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How my Mom made sure I’d never be ‘listless’

Illustration by Denis Shifrin

My mother was a "neatnik". "A place for everything and everything in its place" was a phrase I could repeat in my sleep by the time I was four. Probably sooner. It may have been my first full sentence.

She was also highly organized and a passionate believer in to-do lists in order to maintain her very high standard of efficiency.

By the time I hit first grade, my bedtime ritual each night began with the all-important task of writing 'THE LIST' for tomorrow. It was a very simple one to be sure:

1. Make my bed.

2. Brush my teeth after breakfast.

3. Be ready to leave for school on time.

As I got older, the list got a little longer and by the time I was ten, it was no longer a scrap of notebook paper on my bedside table, but had evolved into an ominous docket of tasks, posted on the fridge for all the world to see; you know, all those things a ten-year-old doesn't want to do.

1. Clean your room (don't forget to check under the bed).

2. Dust the furniture in the living room.

3. Wash your own breakfast dishes.

4. Help Mom fold the laundry.

5. Put away your clean laundry (neatly!)

6. etc., etc.

To be fair, there was a reward at the end of every week if I completed THE LIST, and I looked forward to that. And lest you misunderstand, my mother was a wonderful woman who worked hard and kept a lovely home for us. She was a kind and loving person, completely devoted to her family and determined to do everything in her power to help me grow up into a productive and successful woman. It never occurred to her that THE LIST was anything but a good habit which I needed to cultivate. She never knew that I nicknamed it THE TYRANT.

I despised THE LIST. How dare it infringe on my personal plans for the day? But infringe it did and it took me years to grudgingly appreciate its value. Yet the truth is that I actually do write lists for myself to this very day. (Yes, Mom, you won!)

I went through the motions for years, writing out by hand my to-do list for the next day, prioritizing each task. I tried various methods and experimented with color-coding and post-it-note reminders around the house, IPhone apps, day-timers ... you name it, I've tried it.

Admittedly, the fast pace of modern society has made a to-do list a necessity for busy executives, secretaries, mothers, teachers and just about everyone. It is usually touted as the surefire way to increase productivity and efficiency.

But if the sheer immensity of tasks you've listed leaves you in a state of mental and emotional paralysis, maybe you've written up a TYRANT instead of a LIST.

Psychologists have suggested that a long list of tasks creates a cycle of worry and anxiety about one's ability to complete the list. At the end of the day, when the impossible has proven to be just that – impossible – irrational guilt causes yet more stress.

We human beings like to get things done and abhor that nagging feeling of incompleteness at the end of the day. Our minds have a hard time shutting down, restful, sound sleep is hindered and our physical and mental health suffer as a result.

So why do we create these extensive lists in the first place?

Reality check quiz: circle the correct answer.

1) Do you secretly think you are superhuman? Yes/No

2) Do you have limitations on your time? Yes/No

3) Do you tend to be unrealistic about how long certain tasks will take? Yes/No

If your to-do list often feels like a TYRANT, then you probably answered "Yes" to at least two questions, if not all three.

Let's Dismiss the TYRANT

There are three principles we need to understand before we can compose an effective to-do list.

1. Time is your servant, not your master. You need to take charge and to budget your time just as you budget your money. Take a hard look at how you really spend your days. How much time is actually wasted with distractions?

2. Vague goals foster procrastination. To be effective, the tasks need to be specific and prioritized.

3. Get rid of the word "should"; instead decide what you "can" successfully accomplish on a routine day and make your list accordingly. Stop trying to be superman or superwoman.

How my TYRANT became my LIST

My life-changing moment happened when it dawned on me that a shorter list was actually the most effective. I could complete the tasks and come to the end of my day without the stressful guilt I'd endured for too long.

So now I keep two lists going – a daily one and a long-term one that is not defined by time.

My daily list is prioritized and never contains more than 5 items – never!

My long-term list itemizes things to be done that are related to long term goals or plans, items which will migrate to the daily list eventually, but only at the appropriate time. Most importantly, the long-term list is tucked away in my desk drawer out of sight. My focus is on today and, truth be told, isn't that really all we ever have at our disposal anyway?

For my daily list, I use small index cards or post-it notes. A full size notepad invites a long list. Choosing an index card physically prevents you from writing more than you should!

I make it a point to identify a specific action. For example, instead of writing down "Find a plumber", I write "Call Linda to ask for the name and number of her plumber." Specificity facilitates productivity.

Finally, focusing on one task at a time has become a major goal of mine. The more scattered our attention, the less productive and efficient we are. Doing one thing at a time and doing it well actually saves time in the long run.

Thanks, Mom. I really did need that training you gave me, even when I thought I didn't. 



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