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The NOT To-Do List

The NOT To-Do List

I feel like I’m always jotting down “to-do” lists, yet more often than not I’m unable to cross off all of my list items. Two or three things get done, maybe more if I’m lucky, and then I’m not sure what happens. I get busy, distracted, tired, or I lose the list. Or a dog eats it. Something gets in the way. Well, I actually have a good hunch about what that “thing” might be: my RA. Or, perhaps more accurately, my poor-ish health in general (which is usually caused by RA).

Lists: Make me feel inadequate

RA also has a sneaky way of making me feel the need to make these doomed-to-fail lists in the first place. Why? Most of the time I feel like I’m never getting enough done and that I’m always struggling to catch up with everything and everyone. RA is the great interrupter, causing plans to cancel, work to be missed, friendships neglected. So, maybe as some small way to try to regain control and a semblance of order in my life, I make lists. However, the repeated inability to successfully complete those lists also makes me feel like a lazy failure.

The other day I came across a meme from a chronic illness page on Instagram, @sufferingthesilence, that made me stop and think about this to-do list business more. Instead of a to-do list, the meme is a NOT to-do list. The cleverness of it made me chuckle a little bit but it also made me realize that in our productivity-driven world, it just might be better to not do certain things–especially if you have a chronic illness. Sometimes less is more, right?

Things NOT to-do with RA

The following are the six NOT to-do items:

1. Say yes to stuff that drains me.

I often have a tough time with this one, and I think ignorance (inattention?) and guilt could be to blame. Saying “no” to invitations and events and canceling plans usually makes me feel guilty that I’m letting people down. Because of this, I think I don’t even stop to discern if the things I’m doing drain me or not. I know that being more conscious of this when making decisions about how to spend my precious time and energy could help me a lot–physically and emotionally. I’m working on it! Living with chronic pain and illness affords me only so many “spoons,” per day. Is it worth it to use them up on things that don’t energize, motivate, inspire, or support me? I don’t think so.

2. Feel guilt for saying no.

Guilt is a difficult, demoralizing emotion to bear and I think we all try to avoid it at all costs. Who likes feeling guilty? I don’t.  But it’s OK to say “no” if that’s what your body and instincts are telling you. It’s better for you and others rather than forcing yourself into a situation where you might end up feeling miserable and jeopardizing your health. It’s not easy though, because I think a lot of us are “people pleasers.” We don’t want to disappoint others or feel badly about ourselves for not being able to do it all in life. But if you have to, JUST SAY NO! I’m also working on this. On saying “no” more and not feeling guilty for saying it.

3. Feel responsible for other people’s responsibilities.

This relates to the other two list items, I think, and highlights the importance of not putting pressure or expectations upon yourself–especially when you’re not feeling well. As I already mentioned, I think it’s important to really think through the decisions we make regarding committing to things. Are they emotionally and/or physically draining? Are they our responsibility in the first place? Are they worth it?

4. Feel guilty for giving my body rest.

Oh, here’s the guilt again. And I’m certainly guilty of this one! I almost always feel guilty and ashamed whenever my pain and body need rest. I don’t want to rest! When I do, I stress and worry about all of the time I’m wasting not getting things done. I’m falling behind, I can’t keep up with other people, I’m a weak, lazy person–and the negative self-talk loops on and on. Despite the emotional beatings I give myself about this, I do know that rest is a good thing. My body and mind and soul need it. So does my pain and RA–desperately.

5. Worry or stress about things that are out of my control.

Did the person on Instagram write this meme especially for me?! I am the Queen of Worrying and I have been for a long time–even before I got RA. Living with RA has made my worrying and stressing and general freaking-out worse though, I admit. And, I will also admit, that most of the time all of my worrying is for nothing. There’s a quote I really like that I saw somewhere on social media that says, “Think of all the times you worried about something and it didn’t happen.” I try to remember this whenever I start feeling the old familiar pangs of panic starting up again.

6. Bully myself.

In addition to being the Queen of Worrying, I think I also might be the Queen of Beating Myself Up. These are not two crowns or titles that I want to have, but they seem to be a deeply ingrained part of my personality. Recognizing this trait or habit or whatever you want to call it is a step in the right direction though, I hope. Often we are our worst critics and abusers when we should be our biggest fans and supporters. Bullying myself is a crucial thing NOT to do while loving myself is a crucial thing TO do. As much as possible.

At the very bottom of the list are three additional items under the heading, “Important Stuff To-Do.” What is this stuff? 1. Self-love, 2. Self-care, 3. Be Kind to Me! I’d like to be able to cross these three things off every day if I can.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • FionaSR
    5 months ago

    Many years ago before I was diagnosed with RA I had a head on collision, leaving me with a broken neck and back and several other related injuries. I was single mom, with two children, one in school, one at home. I was on al ot of pain meds and my memory was not as good as it used to be. I quickly learned to make lists, and prioritize. I would make a list, cut that in half and then cut it in half again, and if I accomplished one or two things on the very small list, it was a good day. That rule of thumb serves me as well in dealing with RA. And besides, is the world going to come to an end if something doesnt get done? Nope and it will still be there tomorrow. And that is good enough.

  • Richard Faust moderator
    5 months ago

    Hi FionaSR. Thanks for sharing your story. Learning to prioritize what is really important may be difficult, but is also oh so important. One of our contributors wrote this guide to pacing with RA and if any one word boils it down to its essence it’s prioritize: Wishing you the best. Richard ( Team)

  • Lynsey73
    5 months ago

    Never truer words spoken or written, you read my mind.

  • DParker
    5 months ago

    Thank you for this article. I have really been struggling, and I forget this disease pulls me down like this. You really helped me, was thinking I should print this out and read it everyday! Thank you,

  • MareV
    5 months ago

    Thank You for your letter. It said EVERYTHING I feel and say to myself. I always wonder if everyone who is having a particularly bad RA Day feels what I am feeling, OR am I just embellishing my pain and RA. Thank you for answering these questions so I can stop Worrying and endulging in Self-Guilt.

  • AndyS
    5 months ago

    I have a slightly different take on this, although I understand and agree that list making can become a little tyrannical. I have begun to make lists of things that I might achieve during the day. I limit these to the hours of a ‘working day’ as, or ‘though I am now retired from a very active job. The first thing I have to do is understand that my activities/goals cannot be achieved as quickly as they once were. My ability and mobility is more restricted than it once was. I try to look at achievements in the long term. So, long term goal ,redecorate the kitchen. In the recent past this would have taken about three days (cleaning surfaces, making good etc. re-applying paper and paint). Now, I aim clean about two square metres a day, and if I manage this I give myself a gold star and take a rest. The job will get done and I will have more gold stars than I can count.

  • Richard Faust moderator
    5 months ago

    Thanks for writing AndyS. Breaking goals down into achievable chunks seems like a pretty good plan for accomplishing things – RA or no RA. I thought of this article on managing RA health goals: Being realistic and breaking things down into manageable and achievable goals is a way to avoid setting oneself up for frustration and failure. Best, Richard ( Team)

  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips
    6 months ago

    My thing not to do? I have to remember that I am older, have less energy and less time to worry about my inadequacy.

    Time to move on down the line, next.

  • NPEOttawa
    6 months ago

    I’m a list-maker – since I could write, I think.
    I’ve yet to do it, but I’ve thought about writing out my to-do list and then immediately crossing one item off, postponing it or cancelling it altogether.
    On my master list, things are broken down into different categories – must do today (appointments), things with an end date (events), things I want done (chores) and things I want to do. (relaxing or fun!). I try to make sure that something from that last one gets on the list everyday. But accept that some days the entire list must be postponed – cause all you really have to do each day, is breathe.

  • Richard Faust moderator
    6 months ago

    Hi NPEOttawa. As it seems you have discovered, lists can be good. Just depends on how one uses them. My wife, Kelly Mack (a contributor here), is big on lists and writes here about how they can help manage RA and reduce stress: Also, if you can make sure to add something a little fun, all the better. Best, Richard ( Team)

  • Jo J
    6 months ago

    A couple points here really resonated with me:
    “doomed to fail lists” – Yep.
    “RA is the great interrupter” – Yep, Yep.
    “Feeling guilty for giving my body rest” – Thanks to some great advice I read here, I’m doing better with the concept of “Active Rest” as a healing modality. As well as Pre-emptive Rest. I’ve set a priority on working on those attitudes and it is helping.

  • Monica Y. Sengupta moderator
    6 months ago

    Hey Jo J! Thanks for commenting. We’re so glad you liked the article!

    I also am working on a more positive mentality when it comes to my RA. I used to really beat myself up when I canceled plans to rest or just needed that nap.

    But, it needs to be done, right? I am especially fond of the Preemptive Rest. A nap before does wonders.

    All the best, Monica

  • lanikai13
    6 months ago

    Mostly, #3 gets me. I was born the ninth child in a family of 13! Therefore, from the minute I can remember I was always responsible for someone else. That is both good and bad. I don’t really no. But, as far as my RA… I try to do the things that give me the most pleasure. Traveling/hiking/spending time with our grandbabe. Those things sometimes bite me in the uhhh, butt. However, they are worth it. Going out in negative ° weather to grocery shop. Nah, hand me my computer please! It has become a matter of compromise. That and a week of rest after a hike to the top of the mountains in Co. Or a long flight to Bacelona. 🙂

  • Richard Faust moderator
    6 months ago

    Hi Ianikai13. I notice you not really knowing how to say no. You certainly are not alone there. In this article one of our contributors writes on learning how, stating “It’s a hard thing for me to do and it doesn’t come naturally:” In addition, just keep thinking of the other end on those long flights to Barcelona. Best, Richard ( Team)

  • Daniel Malito moderator
    6 months ago

    @angela God, if I had to take being responsible for other people’s responsibility off the list nothing would ever get done around here. Somehow as the least physically capable person here I do the most things. Insane. Great post. Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Monica Y. Sengupta moderator
    6 months ago

    Oh, the irony!! It’s the same way for me, Daniel. Though, mostly I do it to prove I’m still capable! But, that’s a me problem, lol! ~Monica

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