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The Tyranny of the To-Do List

I love to-do lists. Love them. I have about 189 old Moleskines full of them. No, I don’t use my expensive hipster notebooks for idle scribblings or for writing poetry or for plotting the Next Great American Novel. I use them to make lists of things that, in theory, I should do but probably never will because a) they’re boring; b) they involve the bank in some way; c) they’re hard work; or d) all of the above.

So what’s the problem (apart from the waste of paper)? Surely to-do lists show a valuable inclination towards organization, a dedication to life’s less instinctive and enjoyable tasks  – notice, for instance, that to-do lists rarely include things like “go for drinks!”  or “call in sick to work on Monday so you can sleep in and then spend the rest of the day reading in the sunny garden!”

So yes. I like to-do lists, in part because they appeal to the uber-conscientious side of me, the side that likes to approach things with a plan. To-do lists are like a knight’s armor; the battle isn’t going to be any easier (in fact, all that metal makes it a bit of a slog, and it’s hot and stuffy in here) but the blows will hurt less. Because, you know, even though I haven’t yet paid my seriously overdue electricity bill, it’s on the list, so you can’t say I don’t have my s**t sorted out.

The problem is that if you imbue them with too much importance, allow their power to go unchecked, to-do lists become little malevolent kings. You start to find yourself using them not as a useful tool but as a blueprint for everything. You say things like, “Yeah, I’d totally love to come to that awesome event where they’re giving away diamonds and chocolate and puppies and champagne but my to-do list says I can’t because I have to drop my dry cleaning off and then I need to go to the bank and wait six hours for them to say, “I can’t have a replacement ATM card for another two weeks even though the machine ate it. Sorry.”

It’s not that I really want to drop my dry cleaning off or sit at the bank while someone else’s child ties my shoelaces together in an effort to distract himself from the fact that he’s been here since Mommy came in to discuss a loan last Tuesday. Those things are incidental. Yeah, it’d be great to have coats that don’t make it look (and smell) like I get all of my clothing from landfills and it would be pretty useful to have a debit card so that, you know, I could pay for the dry cleaning but it’s not like my happiness depends on these things. I could perfectly happily stay in bed all day eating avocado on toast and watching old episodes of Spooks and wondering if Richard Armitage’s eyes could possibly be that blue and intense in reality.

No. The thing is that I just really, really want to cross things off of my to-do list. That’s why we all put things on our to-do lists that we’ve already done: so we can experience an instant thrill as we cross them off again.

Which, if you really think about it, is weird. At the end of the day, a to-do list is not about organization or prioritization or dedication. I make these lists, these pages and pages of lists, just so that I can deface them.

And while I’ll continue to make my to-do lists, I refuse to have my life ruled by the bizarre compulsion to draw a line through a piece of text. So if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go cross “write something” off today’s list and then see what the next easy thing to get done is (looks like it’s “write a new to-do list”).

by Miranda Ward

Featured image taken by Miranda.  

Follow Miranda on Twitter @aliteralgirl.

Sponsored by: A Literal Girl

  • Nata Rubiano

    I make to do lists all the time, but with things I wish to do and probably never will, like sky diving in Rio de Janeiro or going on a unicorn hunting trip over the weekend…
    …And the theory I had about banks sucking in every corner of the universe has now been confirmed.

  • Nefarious Newt

    My wife swears by her to-do lists, but then she’s a project manager. Me… I can’t even remember where I put them half the time, and when I do, I don’t feel good about the things I check off the list, but bad about the things I didn’t. They work well for some, just not me.

  • Rachel Cantu

    This is great! I love to-do lists! I can’t remember things any other way. I recently found the following on a post-it “Saturday to-do list: 1. Call mom 2. Make a real to-do list”

  • Nyssa Sager

    Yaay! I’m also a compulsive (to do)-list maker! So recognizable!

  • Kaitlyn Shore

    I read this after writing the same shopping list out four times in one day, just because I liked to edit it. It’s so fun!

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