When I was interviewing for medical school, many of the interviewers focused on either past accomplishments (What research had I done? What activities had been important to me during college?) or on projections into the distant future (What specialties interested me? What type of career did I envision for myself?). One man took a different tactic, however, and asked me to describe how I envisioned my first week of medical school.
Without pause I launched into a description of my ideal first week: I would move into my new apartment and get everything put away, determine which bank and supermarket I would frequent, join a gym, purchase my textbooks, and do some light pre-reading of the course material. In short, I planned to have every aspect of my non-medical life settled by the time classes began. I grew excited just thinking about all of the wonderful organizing tasks I would accomplish and about that refreshing feeling of having all of the details from one project finished and tucked away before diving into something new.
The interviewer laughed. It was more of a guffaw than a polite chuckle.
“Just so you know,” he said, “that’s not going to happen.”
I kept my indignance to myself, forced-smiling my way through the remainder of the interview while imagining the smug satisfaction I would feel when my first week unfolded exactly as I had planned.
Irritatingly, his prediction was completely right.
Instead of returning from vacation tanned and well-rested, in perfect shape to move into our new apartment, my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I arrived back from Mexico with stomach cramps and diarrhea. He started his new job while I alternated unpacking boxes and curling up on the bathroom floor. He then quit said job two days later because of the amazingly terrible working conditions and I spent hours trolling the internet for job listings and freaking out about how we would pay our rent. By the time the first day of classes rolled around, I had done no reading, exercise, or furniture arrangement. Rather than shrinking to leave room for a clean start, my to-do list had ballooned with the remnants of everything I had hoped to do, as well as everything that I now had to do – and do quickly.
It’s a scenario I had laugh at now, though only with the added wisdom of that’s how such things seem to go, not, as I might have hoped, now I know how to avoid repeating those mistakes. Because every time I face a big task or transition, I plan – no, fantasize – about how I will get everything else squared away so that when the looming challenge arrives, I will be able to devote to it my full time and attention. I crave the satisfaction of completing an entire list of tasks, thus leaving myself free to focus on just one thing. I’ll plan to spend a Saturday doing laundry, paying bills, returning phone calls, and cleaning, for example, leaving Sunday free for some reading or writing. I’ll promise myself that I will complete all of my dictations from my recent discharges before switching to a busy new service area at the hospital. I’ll swear to my husband that I will finish making the personalized coasters and knitting the various scarves that were all started with great zeal but have become just another chore to complete before I go and buy beads for a bracelet and fabric to make a new dress. Each time I fall short of completing the tasks I have set before myself (usually with the goal of clearing time and space for additional, though more enjoyable, tasks), I feel both overwhelmed by what remains to be done as well as disappointed and frustrated at my failure. Emotionally I am slammed, though my downfall has occurred by my own design.
As I sit here writing this, I am perched in the home that we just purchased, on one of two chairs whose surfaces are not piled high with our belongings. I am surrounded by boxes whose contents spill out haphazardly as if begging to find homes in yet-to-be-cleaned drawers and cupboards. I have not joined a gym, changed the registration on the cars, or even set up our Internet connection. It is the first day of a new rotation and I have yet to call Medical Records to find out which dictations I still owe. And my crafts projects – there at least three of them that I can name, all unfinished and some still waiting to be started – have all been packed up and dragged along on this journey.
Here I am again. I’m still irritated, yes, and at times so taken aback by the number of things that need to be done, let alone the number of additional things that I would really like to do, that I am paralyzed and unable to dive into any of the tasks. I am reasonably confident that when all of the mess has been cleared and I find that I am still functioning at work and have eked out the time to write a few words, I will sigh with relief and think somewhat condescendingly to myself, Of course it didn’t go as planned, but it turned out all right, just like it always does. At least I hope I will.
For some reason, this lesson – that I won’t ever finish every looming task and find myself with a glorious clearing of time, free for me to devote to whatever leisure activity I desire, and yet things will still turn out ok in the end – is one that it seems I need to keep re-learning. Perhaps it’s because I still have a lot of work to do on myself.
Or perhaps it’s because that lesson, though so seemingly obvious each time it appears, is actually really important and worth repeating.