The Zen Habits blog posted an article recently suggesting a novel approach to To Do lists: list just one item. Accordingly enough, it’s called the One Thing System.
I like the way author Leo Babauta explains his process, but the problem with that approach, for me, is that I actually like To Do lists. I feel far more anxious when I don’t have an active To Do list going than when I do, no matter how long it is. Frequently, I sit down at my desk in the morning feeling like I can’t possibly get through all the tasks I have for the day. But then I open my Google calendar and take a look at the Tasks list and it looks much more manageable than I expected. In a way, it relates to what I always say when I talk about journaling: writing down your feelings is important because thoughts move in circles but words move in lines: if you keep it in your head it swirls around endlessly, but if you write it down you progress from point A to point B. The tasks in my head swirl endlessly, but written on a To Do list, they extend straightforwardly from number one to number five, or number ten, or wherever they end. And then it’s just a simple matter of checking them off.
Or not so simple, sometimes. When my To Do list feels daunting even once I see it written down, I have a different trick I employ. Once in a while, I break from writing a To Do list in the morning and instead, at the end of the day, I write a “Done!” list. I itemize everything I did get to, everything I finished, every small goal I reached in the course of the day. Productive? Well, it may not seem so: after all, seeing what I’ve already done won’t overtly help me make progress to those things I still need to do. And yet somehow it helps. It reminds me that even on those days when it seems like I did very little, something, however finite, got done.
I did that yesterday, and as often happens, it was reassuring. First I wrote down the work obligations I’d fulfilled. I interviewed an expert on Margaret Fuller and finished drafting an article about an upcoming Margaret Fuller celebration. I submitted a photographer assignment form to get a photo to go with the story about Margaret. (Yes, it’s hard to take a photo to run with a story about someone who has been dead for 160 years. We decided to go with a picture of an actress who will be playing Margaret Fuller in an upcoming dramatic production.) I reached my daily editing quota.
Then I moved past work to list other Done! items. I noted that I fed the dog and the guinea pig. I ran two miles. I folded a basket of laundry. I made dinner for my family. I delivered a check I owed to a neighbor. I stopped at the bagel shop for some pumpernickels and some sesames. I filled a two-liter bottle with water and brought it up to the attic. (For vague post-9/11 reasons we try to always keep a few full two-liter bottles of water around, and during last week’s water main break affecting communities around Boston, I’d given away our supply to our student minister.) I called a friend to find out what happened at Wednesday night’s School Committee meeting.
It’s all somewhat satisfying until I take yet another step back and acknowledge how many things are on neither list: not my To Do nor my Done. I didn’t read the New York Times, not one single article. I didn’t serve any meals at a soup kitchen. I didn’t send any checks to charity. I didn’t compost. I didn’t write a letter of comfort to a prisoner.
But the Didn’t Do list can be turned on its head to serve other purposes as well. Because it’s only fair, if I list things I didn’t do and didn’t plan to do, that I include a few items on that list that it’s good I didn’t do. I didn’t kill off any pets. I didn’t make any frivolous clothing purchases. I didn’t poison anyone. I didn’t commit slander. And so on.
There are myriad ways that task lists can work for us or against us. Sometimes they’re overwhelming; other times they’re a comfort. If I tried the Zen Habits method and put just one item on my list each day, what would it be? Well, I could always resort to the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm. Suppose day after day, that was the only item on my list. Could I live up to it? Probably not. My children may well end up in psychotherapy claiming that the essays, blog entries and in Tim’s case full-length memoir that I wrote about them did plenty of harm. My not-very-impressive environmental habits probably generate more harm than I realize every day. I kill mosquitoes. I forget to water plants.
Still, at the end of the day I can look at all these different lists and reassure myself that overall, I did okay. Not stellar, maybe. But not awful. And tomorrow’s a new day, full of new lists to be made.