I love the idea of a fancy planner. You know the kind that has pretty floral pages, goes inside a matching binder, and fits in the pocket of a matching leather purse. And inside my planner would be this lovely to-do list written in neat handwriting, arranged by priorities (A, B, C) and the order I would do them in (1, 2, 3) and how long they should take (15, 30, 60 minutes). In my head, successful, organized, productive people have full planners of appointments and to-dos.
Plus, I really like to write to-do lists, but once I get going, it’s hard to stop. I start to write what I need to, what I should do, what I could do, and what I might do if everything else I could possibly do was done:
- learn to crochet
- crochet afghan
- send crocheted afghan to my cousin’s new baby.
The problem is my to-do list grows and grows, until it would take me a week or two of concentrated effort to finish. What starts out as a project to organize and make my tasks manageable and keep me focused and calm becomes a long list of the ways that I think I am not doing enough.
And the funny thing is that what I actually need to do is the same thing everyday: make breakfast, do morning prayer, work on the novel, tidy up my space, do my workout, make lunch, work on blog, go for a walk, take a shower, cook dinner, email or call one friend, talk with Evan, read a book, go to sleep. I don’t need a to-do list to remember to do those things.
I am in a season, by intention and happenstance, in which I actually have few changing outside responsibilities. My job is to learn to be a writer, support Evan as he looks for a job, be a good housemate to my brother and sister-in-law. I don’t know how long this season will last. I know that in other seasons the responsibilities will grow, so they likely will need to be corralled into a to-do list. But for now, for this time, this day, this week, I actually don’t need or want a to-do list. I need to focus on doing the simple daily work of this season.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t have ways of keeping track of what needs to get done, though. If I’m not going to have a general to-do list, I still need a system to get stuff done that falls outside of the perimeter of the daily rhythm of eat, pray, write, clean, move, talk, read, sleep. So here are my non-listy methods:
10 Things I Do Instead of a General To-Do List
I use my Gmail inbox as a list. For really, really important things, I keep emails unread, and for other emails that need my attention, I star them or start reply drafts. I know to check the stars and the drafts for things that need to get done fairly soon (like sign up for a part of a small group meal).
I put extra events on the calendar, and for things that need my attention I have the g-calendar send me an email reminder to do something that day (like check that a free trial is canceled at the end of the month).
3. Grocery Lists
I use the app Our Groceries to keep grocery lists. It’s a simple, free app that shares lists between users, so Evan and I have a list for Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, etc. It remembers what you put on last time, and makes it easy to add frequently bought items. It also updates in real time, so if Evan and I split up while shopping, we can see what the other person has gotten.
4. Packing Lists
I will make a list of to-dos for a big trip: what we need to pack and do before we lock the door and head out on the open road. For special occasions when you don’t remember what to do by rote, a list is helpful.
5. Filing System
I try to file papers that I need to keep quickly, tossing what I don’t need, i.e. duplicates or items available online. So then any papers I leave out I know that I need to do something with right away, sort of like unread or starred emails. I love what Rachel @ Small Notebook says about taming filings systems (and anything else she says, for that matter.)
6. Automatic Bill Pay & Regular Check-ins
Most of our bills are set to be paid by credit card or automatically from our checking, so as long as at least once a week I go on to check the bank accounts and credit cards, everything gets paid. It’s helpful to keep a list of these sorts of things so that when you move and switch banks, or when you get a new credit card because there has been suspected fraudulent activity (both events of this Spring) you can switch those bills over to your new accounts. For more on automatic payments Andrea@Andreadekker.com recent post about them.
7. Coordinating & Communicating
I happen to be married to a man who loves his Google Task List and Calendar. So I can depend a lot on his being organized. He’s awesome at keeping his contacts up to date and putting friends’ addresses in his phone. Still, having a time when we discuss what we need to do is important. We need to be clear about who is doing what when. This can be as straight forward as making sure that the grocery list is up to date, looking at calendars together, forwarding important emails to each other, or messaging each other.
8. Creative Questions and Ideas
Since so much of my work is creative, I do write down things that I want to do or research or focus on. But these “lists” are usually more in narrative form; they are drafts I keep in separate files in Scrivener, Pinterest boards, journal-like entries about things I am thinking about, or questions and notes in notebooks.
9. Say No.
Guarding time is so important. Evan and I hate errands, and don’t really like shopping, so we try hard to not go on superfluous shopping trips, and especially to not fill up a Saturday running around doing errands. And while it’s easy now not to be over committed since we’re still new to the area, saying no is often something we need to do intentionally to guard our time. Susan Wise Bauer on Tsh’s Art of Simple Pod cast a few weeks ago said, No is a complete sentence (and a lot of other wonderful things about seasons of work and rest)
10. Routine & Rhythms
The most important part of not having a general to-do list is filling my days with the large and ongoing projects and disciplines that I most want to focus on. Sure, other things come up and we have to have a system to deal with them, but mostly what I choose to do every day is more important than any individual task that I think that I should do. I love what Brooke @ Slow Your Home says about creating a rhythm and choosing to cultivate a simple and slower home.
I confess that I still struggle sometimes with admitting that I don’t have a to-do list. But really when I succumb to the temptation to make a giant to-do list, it doesn’t make me happy or more peaceful. It tends to take time away from the things that matter most. Perhaps soon I’ll be in a season in which the to-do list is a helpful tool, but for now, I’m declaring freedom from the to-do list.
Do you have a general to-do list? How do you keep track of your responsibilities?
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