Declaring To-Do List Bankruptcy

To-Do List

I have three to-do lists, in three different formats, going at all times. First, there’s the legal pad that lives on my office desk that contains my work to-do list. That one is straightforward. Second is my daily home to-do list, a habit I picked up from my mother. Like her, every morning I take a piece of scrap paper and fold it in half, then write down absolutely everything I can think of that I need to do that day, even the stuff that I do every day and would never forget (“shower” “wash dishes”). I don’t go to the extreme of jotting down “wake up” or “eat lunch,” but it’s pretty close. I try really hard to keep that list both specific and realistic; I don’t just write “knit,” but rather “knit two pattern repeats on hat,” and I don’t say “answer all emails,” but “email X, Y, and Z” instead. My goal every day is to have all the items on that list crossed off by the time I go to sleep. I rarely achieve that goal, but I often get close enough to remain happy with myself.

But then there’s my master to-do list—the monster that resides in a Word file on my computer desktop. That list is everything I need or want to do EVER, from “buy a birthday card for Mom” to “swim in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.” Bills to pay, blog posts I want to write, things I want to buy—as soon as I get a notice or have an idea, I put it on the list. As things get done, I strike them out, and every once in a while I go through the whole file and delete all the struck-out lines to tidy things up.

I’m not so good, however, about deleting things that should no longer be on the list at all, and as a result, that master to-do list is long. Very long. So long that just opening up the file and seeing all the stuff I have yet to do is enough to discourage me. Where do I even start?

I finally decided last weekend that the time had come to declare to-do list bankruptcy. I know people who periodically declare email bankruptcy, deleting/archiving all unanswered messages older than a specified period of time and telling themselves that anyone who really needs an answer will write again. I definitely need to do a thorough clean-up of my personal email inbox (I’ve slipped away from Inbox Zero, which always used to be my goal), but that’s not my main organizational problem right now. The to-do list is.

There are many entries on that master list that are absolutely never going to happen—and which no longer need to happen. Their time has passed. For example: I took a trip to Utah last October and intended to write a blog post about it. I haven’t. And given that I didn’t take great notes during my trip and can’t begin to recapture the things I meant to say at the time, I never will. It should not still be sitting on my to-do list, a frustrating reminder of one more thing I planned to do but never managed to get done.

See? Arches National Park in Utah. I was there, and that’s all I’ll ever say about that.

So that master monster to-do list? I’m wiping it clean. Declaring to-do list bankruptcy and starting fresh. I have, of course, “creditors” who need to be “paid”—certain things on the list can’t just be swept away (Mom, I will buy you a birthday card, I promise!), and those entries will be transferred to the clean list I’m starting. But I’ve also realized that I need to break down the master monster list into sub-categories to keep things straight, and also not overwhelm me. “Swim in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland” belongs in a category called “Travel Ideas,” not mixed in with “Pay Visa bill (due Feb 22)” and “frame Ph.D.” (someday). (And those two entries belong in “Financial Stuff” and “Household Tasks,” respectively.)

I hate the feeling of looking at my master to-do list and acknowledging that the time has come to declare bankruptcy. I wanted to do all that stuff. I planned to do all that stuff. I really, really thought I could, if I just budgeted my time properly. But that doesn’t always happen, and I often bite off more than I can chew. Throw in the unpredictabilities of life, and the result is a long, intimidating list of good intentions that are simply never going to be realized.

So it’s time for a clean page and a fresh start.

And hey, now I can cross “blog post about to-do lists” off today’s to-do list!

In the middle of writing this post, my colleague Kate showed me her Trello to-do list setup, which is amazing. I’ll admit that I can easily fall victim to thinking that the right tool will solve all my problems, but Trello looks like it offers the kind of task categorization and workflow assistance I need right now. And since I’m starting fresh, this is a natural opportunity to give Trello a try. I’ll see how it goes.

So-true-it-stings cartoon by Adrienne Hedger and used with respect and admiration.

One thought on “Declaring To-Do List Bankruptcy

  1. In a word, scary. As I write, I have my immediate (within the next week) to do list; my longer (before we leave Florida) list; my rug and tile selection possibilities list (hope to trash in near future); the hardware store list, the Costco list, and remnants of yesterday’s Publix list which I left in the car by mistake and therefore didn’t remember everything needed. Oh, and a list of the flower pots I need to fill but the weather turned chilly and turned me off to that. And your mother, too! Could this be congenital?? Now, if only we could get your Dad to start working from a list on paper……..

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