Productivity, Work
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Why I’m Thinking of Trashing My To-Do List

(Photo: Nancy Gonzalez/ TueNight)

I’ve always got a to-do list going. Occasionally that list is in the “Fresh” stage, when most of the items have been recently added. Sometimes, roughly half of the items are checked off, with the rest awaiting completion – I call that the “In Progress” stage. But most often, my list is in the “Can’t-Stand-to-Look-at-It” stage, where the tasks that remain glaringly undone remind me of failings both large and small.

One such task that lives on every list I’ve compiled over the past six months is “Get Direct TV.” It’s a concise and seemingly benign line item, yet its simplicity belies the pain-in-the-ass job that it actually is.

[pullquote]Because of the smart phone, no place is sacred or safe from the tyranny of the list. Sitting on the toilet, I type “Almond Butter” into the subject line so I remember that we’re out of it.[/pullquote]

Instead of “Get Direct TV,” the phrase should really read: “Do a competitive analysis of all TV/internet/phone service providers in my area by calling each company; spend 23 minutes on hold waiting to connect to a representative in a faraway land who will attempt to explain the numerous indecipherable options; make a chart to compare data, even though I do not understand it; have a tense conversation with my spouse regarding said data; call back chosen company to set up installation of new equipment; call back to reschedule appointment when conflict inevitably arises; stay home waiting for technician; call company to inquire where the hell technician is; when technician finally arrives, attempt to understand his complicated instructions on how to change channels (or reboot entire system when channels refuse to change).”

This is why “Get Direct TV” will remain on my to-do list in perpetuity. I just can’t bear to do it.

But there are more troublesome to-do’s lurking on my list. Like “Write Novel”. Or “Learn to Cook”. Of course, these are not really to-do-list tasks, and they do not belong on anyone’s list, yet there they are on mine, month after month, masochistic mini-messages that poke me in my softest spot. Why keep such untackle-able items on the list, stealthily tucked between “Pick Up Dry Cleaning” and “Pay Dermatologist Bill”? If those massive chores make the list, I might as well tack “Get Ass in Gear” and “Live Dream” on the bottom of the page.

Some people love to-do lists, my husband among them. That’s because he is a linear thinker and an expert juggler of many things at once. For him, the list is a repository for the hundred ideas that fill his head. It is a tool by which he maintains control over potential chaos. But there are those of us who are intuitive rather than linear thinkers, who move from one task to the next then back to the first, sometimes adding a third along the way. We are easily distracted, and we don’t respond well to performing under pressure. For us, instead of providing a sense of organization and purpose, to-do lists elicit anxiety and guilt.

To make matters worse, I find that I now add items to my list constantly via my smartphone. During a recent 7:00 A.M. dog walk, I sent myself a reminder to get a flu shot. While waiting for yoga class to begin, I shot off multiple memos to self, such as “Reserve Hotel Room For College Commencement,” “Send Thank You Note to In-Laws,”Schedule Oil Change,” “Get Roots Done.”

Because of the smart phone, no place is sacred or safe from the tyranny of the list. Sitting on the toilet, I type “Almond Butter” into the subject line so I remember that we’re out of it.

So I wonder what would happen if I ditched the list. Would I never remember a thing? Would my hair go gray or would I starve if I didn’t have written instructions on how to avoid such a fate? Or might kicking this crutch to the curb be a good thing? Perhaps a list-free life would be less stressful and force my aging brain to work a little harder, as a Luminosity game might do.

Instead of the list, I could rely on the world around me – my mirror to tell me it’s time for a dye job, my rumbling tummy to remind me about that almond butter, friendly collection agents to nudge me when I miss a payment. Maybe a lack of list would lead to a whole new level of intimacy between my spouse and me, as he offers gentle verbal reminders of upcoming events, and whispers sweetly and repeatedly in my ear to call the super about the slow drain in his shower.

And perhaps those things that never belonged on the to-do list in the first place would reside in a more creative channel in my brain, leading to a completed (and sold) novel, and some serious new skills in the kitchen.

I like this idea. It feels big and freeing. There really may be something to exploring this concept in a very serious way.

I am definitely going to put it on my to-do list.

Filed under: Productivity, Work


Amy Barr

Amy Barr is a veteran magazine editor. She started her career as an editorial assistant at Working Mother magazine and rose through the ranks to become Executive Editor before joining Time Inc. to launch the online edition of Parenting, where she served as managing editor. Amy was also part of the online launch teams for, What to Expect When You're Expecting, The South Beach Diet and Everyday Health. You can find Amy on Twitter at @amylbarr.


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