December 1

The Trouble with Labels: Why I’m Stuck in a Perpetual Cycle of Guilt

According to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, Beavers are meticulous groomers. They use the preening toe as a comb to prevent their fine, soft fur from matting to maintain its waterproofing and insulating properties.

In an alternate universe, I think I’d be a Beaver. Far from glamorous, I know. But I feel I have the personality type of one. And I know this even without taking a “Which animal are you?” Buzzfeed quiz because, like the beaver, I’m too busy meticulously grooming my numerous to-do lists to find time for silly, whimsical things like Buzzfeed quizzes.

I’ve spent a good part of my life identifying myself as a productivity kook, priding myself on my ability to get stuff “done”, preaching the gospel of discipline, and extolling the need for “systems” to anyone who cares (or pretends) to listen. I’m practically a serial task-lister, armed with daily, monthly, yearly, and longer-term checklists. Isn’t that beaver-like dedication?

But over the last few months (or maybe years), the efficiency self-talk in my head has been as pleasant as a beaver’s toothache—loud and, if I’m being brutally honest, annoying as hell. Because, despite my best efforts, I rarely conquer half of the 20+ items on my task list each day. And when, by some miracle, I do check off the entire list on a particularly productive day, the joy only lasts a few microseconds before I start berating myself for my lack of consistency.

While the barking-at-myself method may have worked in the past, it seems to have no effect anymore. Is it apathy? Probably not.

Because there are important things on those to-do lists, I can’t seem to complete: Things I like and want to do. Things I should do because I know they’ll make me happy in the long run. The irony is those are precisely the items often left unchecked on my to-do lists.

I almost always fulfill my external obligations. I haven’t heard complaints from colleagues, nor have I (okay, rarely) left my family scrounging for food at mealtimes (for the record, leftovers are a second act of culinary excellence.)

But when it comes to working on stuff that matters to me, I fall short. The knowing has not translated into the doing.

To be clear, I'm very much a selfish person—the put-your-mask-on-before-helping-others type. So, it’s not that I sacrifice my days in the service of humanity. Pfft. It’s just that I end up flaking on my own commitments and end up feeling like a beaver trying to build a dam with a twig.

Worse, every unchecked box on my to-do list triggers a rollercoaster of emotions from disappointment to anger to full-blown self-loathing. And based on what I read on the interwebs and my own observations of friends and family, I’m not the only one with this challenge.

Many of us, despite a lifetime’s study of productivity tools, feel like we’re stagnating. We consistently show up for others but not for ourselves. And one of the key reasons for such stagnation is a disconnect between who we really are and who we think we aspire to be. And a lot of it has to do with the labels we assign ourselves.

The trouble with labels is that they can be both empowering and restrictive. Every label carries with it the weight of expectations.

A "trusted colleague” means you are willing and available to take a 9 p.m. call on a Friday night—without creating a fuss—to troubleshoot the sudden production outage at work. Using this definition, would you still want to be the go-to person at work?

A meditator is someone who shows up to the mat consistently regardless of the kind of day they’re having. Going to a Vipassana retreat once in 2018 does not qualify someone to label themselves a meditator.

Labels have a statute of limitations and come with expiration dates. As we grow and evolve, it becomes all the more necessary for us to evaluate the labels we’ve assigned ourselves and question their authenticity. But most important of all is to reflect on whether our daily actions are in accordance with the identities we’ve created for ourselves.

The key lies in understanding our true identity and navigating the pitfalls of self-expectations. Simply asking yourself this question:  “What labels do I use today to describe my current or future identity?” can go a long way in helping you figure out what you are genuinely interested in vs. what you think looks cool but may not actually be.


Staying committed to an aspirational label and identity demands more than just barking at yourself—it's about saying no to a million other things. Quality over quantity. Always.

The ideal label is to aspire to be a blank slate so you can deal with life as it comes, but if you’re wired like I am, a wide-open, agenda-less day is just the thing that could tip you over from fevered anxiety into straight-up insanity. The next best thing we an do is to follow these two steps.

Step 1: Choose your labels and, consequently, your identity carefully and consciously.

Step 2: Mercilessly prune away tasks, objects, and maybe even relationships that aren’t in alignment with your chosen identity.

Fun fact: Beavers are well known for building dams and actively changing ecosystems. That’s because they play to their strengths without trying to be social goofballs like the otters, even though that sounds like so much fun.



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