the to-do list and my evil twin

When I was younger I loved keeping to-do lists. I would write down every single thing I could think of that I needed to do in a given week or on a given day. Then, as I accomplished things, I would draw, con much gusto, a bold, wavy line through the “done” item (no mere check marks for me). Most days and weeks I could get through my list with no problem, although there were the inevitable busy days and changes in plans that sometimes stymied my grand tally of accomplishments.

Then I had a baby and a shorter list. And then another baby and an even shorter list. And then another baby. And a to-do list became a laughable relic of a time gone by. I gave up on lists altogether for several years, except for certain special occasions like Christmas or packing to go to the lake. That was nice — not having lists — but the problem with that approach is that sometimes Important Things Get Forgotten. When the news of our move to California came down, you can bet I went right back to making my to-do lists to beat the band.

And kept right at it through the summer and the fall as the kids started school. I even started giving them to-do lists! After a while, I began to notice that my lists were bringing out the worst in me. The taskmaster (I cannot go to bed until that laundry is folded). The over-organizer (Wow, my submissions spreadsheet needs reorganizing, I’ll just quick do that before I submit these poems). The perfectionist (No, I will not jot the item I just remembered down in pencil, I will open the file on the computer, add the item, and print a clean copy). The drill sergeant mommy (What does your list say to do next? Then you should do that before you do anything else (which is true, but…)). Pretty soon, my lists had me by the throat and it was hard to breathe or sleep or have any fun.

Thank goodness I’ve learned (about 1,000 times now) that when something isn’t working, you can usually find a way to make it better.

Here are some things that have helped me to use to-do lists as a tool, rather than allowing them to bring out my evil twin:

First, I make a master to do list that has every single thing I can think of that I need to do sometime soon-ish. But I only look at that list once a week on Sundays. That’s when I choose about five things from the list to try to check off during the coming week.

the master to-do list

If you look closely, you’ll notice I also try to keep things light, by writing SAVE THE WORLD! at the bottom of the list — a friendly reminder that I am just one person on this whirling globe, and that it might take me awhile to get to everything on the list.

Then for each day, I use this template (scroll down to the “pocket docket” heading) to make a short list of that day’s schedule and most important things.

there, now, doesn't that look more manageable?

There are some things I do every day — like morning housework (just enough so I can concentrate at my writing desk) and cooking dinner. I put those types of things on, then add one or two items from my master list that feel doable. I also write down one or two writing items for each day. When I’m done with the day’s list, I look at it and think about what the very most important thing (or two things) of the day is/are. Today, the very most important things were to submit poems and reschedule a doctor’s appointment.

Lastly, I keep a little memo board by my desk so that, if I get distracted by the taskmaster, the over-organizer, or the perfectionist, I can let them be heard by writing a note-to-self and sticking it on the memo board.

As I worked on submitting poems today, I noticed that my submissions spreadsheet really does need to be reorganized. I started doing that, then a gentle voice in my head said, Today, the most important things are to submit poems and to reschedule the doctor’s appointment. I jotted a note on a post-it, stuck it on the memo board beneath Sir Owl, and went back to submitting poems.

No system is foolproof, of course. Another thing I’ve learned 1,000 times in this life is to be flexible. When my head started nodding, my eyelids grew heavy, and I almost submitted the same batch of poems to one journal twice, another gentle voice said, You need a nap, girl. So I took a quick nap (I know, I’m lucky to be able to do that).

The drill sergeant mom hasn’t been seen in these parts too often lately. Her zen counterpart knows that the kids pretty much know what needs to be done each day: put away your school things, clean up after your snack, do your homework, play outside, and do one job — whatever mom needs help with today.

It has only taken me 39.75 years to learn how to coexist peacefully with to-do lists. I wonder, Reader, how do you interact with your lists of things to do? Are they your friend or your foe? Am I the only one with an evil twin?

(P.S. if you want a cool owl calendar to hang by your desk, too, go here to download it).

6 thoughts on “the to-do list and my evil twin

  1. I love your lists/list handling, and I am relieved not to be the only person who has to learn things 1000 times. I like the “What’s for dinner?” aspect of your list, as this is a question frequently uttered in my house by everyone, including me, still in charge of dinner, alas. I make lists on everything now, and then rummage around trying to find them under other things….

    • Kathleen, I like the ‘what’s for dinner’ portion too — because it reminds me to think about it early in the day, in time to, say, thaw the chicken that’s for dinner that night. No, no, you are definitely not the only one who has to learn things 1,000 times — I’m right there with you!

  2. first of all: con mucho gusto!!!!
    me and to-do lists… definitely love/hate. Haven’t found a balance. Cain’t live them, Cain’t live without. Thanks for the perspective on the twin concept.

    • Another trick, Jane, is to make three to do lists for the day: ideal, possible, and probable; I find that the difference between ideal and probable is a vast gulf, another reminder not to take myself/my lists so seriously. Thanks for reading!

  3. I use my to-do lists as a guide, rather than a rule. However, I tend to include items like “Make to-do list for the weekend” and “Get a coffee” just so I know for certain that I have something accomplished. It builds momentum for me. 🙂

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