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“What are you thinking?”
This infamous question has torpedoed many a new romantic relationship. People famously hate answering it. It feels like someone else is trying to get into our mind when we’re lost in thought.
But here’s a different take on it: I think we should be asking ourselves this question, frequently, to get a sense for how we are actually using our mental energy. And, in a Stoic sense, this question can help us practice some home improvement on our inner citadels—the place we can retreat to inside our minds, as described by Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus also reminds that “the soul becomes dyed by the color of its thoughts.” In other words, to some extent, “you are what you think.”
To test how I’m doing on this, I asked myself recently in a more serious way: What am I thinking? What’s occupying my mind?
I wasn’t too pleased by the answer.
Let me explain. This fall, I attended a meditation workshop (I wrote about it in The STOIC magazine’s November 2022 edition). As I sat for meditation sessions of 20 minutes, I inquired what was going on in my mind.
It turned out to be simple, but devastating: I was thinking of my endless mental to-do list, filled with reminders, admonishments, and a sense of dread at not being able to get it done.
It often felt impossible to detach myself from “here’s what I have to do next, for whom, by when, and all the obstacles I’ll face in trying to get it done.”
Over the next couple weeks, I realized I needed to take a closer listen to my inner dialogue. I resolved to take a listen the very next morning. As I woke up with my mind filled with all the work I needed to do for my family and my colleagues, I was shocked by how limiting that inner dialogue felt, and how stressful.
Why am I occupying my entire brain with a to-do list?
Believe me, this isn’t a to-do list of fun things. It’s about me figuring out how to help folks get crap done. Largely, stuff that they don’t want to do… stuff I’m either stepping in to do, to remind them to do, or to worry about no one successfully doing.
Case in point. I’ve gotten on my kids’ cases umpteen times in the past weeks about getting things done in their schedules. Have they responded to the Girl Scout meeting invitation? Have they figured out which students to carpool with to basketball? Have they checked with their teachers about making up the tests from when they were out sick? Have they filled in that scholarship application they mentioned last week, and sent in their transcript by the deadline?
My kids are teens, and they are perfectly capable of handling many of these things, for the most part on their own. But habit is strong, I guess. I’m still “the mom” who is checking if everything is going smoothly for everyone else in my family. I still put myself mentally in charge of checking stuff has gotten done , and making the up the difference if they don’t. I find myself doing this with—and to—my husband, too. Again, he’s capable. But yet I feel responsible for making sure things happen, on time and without headaches that result from forgotten things.
For my work, too, I tend to goad myself with reminders throughout the day, not fun or pleasant ones, but ones filled with dread about the next tasks to come—especially the ones I don’t think I’ll have time to finish by the necessary deadlines.
I can’t help but think that I’d be better able to set long-term goals and be more creative about achieving them if I could get unstuck from this to-do list attitude and this mental load. Saying all this stuff inside my head, about what I need to do for other people, is stressful in part because much of it is outside my control (again, a helpful Stoic reminder). That increases the burden and the frustration.
It feels like a cloud is hanging over my days—the cloud of the never-ending to-do list of tasks that invades my every moment. To be clear, I know I’m fortunate to not be suffering from something truly awful or distressing. My situation is just busy and stretched very thin, with everyday stress and a demanding job on top of teenage kids and volunteer work. I know I shouldn’t really be complaining. And that means that now I have to add to my to-do list: “Remember to stop complaining.” (This resonates with Stoicism, and also with my meditation teacher who has been posting on Instagram about a month-long no complaining challenge… and yet, the way I frame that as another add-on to my list, too, is a bit problematic…. right?!?)
How to get out from under this cloud? I have to begin with an unlearning of habits of taking on “mental load” over the years. Even younger kids can do more than we often give them credit for. Did you hear about the Japanese TV show sensation Old Enough!, focused on giving toddlers important tasks and setting them loose to handle things on their own? We’re talking about 2- and 3-year-olds!
I could take a page from my older daughter, a role model for how to think imaginatively and creatively outside of a to-do list mentality. Despite a crushing load of schoolwork as a high school senior, she is working on a fantasy novel, and participated in November’s NaNoWriMo. She spends her free time wondering how to evolve her plot and characters, and putting creative words on the page. And I spend time trying to keep my to-do list fresh in my head so I will remember to get stuff done for other people. Hmmmm.
I used to do a lot more creative writing, and I still write poetry when I can find the time. (Check out a Marcus Aurelius-inspired poem I wrote here.) But these days, I find it very hard to access that part of my contemplative brain.
One promising technique that could help is actually a very old-fashioned one, with a new-fangled name: “Cognitive off-loading.”
The concept really simple. Take that to-do list out of your brain and WRITE IT DOWN! That way, you’ve loaded it onto an external vehicle outside your brain, like a simple notebook, or your notes app in your phone, or any one of a million apps with reminder functions. Keep it somewhere you can find it. This lessens the mental load, and could increase access to creativity and to restful downtime.
Aristotle and other ancient thinkers advocated devoting time to contemplation. Ancient Romans from well-heeled backgrounds spent their free time on “otium,” leisure time that often included the pursuit of culture and ideas.
Granted, most people in history, aside from the very wealthy, haven’t had a lot of contemplative free time. But having some mental space could be a goal for those of us with access to labor-saving appliances and computers to help us with our tasks. We’ll never get that to that place if we are constantly overworked, overbooked, and burned out with our to-do lists.
This winter, I’ll be chipping away at my inner dialogue one day at a time, asking myself what I’m thinking. And I’ll be using lists that store to-dos outside of my brain, and will tell my brain to refer to those instead of keep its whole bandwidth fraught with tasks.
As I work on this myself, I challenge you to build your own inner citadel this way, to try to carve out a mental space unburdened by the to-list’s mental load.
Ask yourself what you’re thinking. Is it a to-do list?
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.