QUIT: To Do Lists

credit: tmray02 (license)

[Part of my mission to “live deliberately” involves ruthlessly cutting out anything that saps my time, energy or money to no good end. I’m calling these things my “Quits,” and this is one of the many items that have found themselves on my Quits List.]



My inner Penelope is going to howl a bit at this one, but it’s one of the things she needs to learn to let go.

I, like Penelope, used to love lists. A lot. At one point I had (I sadly kid you not) three To Do lists going at the same time. They gave me a sense of control—for a little while. Then they got completely out of control.

The Illusion of Order

My lists were supposed to be my arsenal of productivity—a vast reserve of ways in which I could Get Things Done. I had a plan and a strategy. I was staying on top of things.

There was the Master To Do List (everything I ever wanted to get done, ever); the Weekly To Do List (action items that needed to be done sooner rather than later), and the Daily To Do List (2-3 things to focus on getting done by the end of each day).

Every week, I would chose a handful of things from the Master List to upgrade to the Weekly List, and every day I’d choose 2-3 weekly items to focus on that day. It seemed methodical and disciplined. It seemed do-able.

In theory, it was. The problem is, life doesn’t operate theoretically, and neither do I.

The Intrusion of Life

The trouble with most Get Things Done strategies is that you have to put those strategies into action. And many of them don’t take into account the wiggle room you need when life inevitably happens.

My perfect little reserve of To Dos might have empowered me to check off projects left and right like an efficient little machine—if my days were nothing more than blank time slots and I had nothing better to fill them with than an endless round of tasks. But though most days start off like a fresh, clean page, they always filled up faster than I expected with tons of things that weren’t on my To Do lists.

Dishes piled up in the sink. Cars needed their oil changed. Friends wanted to come over. And, every now and then, I could use a little time to do something non-chore-related, like read or watch an hour of guiltily indulged reality TV. Life always seemed to get in the way of my To Dos. And although I felt vaguely guilty for not checking more things off, it was never guilty enough to stay up an extra hour or sacrifice some writing time just for the sake of a few check marks.

Why To Do Lists Fail
(Especially If You’re a Neurotic, Postponing Overachiever)

My lists started out with the best of intentions. I didn’t want to forget things, so any time I thought of something, on the list it went. I figured that way, if I ever found myself with free time (ha!) down the line, I’d have a plethora of useful things to do with it.

They were also a handy way to defer stress. The instant I thought of a project, I could jot it down and promptly forget about it. It became a problem for Future Cordelia. The problem was, Future Cordelia never had any more free time than Past Cordelia did, but Past Cordelia kept loading more and more projects onto her. Past Cordelia seemed to think that Future Cordelia would acquire superhuman levels of energy currently unknown to her—and that she’d have nothing better to do with her time. But Future Cordelia just looked at those lists and laughed. Because she was too busy just trying to live.

The Fallout ( = nothing, really)

Eventually I stopped looking at the lists altogether. Old To Dos piled up, nothing new got added, and I just gave up. And the thing is, when I completely ignored everything, my world kept running just as smoothly as it had before. The things that really needed to get done still got done. And the things that didn’t get done didn’t seem to make that big of a difference, because most of them were things that Past Cordelia though were important but Future Cordelia didn’t really give a hoot about.

I still feel a little uneasy and lost at sea sometimes when I have a spare moment and don’t have lists of projects waiting to tell me what to do with it. But you know what? Even I did, chances are I’d just look at them, decide I didn’t feel like doing anything on them, and do something else anyway. This way, I get the same result but without all the guilt and lingering sense of inadequacy. Score.

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  • Susan

    Right. I’m not that great at To-Do lists either, unless it’s a list that I can accomplish. Like if I have a project and there are so many variables to get started, I write it out for one day. Or if I just can’t get motivated.

    Otherwise, I go to bed thinking about what I want to do the next day. If I wake up and it’s changed a bit, that’s fine. I allow myself the chance to tweak it and mix it up.

    • Cordelia

      That’s a good point. Breaking down a big project into smaller steps is a great idea, and probably something I should be doing more of to keep myself on point. My To Dos were more random projects I felt “should” get done, but which really weren’t essentially important in the grand scheme of things.

      Having a few things in mind for the coming day is a good idea, though. Even though I don’t have a formal list anymore, I still usually have a few things I hope to accomplish each day.

  • Red

    “Especially if you’re a neurotic, postponing overachiever.” Uh… You just described me to a T! lol

    I used to LOVE to-do lists. I kept one with me at all times. Especially with classes and FT work, to-do lists kept me focused on the task at hand. And I just loved getting to check off something from the list.

    I don’t know what changed within the last few months. I tried to keep a to-do list at the beginning of this semester, but I ignored it until it became a mess not worth cleaning up. Now, if I know I have three chapters to read in a week, I focus on reading those chapters. If there’s a project that needs to be done, I get it done. I’ve found that, as long as I can utilize my time well (easier said than done), I’ll stay on top of all of my tasks without a list.

    • Cordelia

      I loved checking things off too! It was when I realized I was only checking most of them off for the sake of checking them off (not b/c the projects themselves were all that important) that it stopped becoming fun for me. You’re right–the things that really get done always find a way of getting themselves done. Everything else? Meh…

  • I’ve been trying really hard to FINISH my lists. I don’t think I could ever abandon them completely, but I do often leave one or two things lingering for questionable lengths of time!

    Also? You’ve been tagged: http://leafprobably.wordpress.com/2011/03/02/seven-stylish-things-about-me/ (but no pressure!)

    • Cordelia

      Aww, thanks for the tag! I’ll have to get working on that.

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