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The Anatomy of a List

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I was the type of kid who got lost looking up a word in the dictionary. Twenty minutes after flipping the cover open, I would find myself deeply concentrating on some random page, reading entry after entry. I wouldn’t even be in the right letter for the word I’d set out to look up.

Without a plan, I can get a little sidetracked, especially as a workshifter. That’s probably why I’m compulsive about making lists – travel packing lists, itineraries, strategically grouped errand lists and, of course, the venerable daily task list.

Everyone has a made a list at some point. Even my non-diary-keeping, at-times-scatterbrained, ever-forgetful husband will jot down a to-do list once in a while. He’s also open to accepting a to-do list from me written on his behalf (truth be told, it’s entirely for my benefit), which makes up for the days/weeks/months that pass without so much as a grocery list.

I, however, keep a daily task list that often gets slightly revised, if not completely overhauled, by midday.

Opposites attract, as they say.

Regardless of what’s on a task list or how frequently we keep one, we can all agree that it feels good when an item is crossed off. No matter how significant or trivial the task, our brains simply recognize an accomplishment.

We can also all agree that we experience varying levels of disappointment when we fail to get something done. Despite my devotion to planning, failure to tick an item off my list before the day’s end happens to me all the time. And when I have to copy over the same tiresome tasks and projects from one day’s to-do list to the next, I can feel my shoulders slump, along with my enthusiasm for the task itself.

Self-Sabotage

I readily admit that my lists aren’t always reasonable. I have high expectations. It’s either that or I have a keen desire to sabotage my own momentum and success. [Note to self: Add “Research therapists” to tomorrow’s list.]

Lately I’ve experimented with an abbreviated list on the weekend. I only include items that I know I can (and actually want to) accomplish. This list is noticeably shorter than my usual fare.

There’s nothing particularly grand on these lists. They are very basic. What’s important is I get the satisfaction of accomplishing everything I set out to do.

Brass Tacks

I have been known to include some strange items on my lists. Back in grad school, one of my roommates caught a glimpse of something on my list that I have yet to live down. I’ll leave the specifics of it to your imagination.

My lists themselves take on a variety of formats. Projects and ideas are born in a Moleskine desk diary and then expanded in notebooks or on a chalkboard. I’m especially old school when it comes to lists.

I’ve come to believe that lists shouldn’t just be about what must get done; they should also serve as a reminder or space holder for what is valuable to an individual. For me, that’s often “Take a walk,” “Yoga,” “Read” and sometimes the indulgent, restorative “Take a nap.” I don’t want the day to get away from me without taking time to engage in these recalibrating activities.

A word of caution about lists: what’s meaningful to you might be downright threatening to someone else. A few months after our wedding, my husband found a post-it note on the floor of our car. It read: “Poison Chris.” Being named Chris, this immediately caught his attention and he began to worry. Later that day, he warily handed the note to me and asked if there was anything we needed to talk about. I said, “Yes, actually there is. My Christmas list. I’d like Santa to bring me a bottle of perfume. You know, Poison.”

What makes or breaks your list?

Photo Credit: paloetic

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  • http://www.directionstech.com.au April Neylan

     
    Great article!

    “I was the type of kid who got lost looking up a word in the dictionary.”

    When I was at hight school, my friends and I used to look up words in the dictionary on our lunch break just for fun. Nerdy much??!!!

  • http://realgreencleaning.com/ Joe

    Lists have made a major positive change to my business over the last year. This article gives me some great tips to further my list making skills.  Honestly, for me lists do not come natural but the really do help!

  • Angela

    Fellow word nerd appreciating a kindred spirit. BTW, Digby says hi.

  • Yuanwenyong

    that’s really a useful article for GTDers .