‘Ticking boxes’ is not always the most fulfilling strategy, says Amy Dawson.
Pippa Middleton recently ran her first marathon in Kenya. ‘I decided that a marathon was a “life box” that needed ticking,’ she said, writing in Hello! – an innocent comment about an impressive achievement she never imagined would be mangled into the jumping-off point for a think piece in Metro.
The phrase is representative of a common mentality in our goal-oriented world. But will ticking life boxes really make us happy?
For years, life-box ticking was what I did. I racked up experiences, surfing on the surging tide of my ‘To Do’ and ‘Should Do’ lists. Yet, somehow, almost everything I achieved left me feeling, as the experts call it, ‘a bit meh’. The endorphin-addled euphoria of running my first half-marathon lasted five minutes, before I found myself staring out of the window on the bus home, wondering if it was really such an great thing to have done. I landed a job at a national newspaper, the role I dreamed of as a little girl. But I still felt almost panic-stricken that I wasn’t a famous blogger with millions of followers, or a Pulitzer-winning Everest climber with a Booker prize. And where was that sideline career as a photographer/DJ/pilates instructor, hmmmm?
It’s a common phenomenon called ‘summit syndrome’, and it tends to strike superefficient life-box tickers the most. Social media makes things even worse, by constantly reminding us how much everyone else seems to be achieving, and how happy and relaxed they look doing it.
Liz Goodchild, a life coach, says: ‘If people find themselves constantly striving towards something, and yet feeling a sense of emptiness when they get there, it could be a sign of being an overachiever. My question is always, “Why do you want what you want? If no one else knew, if there would be no fanfare, no validation from others, would you still do it?”’
There are other life boxes I feel society expects me to tick, but that I’m not ready to, which makes me anxious in a different way.
However much I laugh at my childhood conviction that I needed to be married by 28, it does still sometimes feel like I’ve seen more Facebook snaps of left hands captioned ‘He liked it so he put a ring on it!’ lately than I’ve seen episodes of EastEnders.
It’s not just me. So many of my friends freak out about the age they ‘should’ have had a baby by, or‘should’ have bought a flat by.
Sometimes it feels like ‘should’ is the dirtiest, most dangerous word in the English language. Goodchild agrees.‘Setting goals, working towards a box to tick, can give life a sense of meaning and commitment to something bigger,’ she says, ‘but it’s important to remember there’s a big difference between wanting something and thinking you should want it.’
We all need ambitions and motivations, or we’d just sit around in our pants, eating dry granola and Googling what the Heartbreak High cast are doing now. (Or is that just me?) But, much as I still want to write that book, I’ve discovered slowly that ordinary life becomes richer, lovelier and less stressful as soon as you stop obsessing about your checklist.
Otherwise, as Lennon said: ‘Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.’ And sometimes the most exciting ‘life boxes’ that you tick might just be the ones that you never saw coming.