To-do lists, planners, and trackers all started off as a fun way to take note of my responsibilities. But eventually, my days started to blur into crossing off one task after another; one spreadsheet to another, one goal and the next. From the largest to the smallest detail, I always had to plan it out.
In high school, at a time when everyone seemed to be suffering from the same teenage identity crisis, I recall being praised for a poem I had written for class. I can still remember the feeling of validation that echoed through me as the teacher commended my work; the feeling of joy in showing my friends what I’d done. But behind that small academic victory were days worth of editing and revising. While most of my classmates had probably spent just a few hours on the assignment, I had spent a week on it. My effort felt validated by the number written on the corner of my paper. I longed for that feeling over and over, and I reasoned out that my initiative and productivity led to my success. So, I had turned to planning as my way of ensuring that I’d get what I want.
Planning and organizing gave me some sense of security—a sense of control. A messy, chaotic life laid out neatly on colorful Notion pages and scheduled events on my Google Calendar. But ultimately, all it proved to me was that I had no control at all.
The dangers of “productivity”
When I realized that I wanted to go to law school after college, I started making spreadsheets to organize each year I had left until I graduated high school. I kept track of what would make my curriculum vitae look better for applications. I created pros and cons lists for degree programs and universities I’d apply to. And for a while, it worked. I graduated with honors, competed internationally, and even got accepted to the universities I wanted.
In college, it was a similar story. I plotted out my extracurriculars and courses for each term just to ensure that my ideal GPA was maintained. While I thought I was motivated by the desire to succeed, I was far more motivated by a fear of failure. This made me feel as if the world was pressing down on me to overachieve, but in reality, I was the only one holding myself to those expectations.
It didn’t help that my planning couldn’t account for the things I couldn’t predict. It would put a dent in my productivity if even one thing went off-script. The solution was to be flexible, but I had taught myself not to be that in order to stick to the schedule. The price I paid to adjust was a severe lack of sleep, skipped meals, and an ignorance of most of my basic needs to function.
Subsequently, I could no longer keep up with the results I wanted, which only provoked my anxiety about myself and my abilities. With the future getting blurry with instability, planning and organizing had slowly devolved into a way for me to feel productive, regardless if I had actually accomplished anything that day.
Embracing the pandemonium
I had always thought that productivity equaled success, and that planning would always help me in achieving my goals. But it was my dependency on this system that showed me just how unreliable it is.
Because ultimately, you don’t have to be an organized person to be successful. Success doesn’t follow just because you’ve planned it out (though it doesn’t usually hurt to do so). Seeing the plans I’ve built for years fall around me but still feeling a sense of success taught me that success is a byproduct of happiness, not the other way around.
So maybe I don’t need another planner or another spreadsheet to find the feeling I’d been chasing since high school. Maybe buried deep within the to-do lists and calendar invites was just a girl trying to find order in the world around her—a girl who had eventually found that organization was just a tool, never a fulfilling lifestyle.