Though I often fantasize about the day when I cross the last item off my to-do list, the truth is that that day will never come. I try to remind myself that the never-ending to-do list is a good thing. I have things to do! I’m alive!
However, though I know that my to-do list is never ending, I don't really want it to get any longer than it is. Here's how I (attempt to) manage the stuff on my plate: I actually have three lists!
Master To-Do List (3+ pages long)
This list includes everything I want to do someday. I keep all this stuff written down so that I don't have to fret about it—or even think about it at all. I review my master to-do list weekly, adding to it if necessary, and moving tasks from it to my current to-do list.
Current To-Do List (2+ pages long)
This list includes everything I want to do soon. Right now it has four parts. On one page, I list tasks related to my various jobs and tasks related to my personal goals (for poetry writing, blogging, and getting my shit together). On another page, I list all the assorted other stuff I want to get done—send packages, set up interviews with potential babysitters, etc. On a third page, I list all the stuff I want to get done before we leave for vacation—on Friday! Thank goodness, that part of the list is short. I review my current to-do list every evening, adding to it if necessary, and moving tasks from it to my daily to-do list for the next day.
Daily To-Do List (1 half-page long)
This list includes everything I want to do today. I have to be strict with myself about this list, and to tell the truth, I haven't quite figured it out yet. As I wrote last week, a to-do list represents a set of agreements with myself, and by breaking those agreements, I lose my trust in myself, which feels rotten, rotten, rotten. Over the past few weeks, as I've written these to-do lists and observed what actually gets done, I've learned the following:
- Don't list what I wish I could do in one day. List only as much as I actually can do in one day: the job-related stuff that has to get done, the next small steps toward meeting my personal goals, and one to three of those assorted other things that I need to do. Nothing more.
- Unless a sudden change in plans requires otherwise, don't try to do any other work than what's on my list. As Crash Davis advises Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham: don't think.
- On the other hand, do actually make an honest effort to do the things on the list—especially if I dread doing them. I've found that if I've made an honest effort to do what I planned, I can renegotiate what's on my list (for example, by deciding to take care of something tomorrow rather than today) without any feelings of self-recrimination.
- As soon as something new comes up, or if I think of something that needs to be done but hasn't made its way on to one of my lists, I write it down and get it off my mind. Usually I write it on the bottom or the back of my to-do list. Or I might write it on one of the index cards that I carry with me nearly all the time.
To give credit where credit is due: These practices are based in part on ideas I've learned from It's Hard to Make a Difference When You Can't Find Your Keys by Marilyn Byfield Paul, Getting Things Done by David Allen, and the blog Zen Habits by Leo Babauta.