A Good To-Do List Is More Revealing Than a Journal Entry
A lot of people despise the tyrannical, never-ending nature of to-do lists. I am not one of them. To-do lists have always imbued a sense of order into my world. To-do lists keep track of things I can’t. In my life, to-do lists are a friend, not a foe.
About a year ago, I switched back to a paper and pen to write my daily list. Life in pandemic shutdown was simply too overwhelming and too dominated by screens to continue using my phone’s Notes app to keep track of each bizarre day. Each night, I would grab my spiral notebook and sit down to write what I hoped to get done the next day in roughly chronological order, amounting to a kind of brain dump before I attempted sleep.
As the days of the pandemic got weirder and more repetitive, my paper to-do lists became ever more florid, detailed, and granular. A catalog of my biggest tasks, but also my smallest, measliest wins. A 20-minute walk in the morning. Tick. Writing 500 words. Tick. Washing my hair. Tick. Two minutes of planking to help my withering core. Tick. Call mom. Tick. Follow up with sources. Tick. Order stamps. Tick. Prep slow cooker dinner. Tick. Email accountant. Tick. And on and on.
Each tick felt like a pat on the back, a small acknowledgment that I was that much closer to making it through one more day, especially when there was no one else there to encourage me. The days when I couldn’t muster the strength to make and follow a to-do list tended to be Very Bad Days.
The habit stuck, which means that I’ve filled what now amounts to several notebooks with all the mundanities of my life. If anyone were to look at any one of the hundreds of pages, a written record of my pandemic year, I would be utterly mortified.
And yet that’s the thing about a really good to-do list: It’s extremely personal, even tender. It reveals what you’re worried about. What you struggle to do for yourself each day. What you can’t seem to get done week after week. What you look forward to. And even who you love.
I realize that to-do lists are somewhat en vogue these days, with no shortage of productivity apps, bullet journals, challenges, and other things you can probably buy to ensure you get more done. But really, the best to-do list is the most honest one. The one that cheers you on, reveals your flaws, and collates your wins. It’s also the one that no one should ever read.