Friday, October 26, 2012

The oldest task on my To Do list

The oldest item on my Google calendar Tasks List is 367 days old.

I’m happy to say that this is the exception, not the rule. In general, I take my To Do list pretty seriously. That’s not to say I get to every item the very same day I list it, but usually I do it within forty-eight hours or so. And if I haven’t crossed it off within a couple of days, I rethink whether it even belongs there.

A good two decades into adulthood, I’ve come to realize that To Do lists should function not as lists of wishes, aspirations or goals, but as lists of tasks – whether work assignments, household chores or errands – that really and truly must get done. Therefore, if I start to run more than a day or two late on any particular To Do item, I instead question just how high a priority it is, whether I really plan to do it at all, if it’s equally essential as the items on the list that I am getting to, and whether there’s perhaps a better time to try to get to it. And then, most of the time, it gets reassigned to a future date.

But the item that I listed on October 25 of 2011 was one I just couldn’t bear to let go of, even as I also apparently couldn’t motivate myself to do it, a full year later. Namely, reading the collection of Thoreau writings that I’d bought last fall.

I really wanted to do it. I really intended to do it. But I just couldn’t seem to get to it. And while I seemed unable to get to the reading, I seemed equally unable to treat Henry David Thoreau as dispassionately as I treat the other items on my To Do list, those that I knock off the list or save for another time if they haven’t justified their importance after a couple of days. Poor Thoreau just sat there languishing in the overdue items column as the listing went from days to weeks to months to finally a year overdue.

But now I can finally cross the item off. Oh, I haven’t read the whole collection yet, but I’ve finally started it, a year and two days after first meaning to get to it. That’s because I found a convenient trick. On my birthday earlier this week, my sister sent me the same Thoreau collection as an e-book. And I synced it onto my phone. Which means even if I remain unable to find the time to sit down and give poor Thoreau my undivided attention for hours on end, I can sneak a peek practically any time I want to, just by glancing at my phone screen. While I’m frying pancakes. In line at the post office. Cooling down after my run. On hold with customer support. Waiting for the movie to begin.

Thoreau himself, I suspect, would hate this. He’d despise not only the technology I rely on in general but also the fact that his writings are now making use of that same technology, and the fact that I was so nonchalantly willing to exchange hours of fireside reading for a quick peek at a 2x3 inch screen.

Well, yes, but it’s better than nothing. For 367 days, I’ve made no progress on this one item on my To Do list. Then yesterday I downloaded the text and started reading the introduction. It probably wouldn’t be good enough for Thoreau, but he didn’t have children’s breakfasts to make, commutes to endure, or customer service on-hold queues. The original hard-copy version of the book of Thoreau readings looks pretty as a decorative object on our hall table, but the e-book is actually getting read, at long last. And my To Do list once again has nothing older than two days on

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