The 100 Things You Keep Meaning To Do

You never know when you might “accidentally” be inspired in a very large way by a stranger you meet at the dentist’s office.

We were both early, waiting for our cleanings, I was reading a book and she pulled out her knitting. I said, “Oh, isn’t that so relaxing? I used to love knitting.”

“It’s like a meditation,” she agreed.

“I only know how to knit,” I said. “I never learned how to purl.”

“You could take a class,” she suggested. She asked what part of town I live in, and told me about a knitting store nearby.

And that’s when it got interesting.

Because she told me that for the past few years, she’s made a point of taking classes in all the things she’s ever wanted to learn: ballroom dancing, horseback riding, knitting, etc. But here’s the key: she fully commits to learning whatever it is, but only for one month. And at the end of that month, she moves on to something else.

Back up for a second. I’m familiar with Life Lists. I made one for myself about fifteen years ago, listing all the places I wanted to go, the new skills I wanted to learn, the other changes I wanted to make. It’s why I finally ended up writing my first novel. And also seeing a real Broadway show, learning martial arts, going on a Jane Austen tour in England, and all sorts of other interesting things.

But this woman, Danetta, took the Life List concept and made it better. Simply by putting a time limit on the things she was going to try.

She started the way a lot of us do, making an exhaustive list of absolutely everything she’s ever wanted to do and to learn and all the different trips she wanted to take. After that “brain dump,” she had a list of about 100 items. Big things from exotic travels to little things like getting a pedicure. Anything that sounded interesting or fun made it onto the list.

Next she organized her list into several categories: Health & Fitness; Travel; Friends & Family; Home; and Personal Growth/Learning Adventures. (I love that term learning adventures!) Then she made herself a schedule.

She knew if she wanted to try as many things as possible during the year and still give herself sufficient time to enjoy each activity, she could commit one full month to whatever she wanted to do. Twelve new activities every year, and they could be from any of her categories.

So one month she might tackle some home project she’d been meaning to do, and the next month she might take Czech lessons or hike as many miles as she could.

In the Friends & Family category, she made a list of all the friends and members of her extended family that she wanted to see more often, and made a rotating schedule of lunches, holiday gatherings, and other ways she could guarantee she kept in touch with all of them throughout the year.

In the Travel category, maybe she couldn’t take a big trip that particular month, but she could do all the research for it: look up airline prices, look for hotels, study a little of the language if she were going abroad.

And if it turned out at the end of the month that she had had her fill of a particular activity–like reading the Classics (because face it, a little of The Iliad and The Odyssey goes a long way)–she could move on knowing she had done it, tried it, and could check it off her list.

But if it turned out to be an activity she loved, like writing a novel, she could add it to her life more permanently.

It reminds me a little bit of Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. The difference is that Gretchen picked themes for every month, like working on her marriage, being a better parent, learning to have more fun in her life, and then worked on the whole category. I prefer Danetta’s strategy of choosing just one item on her list and really devoting herself to that. It seems easier and more doable.

And you just gotta love that whole short-term commitment thing. Get in there, try something in an intense, concentrated way, then move on. Yes, please.

I’ve done something similar by pretending every summer I’m sending myself to summer camp. I pick a few skills or crafts I want to try–like learning archery or how to make fire from scratch, or taking a beginning drawing class–and that’s something to look forward to when the temperatures here reach 117. At least I can go play at something for a while. Preferably somewhere that has air conditioning.

This summer I’m going to learn how to make lotion from scratch. I’ve already found a bunch of instructional videos on YouTube, and that will be my project for July. I might also take a sewing class. Who knows? I haven’t exactly decided on my themes for camp this year.

So there’s some inspiration that I’m happy to pass along to you. And it comes at a great time, since we’re about to enter a brand new month. What do you want to do with the remaining 8 months of this year? If you create your own list of everything you’ve ever wanted to do and try and learn, which 8 things could you start giving yourself right away?

And as always, if not now, when?

Creating Your Own Flourish List

Now that I’ve outed myself as the secret author of books by Elizabeth Ruston, I can freely talk about one of the concepts in the book Love Proof.

We writers always hear “Write what you know!” Well, I’ve known many of the things I wrote about in Love Proof, including the life of a striving law student, the beginning uncertain years of practicing law, the sometimes disgusting personalities of some of the lawyers you have to deal with, and yes, even the unexpected excitement of accidentally falling in love with your opposing counsel. Yeah, that happens.

But I’ve also known the kind of poverty Sarah Henley experiences in the book. And that was really interesting for me to write about, because I know I still have some vestiges of that poverty mentality deep inside my brain. And I have to actively make choices to move myself past that way of thinking.

One of the things Sarah does in the book to deal with her own poverty mentality is to create a Flourish List. It’s an idea that came to me a few years ago, and something I tried for myself before ever putting it into my fiction.

The name comes from both definitions of flourish: “an extraneous florid embellishment” (or as Sarah puts it, “something I want, but don’t actually need”), and “a period of thriving.”

I don’t know about you, but at times I am MUCH too stingy with myself. I call it frugality, but sometimes it’s just being harsh for no great reason. Perfect example from last night: I was down to maybe the last half-squeeze on my toothpaste tube, and I could have forced out that last little bit, but I decided to make a grand gesture of actually throwing it away–that’s right, without it being fully empty (call the frugality police, go ahead)–and treated myself to a brand new tube. I’ve had to give myself that same permission with bars of soap that have already broken into multiple parts that I have to gather together in a little pile in my palm just to work up a decent sud. Lately, out they go, fresh bar, and if I feel guilty, I know it will pass.

So where did this new radical attitude come from? A few summers ago while I was backpacking in a beautiful section of the South San Juan mountain range in Colorado, I had an afternoon to myself when I sat out in a meadow, my faithful backpacking dog at my side, while my husband took off to fish. And as Bear and I sat there looking at the small white butterflies flitting over the meadow flowers, the thought occurred to me that those butterflies were not strictly necessary. Not in their dainty, pretty form. They could have been ugly and still done the job. Or they could have left their work to the yellow and brown butterflies–why do we need the extra? But having pretty white butterflies is a form of nature’s flourish.

And that led to the companion idea that if flourish is allowed in nature, wouldn’t it be all right to have some of it in my own life?

So right then and there I pulled out pen and paper and started making my Flourish List. Spent an hour writing down all the things I’d wanted for years and years, but never allowed myself to have. I’m not talking about extravagances like a private jet or a personal chef, I’m talking about small pleasures like new, pretty sheets (even though the current ones were still in perfectly good shape); new long underwear that fit better; a new bra; high-quality lotion from one of the bath and body shops; fancy bubble bath. The most expensive item on my list was a pillow-top mattress to replace the plain old Costco mattress we’d been sleeping on for the past twenty years.

I gave myself the chance to write down everything, large or small, just to see it all on paper. And you know what? It wasn’t that much. I had maybe fifteen items. Then, still sitting out in that meadow, I did a tally of what I thought it would all cost. I knew the mattress would probably be very expensive, so I estimated high (no internet connection out there in the wilderness, otherwise I could have researched actual numbers). I think I ended up estimating about $3,000 for the whole list. And that sounded pretty expensive to me. So I just put the list away and promised myself I’d start buying some of the cheaper items when we got home.

And I did. New underwear. Vanilla lotions and bubble baths. New sheets. And finally, a few months later, a pillow-top mattress, on sale, less than $400. By the time I checked off the last item on my list last fall, I had spent less than $1,000. That might still sound like a lot, but in the greater scheme I felt like it was too small an amount to have denied myself all those little pleasures all those many years. Especially if I had bought myself one of those items every year–I know I never would have noticed the cost.

So that’s my suggestion for today: Create your own Flourish List, just like Sarah and I have, and give yourself the pleasure of writing down every small or large thing you want for yourself right now. All the little treats. Maybe they’re not so little–maybe this is the year you need a new car or some other big-ticket item. But that’s a “Need” list. This is your Flourish List–everything you want but don’t necessarily need.

And then? Treat yourself. Choose one item every week or every month, and give it to yourself. And if you feel strange about replacing something you don’t like with something you know you will, then remember to pass on that other item to someone else who might love it more than you did. I’ve done that with clothes, kitchenware, books: it feels so good to take everything you don’t want and give it to a thrift store where someone else can be happy to have found it, and found it so cheaply. Maybe there’s someone out there with a Flourish List that includes a pair of boots like the ones that have just been gathering dust in your closet. Stop hoarding them. Move them on to their new, appreciative owner.

And by doing that, you make room in your own life for things you’ll appreciate and enjoy. It’s hard to invite abundance when you’re chock full of clutter. Make some room. Make your list. And then start treating yourself the way you deserve by no longer withholding those little items that you know will make you smile.

I felt pretty great throwing out that nearly-empty tube of toothpaste last night. It doesn’t take much to make me happy. But I didn’t really realize that until I sat in a meadow and enjoyed the simple sight of some unnecessary butterflies.