What’s the difference between falling asleep on the couch for a half hour versus taking a nap on the couch for a half hour? The answer is that of intention. The person who fell asleep did not plan on it and may feel unhappy about it upon awakening. The person who decided to take a nap intended to do just that and is likely to feel good about a job well done.

We’re all familiar with having a to-do list, things we intend to do. We carry the list around and enjoy checking off the tasks we’ve accomplished. Such lists help us to define the tasks, prioritize their importance and focus our energies accordingly. But sometimes the to-do list is not enough.

To-do or not-to-do, that is the question

Imagine your list having two columns. The column on the left is your typical list of “Things I want to do today.” So often we get sidetracked and wind up doing things other than what we intended. This is why we need the column on the right—the “not-to-do” list.

We know what it’s like to look at the to-do list at the end of the day and ask, “What in the world did I do today?” “I barely made a dent in my list. How did this happen?” Sure, sometimes emergencies come up and demand we direct our attention elsewhere, but this is usually not the problem. The problem may be that we identified what we intended to do, but failed to identify what we intended not to do.

Often there is a fundamental internal battle, trying to decide: “Shall I work or shall I play?” If we have significant ambivalence about whether or not to be productive, we run the risk of playing when we really should have worked, working when we really should have played, or worst of all, doing neither and wasting precious time and feeling miserable about it.

Those who score high on the conscientious and ambitious scales will have to learn to permit themselves to relax and have fun. Those with more of a fun-loving and immediate gratification leaning will have to work harder to put the peddle to the metal.

So what’s it gonna be?

The goal is to make a choice—“What will I do today?” To get there you need to ask two basic questions: “What do I want to do?” and “Is there anything I really need or ought to do?” Take a moment to seriously address these questions and then make a decision, a commitment, one way or the other. Work may include activities for your job or chores at home. Play may include entertainment, socializing or resting and relaxing.

Make the best choice you can and beware that the thing you chose not to do may tempt you away from what you chose to do. You said you wanted to clean the house today, but Facebook and QVC are calling your name. You said you were just going to relax this afternoon, but you’ve been looking at work emails for two hours.

Consider writing it down—“This morning I am not going to waste time with social media, video games or TV. I have work to do.” Or, “Today I am not going to get lost in business or housework that can wait until Monday. I am tired and I need to relax and enjoy this day.”

So what’s your plan for the rest of the day? What are you going to do? And in order to do that, what are you definitely not going to do?

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of jesadaphorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.