Just about every moment of your day can be quantified in some fashion with a list of boxes to be checked off.
Your morning routine, your priorities at work, the food you buy, the recipes for the meals you make, the vacation or travel itinerary, the plans you have for the weekend.
We are great at lists; we have them for just about everything. We excel at checking items off and moving about our lives, day in and day out. It gives us satisfaction and a purpose.
We are taught that no matter how fast a box is checked off, it can and should be dealt with faster. Even if items are crossed off, someone else crossed the same item off their list better. We are stuck in a cycle of better, faster, harder, stronger.
Always checking off and moving onward. No matter how much is in the rear view mirror, there’s that much more on the road ahead. We become so entrenched in the lists that even free time is consumed thinking about and stressing over the various stages of completion for each one.
Work emails, work tasks, upcoming projects. Food to be bought, plans to be made, relationships to be maintained.
It becomes very easy to spend the majority of our time quieting the noise generated by others, instead of creating our own.
As life becomes more and more data driven, there is an increasing amount of downward pressure placed on individuals to ensure various metrics are not only being met, but exceeded.
More noise in an already noisy landscape. More noise to drown out what matters most: our own needs.
A recent op-ed about the crushing workplace culture at one particular mammoth enterprise provides some startling examples of what our modern culture is trending towards.
All Lists Are Not Created Equal
In the midst of all this noise, we lose sight of our own list. We choose to outright ignore it for fear of not being good enough for others. We fail to understand how the items we are working so hard to check off even got there to begin with.
When I was preparing to enter the work force at the ripe age of 22, I had a pretty standard list. Obtain a degree, get a stable job, buy a home, get promotions, earn more and spend more, etcetera.
This was all well and good at first. But as the day-to-day grind became routine, I noticed I wasn’t fulfilled.
A Harsh Realization
I was checking off all the boxes, so why didn’t I feel like I was on top of the world?
Why did I come home more days than not and attempt to distill my thoughts, trying to get to the root of my indifference to it all?
The answer seems obvious now, but it took time for me to arrive at it:
I wasn’t working on my list. I was simply working on the list I was presented with and taught not to question.
It was the list I observed the world around me living out, and therefore I thought it was the only list.
It was thrown in my face everywhere I went. The hybrid SUVs on the street, the endless stream of self-promotion on social media and advertising on TV. Petty competitions in the workplace.
The new houses, the new cars, the new furniture purchases, fancy vacations, job promotions. Each better than the one before it, streamed endlessly to me through any and all screens I managed to get my face in front of (voluntarily or involuntarily).
As it turns out, there’s no shortage of screens in the world today. The inundation is hard to suppress.
I started to realize that it was mostly bullshit. I think we all know it to some degree. But in my observation, it stops at the observation in lots of cases.
The point is, given that our lives are largely quantified by lists, there are lists on top of lists that someone else will gladly define for you if you don’t make intentional choices to define them yourself.
If you don’t create your own list, someone else will gladly create it for you.
It might allow you to be comfortable, but it will not allow you to be free.
When the reality of this hit me, I started to question my path and why I was on it.
I realized that I was working very hard for things I ultimately did not value, and I realized that I wasn’t all that proud of what I had to show for it.
Ask Questions To Break Free
I started my own list, and found that everything on it could be distilled to asking questions, and breaking free.
Questions such as:
- How much control of your life are you willing to relinquish to your job?
- What type of people do you want in your life, and are you surrounding yourself with them now?
- How do the decisions you have made to this point support the bigger things you want to accomplish in the future?
- How can you change your decisions to optimize for your personal goals and values?
If you don’t answer these questions yourself, you surely aren’t defining your own freedom.
Think of the questions as a starting point to breaking free.
So, what does it really mean to break free? That’s a pretty loaded term.
Here are a few of my thoughts on what it means:
- Breaking free means not feeling trapped underneath the weight of your past decisions.
- Breaking free means claiming control of your future by acknowledging what isn’t working, and committing to addressing the root cause.
- Breaking free means refusing to give complete control to that whisper in the back of your mind perpetually telling you that you can’t move forward.
- Breaking free means realizing that the imprisonment mentality which runs rampant is a ruse.
You can’t figure out what isn’t working, or begin to understand why, without asking lots of pretty tough questions.
It takes work to understand what this means for your specific situation, but this is the most important work.
It isn’t for someone else and it isn’t for some vague purpose.
That’s why you must question everything. Question until you have your own answers. When the going gets tough, question even more.
Questioning leads to clarity, clarity leads to intent, intent leads to control. Control means you are defining and living the priorities you set forth for yourself.
Becoming A Box Maker
Everyone can be a box checker. It’s what we are raised to do. But it takes something more to be a box maker.
It takes a persistent drive to challenge yourself, push through the resistance, and learn to ignore the daily noise. Because if there’s one thing there is no shortage of, it’s daily noise.
Nothing compares to the feeling of checking boxes you created yourself. If you are on the road to doing just that, you have broken free.
What are the boxes missing from your list?