This is what my younger sister said when I asked her how she makes to-do lists: “I wish I could send you a picture of my to-do lists from college… They were SO pretty!”
Her wish, in fact, is pretty representative of how every member of my family uses lists to organize the tasks, hopes, goals and grunt work that composes their lives. In preparation for this new year and all that I hope it holds, I wanted to re-think the way I organize the tasks at hand. I’m a pen-and-ink kind of person (no iPhone calendar for me!), and last year I found an agenda from Orange Circle Studios that worked wonders: The months of the year were laid out in the front of the book, and then each week had a spread, with a This Week column for non-date-specific tasks. I loved this calendar, and got another one for 2015, but I also found myself making a long-range to-do list in Stickies on my MacBook, scribbling notes on 4”x5” scrap paper, juggling little notebooks for various committees, and struggling to make an Excel workbook work for planning my book. Meanwhile, I felt like I wasn’t actually getting anything done. So, I turned to my family—expert list-makers!—for advice.
My younger sister detailed the ways in which her list-making has changed now that she’s a full-time nurse. Recalling her nursing school lists with something akin to nostalgia, she said her “to-do lists now are pretty boring.” She said:
“In real life, if I feel like I have a lot to tackle, I start by just writing everything I can think of down, like brainstorming. I’m a “box in front of the task” kind of girl, so when I’m done with the task, it gets a check mark. That’s what I do at work, too, because I usually have similar tasks to complete each shift. So I try, at the start of my shift, to write everything down that needs to be completed by the time I’m done, and then give myself a check mark when it’s completed. In nursing school, though, I would organize one sheet of computer paper by folding it in half twice and then using each smaller rectangle for a specific class. I would write those lists in red, and then when I was done, I would completely cross it out with a black pen. So then when I was done, I had this almost entirely black sheet of paper. It was so satisfying!”
My twin sister was a little more reticent about her own list-making prowess, but she agreed that a to-do list provides motivation and control in what our younger sister calls “real life”—the world we inhabit that involves bills, chores, exercise regimes, health insurance, banks, and various other Tasks Adults Have to Accomplish. This sister said, “I write my list in the evening if I’m feeling anxious about the next day and it lets me settle down. The list helps me think about what needs to be done and gives me a sense of control of everything. And then crossing things off is a huge motivator!”
A list also serves as a record of the day’s activities. “At work I want to be able to look back at the day and know that I’ve gotten things done and am prepared for the next day. Of course I add things that are simple just so I can cross them off,” my twin sister admitted.
Now my twin sister uses just one long list to organize each day, but she said, “In seminary I used to have categories like Dad has had: away, home, work, school (and then by class) because it kept me organized.”
My dad is our nuclear family’s Prototype List-Maker—my sisters and I all started with Up-Down-Out-Away lists—and in response to my request for information about his list-making process, he promptly made me a list:
How do you organize the list of things you have to do?
1. One to-do chart is on the computer; it has 4 columns: Time period, away, inside, outside. Rows are for time periods, which include Today, This Week, This Month, This Season, This Year, and Future
2. An immediate “to-do” list is jotted on paper for when I’m away from the computer; for example, when I’m on errands and have a list of items to buy and/or places to go, like bank deposit
How did you come to organize your tasks this way?
1. We got a computer
2. I learned to write
What motivates you to cross things off your list, to get things done?
1. Relief from the burden of things not done
2. See #1
I come from a family of Do-ers (ahem, in addition to Smart Asses), people who take charge of situations and minions (teachers, nurses, artistic directors, ministers, and project managers). My family likes to Get Things Done, so when I wanted more information about how to Get My Own Things Done, I simply enlarged my survey group a little and posed my How Do You Use a To-Do List questions to my uncle and aunts.
Why use a to-do list at all? I asked.
“Why not?” My uncle responded. “Using a list frees up my mind from having to remember everything and lets me put it to better, more creative use. A list doesn’t let me forget anything. It also helps me get things done efficiently. Once the list is created and then prioritized, I can crank it out.”
My uncle also echoed my sister’s note about the list as a record of activities, and my own sense of wanting to feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day: “Here’s a tip to feel like you have accomplished more: As you finish things that aren’t on the list, write them in and cross them off. At the end of the day, it’s a visual representation of how much you did. For work, it’s a simple way to track hours for projects.” As for motivation to get things done, my uncle said, “Sometimes it’s just as simple as the desire to see a list with everything crossed off.”
One of things I learned about my family is that we share this characteristic of finding satisfaction in not only finishing things but also crossing them off a list. Yet we also seem to share a kind of flexibility, a desire to figure out what needs to change in order to get things done. We’re strategic about our lists. According to my mom, that all started with my maternal grandmother, the Ur List-Maker. My mom said, “I grew up with a mother who loved to organize, make list upon list, and read all kinds of things about organizing. My kind of play as a child was to clean and organize the playroom instead of actually playing. I spent all kinds of time cleaning and organizing. I have read all kinds of organizing books – physical space as well as time.”
One of my aunts responded to my request for insight a week or so after my arbitrary deadline (designed to help me get this blog post off my own to-do list), and she said, “I know I am late but once on a list a task will be accomplished eventually.” This sort of response reminded me of a family maxim—Done is Better Than Perfect—which carries its own connotations related to the satisfaction of finishing something, and which in turn reminds me of good advice I learned in grad school about how every first draft is perfect because it’s a draft.
Like other members of our family this aunt has “several lists going at all times… There is a big ongoing list and a daily list. I also have a long-term list of Would Be Nice to Have Done if Time Permits. Time seems to be a critical factor. There is not enough time to finish one list before another is started.”
If my dad is the Prototype List Maker, my other aunt is the Epic List Maker. I knew her lists were comprehensive, but I did not know about the three-ring binder:
“I have a three ring binder of project plans and lists. Some are project plans complete with Result, Intention, Vision, Action Steps, and Support. These actions have dates. Any project I take on has one. I spend the time to make the plan, document it on my computer, print it and put it in the binder. If I think I will do it, it goes somewhere in the binder.
I always have a Current List. I recreate it once or twice a week, after I have made a written calendar. I look ahead on my calendar a couple weeks to see what it coming up that takes advance preparation, such as agenda creation. Then I work my way through the pages of the notebook, looking at each list. I copy what I plan to do this week to the Current List.
The current format for my list is a sheet of colored paper (so I can find it) folded in 4 columns (8.5 x 2.75). The first 3 columns from the left are 5 (top priority), 4 (next priority), maybe. The last column has a place for errands called “out” and for calls. I put the 5 list where it is visible and keep this list in my purse or in the outside cover of the binder.”
The most important reason for the list, my Epic List-Maker aunt said, is that helps ensure she follows through on commitments: “I take pride in being a person who will finish the tasks she takes on in a dependable way.”
And every few months she goes through the binder and decides what projects she is never going to do and lets them go. “For a moment,” she says, “it is a clean slate.”
My mother is the most introspective about list making. “I think it’s important to use a to-do list, written or in your head, as a way to get things done, to move personal and work projects along,” she said. “I keep a lot of things in my head and have for as long as I can remember. That applies to things I have to do, to buy, things I have to get done at work, at home, etc. If I start to get a little frantic or know I have a lot to do in a specific amount of time, then I make a list and organize it, short easy tasks to get out of the way first, or most important to get done at the top of the list, or things that are time sensitive first. Crossing things off feels good, and helps to determine if there is still enough time to get everything done or if something has to shift.”
I have never made a “pretty” to-do list, or been able to work off a mental list of tasks, or been satisfied by one long running list of Things To Do Today, and I hate recopying tasks from one list to the next after a failure to Get Something Done This Week, but sometimes the unending list of Things Adults Do is almost paralyzing. And that’s when my Epic List-Maker aunt points me back to the Ur Lister Maker, my maternal grandmother.
“When I get stuck [or overwhelmed with the number of things I have to do],” my aunt the Epic List-Maker said, “I use Gramma Pat’s timer thing – set the timer for x minutes and do anything on a project. That gets me unstuck.”
I like the sight of a black line through an accomplished task, no matter how small, and I like measuring my days with the number of Things Done, knowing that I’m just part of the next generation of Do-ers trying to finish things in a dependable way.