In a “just do it” culture, it feels good to have just done it.
From replying to that nagging email to graduating with a degree, checking things off the list gives a proportionate dose of that intoxicating “done” feeling.
The future is a little brighter now that we’re finally done with that.
But if we pause to inspect anything we’ve declared “done,” we’ll find that it’s still alive and present with us.
That idea of “done” – from the scratched off to-do to the lifetime achievement award - is a flimsy construct. Are we ever done learning? Keeping our house in order? Having healthy relationships? Working?
Even after the final checkbox — death — does everything move on as if we hadn’t existed now that we’ve “passed”?
But checking things off distracts us from remembering that we’re running out of time to check it all off: we won’t learn all there is to learn, do all that we hope, or fully know even one other person.
“We like lists because we don’t want to die.” – Umberto Eco
“Done” may be a productive and welcome distraction, but there’s a more satisfying way to look back on our life and work.
The past is better thought of as our present experience.
What we think of as “past” is what we’re experiencing now.
The thoughts and feelings that flash across your mind as you read arise from your prior beliefs and knowledge shaped by past relationships. Meanwhile, incredible feats of technological innovation made reading like this on the Internet possible.
Our individual and collective “done” list not only enables but interprets the present entirely.
Even historians mine the past for present use:
“Archaeology is inherently political by its very nature, right? Any time you contend with the past, interpreting how that past impacts who we are today.”
- Sarah Parcak in Conversations with Tyler
We similarly excavate our memories: if they don’t help interpret the present, we forget or update them.)
The history that survives isn’t a segue to the present; It’s the star actor on stage.
The Garden of Present Experience
There’s an older – and I think healthier – way to think about the work we’ve done and lives we’ve lived: it’s all like a garden.
Like a garden, the past needs tending.
There’s little more annoying than when something that worked well-enough before demands our attention yet again.
Our plans are rudely placed on hold while we spend our finite time merely to recover the status quo, at best. Where’s the gain or fun in that?
It’s easy to see that good order is living in a garden, but challenging to see it that way in our modern age of to-do lists and inboxes where everything “done” gets banished from view immediately.
Thinking about past projects and relationships like a living, sustaining garden makes routine busywork and troubleshooting feel less of a chore. In place of annoyance, there’s a practical serenity found when we pause the push for what’s next and tend to the order of things.
Like a garden, a well-tended past is something to enjoy, not move on from.
As soon as we check-off a project at home or work, we shift our attention to the next thing.
But what we’ve actually done (if we were successful) is make a slight improvement to what we can experience now that we couldn’t before:
- A tiny new aspect in a relationship
- Potential use of a product
- Slightly more comfortable environment
But in a rush to move on, it’s easy to forget to experience the new experience we’ve created or preserved.
Viewing our checked-off work more like a garden helps us see beyond the to-do lists and productivity systems and remember to enjoy the experiences those tools only help to create.
Like a garden, a good past yields a better future.
Companies with a long track record of creating innovative products build them on top of dependable revenue, tax-compliant expenses, and mundane workflows - the stuff no one cares to write or read about.
Social progress is only possible on top of restrictive social norms, traditions, and laws.
When order fails, the future crumbles. But even a minor improvement to good order - a bug fixed, healthy meal choice, or timely conversation - yields yet a little more later.
Every good pattern or connection we’ve somehow maintained is a gift worth nurturing like a prize plant.
Like a garden, our soil matters.
Most of us struggle to move beyond the impulse to constantly check things off. We spend our lives chasing the next thing: an education milestone, soulmate, business goal, a dream house, and so on.
But even when we tend well to the past, it may not be enough in the long run.
Good soil and good lives have enough to support the old and the new, but that’s only square one. To sustain anything over a lifetime or more, we need margin to spare for the inevitable weeds, draughts, and pests too.
The healthiest people and groups today tended to the past while it seemed unnecessary:
- They paced themselves and took breaks while others hustled.
- They did the painful work to dissect past failures and trauma that most of us are happier to forget.
- They resolved nagging issues that seemed trivial enough for others to sweep under the rug.
We all know that we shouldn’t sacrifice future benefits for present convenience; But it’s equally disastrous to sacrifice tending to the past for future progress.