I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started working with to-do lists – it must have coincided with the time when life got really busy, at the end of my undergrad just when I was about to move to Europe to start my Master’s degree. Then by the time my PhD journey began, there was no turning back: I had become a list-making-machine. Big and small tasks, complex ones and easier ones, emails to reply to, errands to run, questions to ask, feedback to give – it all got jotted down, patiently and meticulously, as if I was rummaging through my head with a butterfly net, catching each thought to bring it onto paper, in order to free up some space in that snowglobe of mine. I thought of them as my lifeline – my best tool for keeping organized and on top of things. With my trusty lists, I would not forget. I would have a system. A plan. I would feel a sense of pride with every checkmark, as well as a sense of anguish upon realization that the checked-unchecked ratio always remained unchanged (because we all know that with every item we check off, we also think of at least one more to add to the list).
Yup, to-do-lists are probably one of my favorite things in the whole wide world. The trick to these lists – at least for me – is to have the tasks broken up into manageable pieces, so that checking them off is possible within the timeframe of the list. As daunting as having 33 items on a list can seem, recopying the same unchecked items from list to list every week is also tremendously frustrating. Another trick is to somehow organize the list in a way to make it more logical or manageable to you. I usually split it up into four quadrants: Tasks, Errands, Correspondence, Home/Leisure. Within each quadrant, I also try to organize the sub-list in a way, either chronologically if I am aiming to tackle these things in a specific timeframe (like a day, or a week), by order of priorities (which also gives you a hint as to what you should tackle in which chronological order), or by order of difficulty (which gives you a choice of whether to work on one or two time-consuming things for a whole day, or a number of simpler tasks that are easier to get into if your day is broken up by other commitments, like teaching or classes or errands. I usually have one master-to-do-list for the whole week and that I keep on my desk at home. If there are too many floating thoughts in my head, I then make a daily list on a small post-it or my agenda, and carry it with me. This is fun because it is doubly satisfying to cross things off TWO lists – your daily one and your master one!
I don’t know if everybody works with lists, or whether they do so to this extent. But I don’t have to look far to know where I got it from.
I sat down at the dining room table with my cup of tea, and literally had to brush several papers aside.
“That’s for the party next week – some thoughts for the menu. That’s for the groceries, for the party. Oh, and that one is a list of things I’ve been meaning to do around the house over the last month or so. I check it off as I go along. And that one was for today”, my mom explained proudly.
I took a sip of my hot tea and smiled at my mom, half loving her organization, half seeing myself in her, and a third half fearing for my future. Was I going to have, at some point, 7 lists running simultaneously on separate sheets of paper? Holy gee.
Lately, with the holidays around the corner, a few tight deadlines for my PhD research project, a great many potluck parties that I have found myself cooking nearly every day for, other work-related duties like smoothing out the details of an upcoming collaboration and keeping up with blog posts, as well as a number of emails to friends that have sadly gone unanswered, I have found myself relying more heavily on my lists than ever before, as I try hard to juggle all of this. I fear that I am juggling way too much, and I am hoping that my lists are saving me and not actually aggravating my neurosis! I find myself making new lists much more frequently (but, good news, I am also checking off items more quickly!) and starting my day at 6-7 am with a serious list of what a successful day should look like. AND, if only all this meant that I would have more peace of mind. No! I STILL lie down at night with thoughts of what I should add to the list. I almost have to keep a post-it under my pillow to make a list of what to add to the list! (Just kidding, of course… I hope… Save me?).
Don’t get me wrong – I highly recommend to-do lists. But lately, I’ve just felt our relationship has gotten a bit tumultuous, a bit too intense. I used to rely on them to keep me sane. Now I think they’re making me insane.
All I want for Christmas, then, is to be free of these lists for a few days! I can’t afford not to work at all, because it’s too much of a crunch-time for me. But, if I can manage to reduce my duties to a level where I can keep them all nice and tidy in my head without having to write them down on paper, I’d really be thrilled (and relieved).
So, that’s my challenge for the coming days. To slow down the pace a bit, rewind the neurosis a little, and try to find some peace away from the scribbles and checkmarks.
If you suffer as I do, and juggle too much (especially if you’re also parents on top of the grad school whirlwind, I honestly don’t know how you do it!), then I wish you the same list-free holiday!