I recently came across an elegant philosophy that went something like this: “I don’t keep a to-do list. Because if I have to do so many things that I can’t remember them all, then I’m doing too many things.”
I’m a minimalist, so this idea stuck with me. It encouraged me to create a world where I only keep the things that truly matter — the things to which I can give my full, or even partial, attention.
As an undergrad, I was the editor of the student newspaper and each day I’d walk into the newsroom with about 10 things on a list. Eventually this job — which should’ve been an exhilarating experience — turned into a game where I tried to clear that list. I realized that people don’t make an impact on the world by clearing lists; they do it by having a purpose and acting with intent.
At about 2 p.m. today I tried to sit at my desk and recite my tasks — to remember them by heart — and I couldn’t, so I wrote them down. But as I analyzed at the half-dozen items on the list I developed a knot in my stomach because I knew I’d have to ask myself why I was doing those things — what purpose they served — and I’d have no elegant answer. By ‘elegant’ I mean that tasks that have a coherent mission.
For billions of years living creatures had the elegant purpose of passing on their genes until they evolved to have competing desires. Homo sapiens really bucked the trend on this one because we drive ourselves into the ground doing things that are only vaguely — or not at all — related to survival or gene thrusting, but rather following the example of our peers and our media. So we have these dissonant missions, which means we have no mission at all, which might be the worst of all.
Now religion tries to solve this problem on a cosmic scale, but trying to figure out what that means on the human scale is somewhat difficult.
Looking at my to-do list, I couldn’t bring myself to cross anything off or articulate clear purposes for each task — and of course I couldn’t keep them all in my head. So I did what any logic-driven person would do when put in this position: I spent the next five minutes memorizing the list. Yes, I know, that was exactly the antithesis of my desired goal.
I often look at my dog and wonder why she does the things she does, why she goes the places she goes. And I think, “There must be some logic, but it’s obviously not great logic.” To me it seems as if she roams the world with far less intent than humans do. But then I wonder about the logic of our actions, and whether any being now or in the future could look at us —wandering our archaic civilizations — and think the same thing.