Then, more often than not, your new routine or hobby falls by the wayside. There are papers to write and your friend’s party to go to, and pretty soon finals, and then break. A new quarter arrives, and the sequence begins afresh.

We’re all human. We’ve all spent hours mindlessly surfing the Internet after finishing our homework, even if we know we will need more than four hours of sleep to get through the next day. We zone out, forget, break appointments, and leave for tomorrow what could be done today.

We didn’t evolve to focus for eight hours on anything, except maybe hunting wild game. We crave warmth, comfort, and simple human companionship. It’s so much easier to grab lunch with a friend instead of practice that instrument you’ve been meaning to pick up. Or spend time lying in bed for hours doing nothing on a Saturday morning, time you could have spent jogging or model airplane-building or anything else you’ve told yourself you’d get around to.

In short, we’re not meant to be motivated and productive every moment of every day, and very few of us are. Why, then, have we constructed a society in which this basic human truth is stigmatized? Worst of all, of course, is failing to do the things we must; you can’t just NOT finish that reading. The horror! Yet here in the land of self-help, we put it upon ourselves to be not just good students and employees, but fully actualized human beings, whatever that means. So we vainly make ourselves all sorts of promises about how we’re going to improve ourselves as people. In the end, we’re often left with nothing but an unused gym membership or library card and a vague feeling that we’ve somehow failed.

We set ourselves an impossibly high bar to reach. After hours of work, sitting through classes, attending RSO meetings, and fulfilling all of our other obligations, if we decide to come home, unwind, and watch TV rather than do something new and fulfilling, we just end up feeling guilty about it.

We need to be realistic about what we will actually accomplish and adjust our expectations accordingly. That doesn’t mean it’s bad to have ambition and initiative: We would never get anything done without them. But the drive in our culture to relentlessly seek self-improvement and turn every plan into reality seems somewhat incompatible with various aspects of human nature.

So, by all means, continue to strive to sleep better or learn to tango or pick up Aramaic. My to-do list is, and always will be, right in front of me. But the next time you spend the day on the couch, don’t let yourself be overcome by a feeling of guilt. No one’s perfect. And besides, there’s always tomorrow.

David Kaner is a second-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.

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