Making Choices About Choices

September 12, 2019

Making lists is one of my favorite things to do because I like to check things off. At the end of crazy days when I’ve had no control, I’ll make a list and check off what I got done so I don’t feel like I wasted my day.

I grew up living near my grandmothers, with whom I was close. I never saw them make a list, even for the grocery store. Their priorities in life were church, community and contribution. I grew up with spontaneous gatherings of family and friends. While work on the farm was never ending, there was always time for coffee and conversation.

As I watched my grandparents age and pass, I was lucky to hear story after story of the lives they lived. Survivors of the Great Depression, their life was rife with hardship. They had every reason to be bitter yet they lived with joy. Seeing this helped me create a crucial habit in my life.

The 80-year lookback

As my grandparents aged, I saw how they looked back on their life, what they were proud of and what they wished they’d done differently. When I was young and facing a big decision, I tried to look back at it from my 80-year-old-self – my grandparents age at the time – and think how I’d feel about this decision in hindsight. It’s helped make big decisions less daunting and brings clarity in the moment.

Fifty-four days ago today, my family and I came back from our year abroad in Spain. It was a life-changing experience for our family and one that’d been on my life’s to-do list since the early years of my marriage.

By that’s all it was…an item on a list.

My husband Ron and I talked about ‘someday’ it would be great to live abroad with the kids. There was always a reason why the time wasn’t right. The kids were too young. One of our careers was booming. We needed to save for the kids’ college. We don’t want to leave our awesome neighbors.

One day Ron and I looked each other square in the eyes and said, “It’s now or never.” Our oldest was finishing her sophomore year of high school and if we didn’t go abroad while she was a junior, we wouldn’t go as a family. I knew when I was 80 looking back at this moment I’d regret not going.

That one decision changed everything.

Do we have control, or does control have us?

In the last year, I realized that I make lists to give me a sense of control. I made mind-numbing lists as we worked through our Visa applications for Spain, packed our house, rented it, and then went through the residency process in Barcelona.

Once we landed in Spain, my lists gave me little control over anything. The world I stepped into was completely unpredictable. Not even a grocery list worked in a land of foreign foods. A few weeks into our adventure, lists became useless.

Here’s what living without lists for a year taught me –

1) Not having a list gives me freedom. I’m not constantly occupied with what I get done or should be getting done.

2) When I’m not constantly occupied with what to get done, I need my phone less.

3) As I use my phone less, I’m more present in the moment. This became magical for me. I can’t count the number of times I walked from one place to another and caught my breath as I saw one of Barcelona’s icons – La Sagrada Familia, Mount Tibidabo, Montjuic or a hidden plaza filled with generational families enjoying coffee and conversation. Had my nose been in my phone, I would have missed the soulfulness of the city in which I lived.

Living without lists helped me realize the number of things I add that don’t need to be there. How much I create work for the sake of work, rather than because it really needs to get done. How I impose false deadlines because it gives me a sense of progress.

Spain taught me to slow down, and make my 80-year lookback a part of daily life. In the last year, I’ve slept more, laughed more, spent more time with friends than I can remember as an adult while also doing my best work. I’m deeply happy and deeply grateful.

A stranger in a familiar land

Now that I’m back home and in my daily routine, few things have changed from when I lived in Denver before. I sit at the same desk, in my same office and work on my same computer with the same view out my window. I live in the same house, drive the same routes and socialize with the same people.

But I’m a completely different person.

I’m still dealing with a sense of melancholy in moving away from Spain, a country and people I came to love dearly. However, I found that there are many ways to bring the “me” of that experience into who I am today. And that’s an important thing to remember about every experience we have in life.

Author B.J. Neblett said…

“We are the sum total of our experiences. Those experiences – be they positive or negative – make us the person we are, at any given point in our lives. And, like a flowing river, those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become. None of us are the same as we were yesterday, nor will be tomorrow.”

I’m inching back into lists because my brain can’t keep everything organized on its own. But now I control them, rather than the other way around. Before I put a “to do” on my list, I stop and think “why should I do this?” As I make all of these small, daily choices, how will I look back at the culmination when I’m 80?   

The experiences we have are based on the choices we make. Big change doesn’t come from a single big decision or a never-ending-to-do list. It starts with a single choice and we keep going from there. That’s how books get written, mountains get climbed, weight gets lost and relationships get stronger.

As I’ve become choosier about the choices I make, I see how chains of small choices are what shift dreams into goals and goals turn into experiences. And it’s these experiences that create the life that we’ll look back on.

Photo credit: Pixabay

About Carla Johnson

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Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.

Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands has served as the foundation for many of her books.

In her latest project, Fast Forward Files, she contributes to a larger collection of thoughts by some of the world’s greatest minds -  Shazam co-founder Dhiraj Mukherjee, activist and entrepreneur Heather Mills and behavioral designer, technologist and mental-health champion Peter Trainor. Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking. 

Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.