Life List How To: One Way to Start

It feels a little strange to write about this, because I’m hardly in a position to offer advice right now. Please think of this as something I’m sharing because it helped me sort the army of emotions advancing on my psyche. If you’re feeling equally defenseless in the face of something Big and Bad, or even if you’re just a little befuddled, I hope this will be useful.

Emotions First

When my best-laid plans for my family went awry, my impulse was to respond with a frenzy of planning, and list making, and goal setting.

Instead I napped and took too many baths. Sometimes I napped in the bathtub, which I recommend. Anyway, once I’d restocked enough energy to think about anything but impending doom, I thought now might be a reasonable time to reassess my priorities.

Fortunately, I came across a well-timed article by Martha Beck about using the emotions you’d like to experience to guide your goals (I think it’s the same one Lara mentioned in comments). You look at how you want to feel overall, and then choose activities that support those objectives. I thought it would be a smart organizing principle for deciding what to do next.

Three Steps

First, I needed to figure out how I wanted to feel besides “not like this.” So I did what the article suggested, and here’s how that process unfolded for me:

1. I made a list of all the things I’d like to feel that I’m not right now: content, rested, sane.

2. I decided the main thing I want is more peace, but that seemed too one dimensional, so I made a little outline of all the other emotions that define peace to me. Mine looked like this (forgive the inherent cheese, it’s the nature of the beast):





-Laid Back
-Well Rested

3. Next, for each emotion, I wrote down things that have evoked that feeling in the past. Holy hell, my friends. This was genuinely startling.

I realized how many things I genuinely love that I rarely do. For example, I thought about times I’d experienced joy, and I kept coming back to swimming. I particularly love swimming in natural bodies of water, and I almost never do it. This is ridiculous because we have a cabin a block from a river. Apparently I’ve been denying myself joy because it’s too much of a pain. Joy gets too much sand in the car.

I also realized how many mundane bits of happiness I needlessly deny myself. I used to love getting dressed in the morning, especially if I was feeling blue. Looking pulled together is like armor, it makes me feel so much more confident. Over the years, as my schedule has shifted to accommodate the people around me, I started to rush through grooming, to be stressed about how long it took. I stopped ironing, resisted the urge to change an outfit that wasn’t working. Getting ready in the morning became a chore, because I felt like everyone was waiting on me. Now when I feel time stress rising, I stop myself and think, “You enjoy this.” And I let my shoulders unhunch.

What’s Your Question?

The best thing about this process is that, for a while at least, it has given me a single question to ask myself about any decision in front of me. Will this make me feel more peaceful? If the answer is no, it’s off the list.

I need to make more time for water.

What’s the question you ask yourself before you make decisions? Or do you have another guiding principle for goal setting? I’m all ears.

82 thoughts on “Life List How To: One Way to Start

  1. “joy gets too much sand in the car”. Oh, man, have I ever lived that sentiment. And it’s time to stop.

    Thank you, Maggie, for a making me laugh and kicking me in the pants at the same time.


  2. This summer I realized how much I love to swim in general and in natural bodies of water in particular, and decided to stop feeling uptight about a bit of flab and enjoy. I realized first that no one particularly cares what I look like, second, when you can walk to something that you enjoy, there is no reason not to do it and third, that things that make me feel joy are worthy of high priority in life.


  3. i’ve experienced a lot of turmoil the past 7 years – some impossible seeming situations, including a divorce. i’m also bipolar and prone to serious bouts of depression.

    i don’t think anyone can be happy every day. sometimes there are bad days, weeks, months. it can be quite exhausting to try to be happy.

    when i am down or have something bad happen, i retreat for a while. go to a quiet place in nature and sit with my feelings. i don’t judge them or think it is wrong to not be happy, i just feel them and they pass. it can be kind of a brutal process, but it’s better than the lingering agony of ignoring them. i give myself permission to feel bad sometimes.


  4. “Apparently I’ve been denying myself joy because it’s too much of a pain. Joy gets too much sand in the car.”

    It’s amazing to think how often I sacrifice joy in favor of the path of least resistance. How silly!


  5. Maggie:
    I also get all dolled up whenever I am feeling down. It is refreshing, empowering and most important of all: a present to myself.
    I have been having a hard time myself lately, so believe me when I say this seems hard to fetch, but there will come a day when you look back at all this as a huge growing stage in your life.
    Some days are harder than others, but things do get easier, and soon enough we will both be smiling once again.


  6. Maggie, even at really hard times like this, you have wise advice. Thanks for this lovely and helpful process. You can come swim in my lake in Indiana anytime!


  7. Maggie, I’m so sorry, and I’d like to echo the other comments about how your advice will continue to be welcome, appreciated, and on point, like this post.

    I also love to swim outside; every time I do, I feel like a kid. Which is what I try to remember when I’m feeling out of touch with myself – I try to remember myself as a kid and recapture that joy of riding a bike or just running to run and feel the wind or swimming in the ocean, because it just feels good to move and be outside. Sometimes all it takes is a long walk around the neighborhood.

    Take care.


  8. Swimming in that river has brought me a lot of joy, and a lot of peace, not to mention some really important transitional moments in my life. So you let me know if you want a buddy, as soon as it gets warmer. There is a really good rope swing there.


  9. Maggie, since reading your blog last year, I’ve been doing so regularly as it’s inspiring, well-written and funny. I’m very sorry for the difficult times that you are experiencing at the moment, and grateful that you are sharing with us how you are dealing with it.

    It’s particularly helpful for me, because I’ve recently broken up with my fiancé, and it’s been hard to navigate this unfamiliar and painful territory. The relationship that culminated in my failed engagement lasted for most of my adult life. The breakup has led to a lot of internal questioning, as I’ve been wondering where things started to go wrong, which decisions were wrong, etc. So now, the question that I ask myself every time I’m about to do something is, “Will this contribute to me becoming the person I aspire to be?” The question seems silly, but the few seconds of reflection before each task have seemed to be helpful. For example, it has stopped me from feeling tempted by alcohol to numb the pain many, many times.

    Wish you courage and peace, Maggie.


  10. For me it’s not about decisions, but if I have something scary coming up, I take one aspect of that scares me and I HANDLE it!

    When I was going back to work after 1 year off for mat. leave, I was freaking out over how I would handle EVERYTHING. I find CHOOSING what to have for supper the hardest thing. So while my little one napped, I made a list of a 4 week rotation of meals, including grocery lists for that week. So I never had to think about what was for supper. I used it for a couple of months, and then I was okay. Because I knew that one thing was Under Control, I was better able to handle the rest.

    Take care Maggie!

    Although indoor swimming is not as nice, it’s still better to swim indoors in bad weather than to wait for good weather to swim outdoors (IMO).


  11. I’m both pressed for time and utterly speechless right now, but I wanted to say how very much I admire and respect you, Margaret. Let’s all claim wonderful things for the next five years. (I think we’re all ready for some tremendous growth.) And let’s plan to do some swimming sometime relatively soon.


  12. “Joy gets too much sand in the car…”
    That right there, sums up why a lot of people aren’t doing, being, experiencing, what they want and need.
    Certain events in my life prompted a new motto for making some decisions.
    “If not now when?”
    It seems to be a fairly large brush with which to paint with but it works for most situations.


  13. Will this decision make me happy? Not immediately happy, but deep down in my gut, three years from now still knowing I made the right decision happy. Stopping to think about that has made for some interesting life choices, but all for the best so far.


  14. A few months ago I started asking myself a question: “One year from now, will this matter?”
    Sheepishly I have to admit that I was asking myself that question while I was buying clothes. Was I going to buy something that would be thrown to the wayside or was I buying a piece that I could love for a long time?
    And then I started doing it when I wanted to purchase things for the house. And then I started doing it more when I’d worry about what to read what not to read, where to vacation where not to vacation. When to argue when not to argue.
    If I think something will matter for a year, but not for five years…well then the whole cycle starts over again.
    It’s been something that has simplified my life. And simplicity, I have learned, gives me a sense of peace.
    I hope you find your peace Maggie, you’ve helped so many others down that same path. Love from Texas.


  15. I’m a water lover too! At the end of last summer I looked back and realized I had only swam in the ocean once. The summer is supposed to be doing fun things and I had obviously spent my time doing things other people consider fun. So now when people ask me what I’m doing this summer I say “Swimming in the ocean!”

    Thank you for this post. What a fantastic way to look for the life you want.


  16. I research the crap out of it. In fact, I separated from my husband a year ago this April and because I had no idea where to begin to heal, I just knew I needed to: I READ. Some books that saved me and continue to be applied:

    Debbie Ford: Spiritual Divorce
    Broken Open: Elizabeth Lesser
    And for some general fiction that just made me feel better: How to Sleep Alone in a King Size Bed.

    Each book led to the next. These comments and your posts are helping more than anything! 🙂


  17. This is just amazing. I’m going to totally steal it from you and try to work through it myself – it’s just the kind of soul searching I know I’ve been needing. Many gratefuls for putting a template to it. It’s so easy as a Mom of young children to forget yourself, but a forgotten Mom doesn’t make for very happy or fulfilled children, in the long run. When I think down to road to when my daughter has kids, I hope she doesn’t ignore herself the way I’ve been doing, so I guess it’s time to be a better role model!

    Hang in there.


  18. After a difficult separation, I trudged to the rec center with my brother and his family. Floating in the hot tub alone, I had a specific thought: “Wow, stuff that feels good feels good.” A rather nutty epiphany, but still. In my case, I wondered if I would’ve been a better partner if I’d pampered myself a little more. That blew my mind.

    All the best to you as you go through this.


  19. Hey, we both live in the city. I’m working on checking Swim From Alcatraz to Aquatic Park off my Life List. Last I heard the bay was still considered a natural of water. Come train with me!


  20. Maggie you are such a strong, courageous inspiration, even though maybe you don’t feel that way right now. Thank you for sharing your life in such an intimate way with us all.

    the questions I ask myself before any decision: “am I being true to myself? does this make me happy?” it sounds silly but sometimes the most important things are indeed simple and silly. I’ve been through enough crap to have earned the right to ask myself that question, and know that I truly deserve pleasure, happiness, and fulfillment in everything I do.

    thank you, thank you, thank you. also, I might be a *teensy* bit intoxicated, but you know what? this glass of wine is giving me pleasure. so fuck it.

    huge hugs.


  21. If there is something I feel I must do that I don’t really want to do, I ask myself “Will this make me happier, healthier, or smarter?” If the answer is no, I don’t do it. Of course there are some exceptions. Taking my boys to soccer practice after working all day long comes to mind. But it does help, mostly!


  22. Love this. Love you. Can relate to the water thing — my go-to for distress is a hot bath. Sleep cannot be overrated, either. Love to you through all of this.


  23. While I love this idea, I can’t say that the first thing that springs to mind in view of separation/divorce is how to work in more time to swim. Emotions come and go, but your actions are what matter. I think doing what needs to be done, no matter how you feel, gives the results that count. Being happy isn’t always possible–I’m not sure that it’s a worthwhile goal.
    And I agree with Sheri–the scariest/ickiest thing is the thing to do first.


  24. Maggie – I’m so sorry about all this in your life, but it does seem like you are focusing on the positive potential for yourself.

    I used to always just say ‘I go where the river takes me’. That doesn’t always work, in fact, it really only works when the choice I made turns out to be a good one.

    Lately, when emotions well up, in particular when other people do things that upset me, I’ve been stopping the upsurge of negativity by telling myself that I’m watching theatre and all the performances. Surprisingly, this brings me a heck of a lot of peace.

    I hope you find tons of peace right now, or this week, or when it’s right!


  25. I like this so, so much, Maggie. I’m going through something very different, but difficult, and I really think this could help me, too.

    It’s a gift to others as well as to ourselves to write through such difficult times, and I really appreciate that you’re doing it. All the best to you and yours, and thanks.


  26. i hate to bring up that old chestnut of “when you are on deathbed, what will you wish you had done…or what will you regret..” but, when faced with big decisions, i do tend to refer to that.

    i also like to give myself A LOT of time to ease into a decision, to really think rather than react..

    i also always want my children to be proud of me, not necessarily like me, but never have to be ashamed of my decisions (and there have been times that i have teetered on the brink of what might have made them not respect me)…

    will i respect and like myself after a big decision.

    if a coca cola, a hot bath, hanging out with friends and a bottle of wine don’t make it better…think, think and re-think before i make a huge decision.

    AND, i still make stupid choices…

    best of luck, sounds like you are doing ok!

    nanne in indiana by way of alabama


  27. I always stitch when things are bad. It doesn’t always make me feel better until I look at the beautiful work I have done while I was feeling terrible. Something good can come out of bad times.


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