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Around the Bend: Cutting the to-do list down to size

Each morning I take pen to paper and jot down a brief but action-packed piece of pure fantasy. This isn’t a writing exercise; it’s my daily to-do list.
I’ve read enough women’s magazines to know that the to-do list is an essential ingredient for an organized life (followed closely by a giant wall calendar and, for some mysterious reason, color-coded covers for your various keys). So over the years, I’ve made thousands of to-do lists, believing they possessed the power to impose order on my otherwise scattered life. Recently, it occurred to me that if this were true, I wouldn’t keep running out of stamps.
As it turns out, I didn’t really understand how to-do lists work. Practical people use them to organize their tasks for the day. I used them as a place to itemize my long-term goals so I wouldn’t have to think about them anymore.
If it never occurred to me to refer back to a list once it was made, this was an honest mistake. The women’s magazines said you should make to-do lists; they never said you were expected to actually complete the listed tasks in a timely manner. Had they made that part clear, maybe I wouldn’t always end up getting my snow tires off in July.
With new eyes, I considered one of my typical to-do lists. The first few entries might look something like this:
•  Reupholster sofa
•  Write bestseller
•  Learn Spanish
•  Find tweezers
•  Paint house
See the problem? A list like that just isn’t realistic; the odds of finding the tweezers in my house were slim to none.
Rather than increase my effort to meet the daunting demands of my Herculean to-do list, I decided to revise the list to reflect my actual potential. I figured if I could make tasks less overwhelming by breaking them into smaller chunks, I’d be more likely to accomplish them.
I referred back to the above list and decided just to tackle just the first item, reupholstering the sofa. I came up with a new, more manageable sublist:
•  Look at sofa.
•  Come to terms with current fabric.
•  Take nap on sofa.
Now here was a list I could handle.
With the onerous task of large-scale upholstery off my shoulders at last, things started to look up. I realized I’d only stick with a list if I could feel success, so I wrote down only those tasks I thought I had a reasonable chance at. “Drink coffee.” Done. “Take shower.” Done. “Drive to work.” Done. In an hour I had crossed off more items from that one list than I had from all my previous lists combined.
This wave of triumph soon gave me the confidence to start spicing up my lists with more challenging tasks. Last week I added “Put away winter boots.” This was a biggie, considering they had been sitting by the back door, unworn, for five months. But seeing them on the list, I felt obligated to put them in the closet. I was finally experiencing the awesome power of the to-do list.
Crossing off tasks left and right made me giddy. I wanted more. Soon I found myself adding items that had been hanging over me for months. In the last three days alone, I’ve sorted out the junk drawer, thrown away outdated medications for those pets who’ve been dead more than two years, and cleared out all the unmatched socks in the house.
I love my to-do lists.
I used to lie awake at night thinking, “Dang, I never did paint the house today. Maybe tomorrow.” Now I fall asleep congratulating myself for taking out the recycling on the right day.
Managing my life by the dictates of workable to-do lists has freed me from the guilt of not getting things done and given me an unfamiliar sense of inner peace. My family benefits from my newfound organizational skills and I’m sure at some level they appreciate how closely I follow my lists — nothing says “I love you” like a month’s supply of toilet paper, after all. But they also seem to think I’m getting a little too rigid.
The other day, for instance, my husband called and asked me to pick up a pint of ice cream on my way home. I could have gone for a little Ben & Jerry’s myself, but my hands were tied.
“Maybe another day,” I told him. “It’s not on the list.”

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