Zen and the Art of To-do Lists

In the past week, as my life has gone from one extreme to another, I’ve come to a very clear realization:  the less I have to do, the more I feel like I need a to-do list.  This raises two important considerations – firstly, just how this bizarre fact manifests, and secondly, what that means about the very nature of to-do lists.

On this occasion, the best course of action is to start from the middle.

Around the time my accountability partner and I decided to start working together, I suggested that the best way to measure our outputs would be to use to-do lists.  My thinking was that it would help us to identify specifically what needed doing in the week, picking out the step-by-step process of getting from point A to the sometimes elusive point B of freelance writing, and, hopefully, identifying what specifically wasn’t getting done each week.  Ideally, we would be able to reflect on what was getting in the way, what wasn’t working, where we were spending too much time, what we were consciously avoiding or where less-important aspects of our lives were interrupting more important tasks that were therefore being neglected to our productivity’s detriment.

Does this sound like a good foundation for creativity?  No.  The answer is no.

But that wasn’t the point, really.  Creativity doesn’t thrive if we’re too stuck or too overwhelmed to create.  The roughly four million how-to guides on writing start with this instruction:  Write.  Our to-do lists functioned as the proverbial fire under our asses.  Keep moving, they were meant to tell us.  You have a crapload more to do this week.  And of course, If you don’t get this done, you’ll have some explaining to do come Monday.  Sometimes we listened.  Other times stuff got in the way.  Sometimes I told my list to kindly shut the front door.

I invite you, Gentle Reader, to accompany me to the beginning.

This idea of streamlining our tasks came directly out of another of my professional incarnations:  Service Manager.  With the five billion things my staff and I had to do at any and every given moment, it was hard to keep track of what had been done, whether it was done properly, which of our working habits were working and which were hindering our progress, etc.  We were also fire-fighting constantly owing to the fact that our clients were young homeless people with high risks and needs

(What young homeless person doesn’t have high risks and needs? you ask.  I know, right? I respond.)

and we needed to know that all the busy work we were doing was helping rather than hurting our day-to-day efforts.  My love affair with effective time management only got more intense whilst working as a voluntary consultant with an NGO in the Philippines.

In both of these roles, I felt my job was to empower the people doing the frontline work to do it in the most effective way possible.  The systems I created and helped to create in my roles were intended to help make getting the “real work” done a little bit more easily.  I didn’t find that their work lacked creativity – quite the contrary. I felt that they were inventing on the spot all the time, every day, in everything they did.

The professionals I was working with were mediating conflicts like the one between two teenage boys, one with a cue ball in a sock, the other with a broken bottle in his pocket, chests heaving, eyes burning holes into one another, both waiting for the moment to lunge.  They were mediating conflicts like the one between two communities, one comprised of families that had been cultivating an area legally for generations with deeds to prove their right to be there, the other comprised of families who had been swindled into fleeing their family farms by the government while the banks produced those very “deeds” out of thin air to “sell” the land where their grandparents were buried to new immigrants.

Talk about thinking on your feet.

There were a couple of important points – other than the bleedingly obvious ones – that made these situations very different to my accountability partner and I, sat comfortably at our desks, endeavoring to be the writers we weren’t yet ready to call ourselves.  The first was that those forms provided evidence that kept funding coming in.  They turned intangible “soft outcomes” into hard evidence.  In the Philippines, they gave partner organizations many thousands of miles away a picture of what the paid staff got up to every day.  In the UK, they gave local government offices overloaded and overwhelmed by their communities’ needs reason to keep financially supporting the NGOs that ostensibly picked up a bit of the slack.

But nobody’s funding us.  We aren’t paid to prove what we’ve gotten done – we’re (sometimes) paid to just shut the front door and get it done.  Ergo the monitoring of our work brings us no additional income or prestige.

The second was that those forms also helped identify where a staff member was thriving and excelling or struggling, perhaps needing help to “find their dream job,” as another manager I knew used to say. They helped to monitor budgets and staff absences, tardiness and productivity.  They helped create a paper trail that led from suspecting that things between employer and employee weren’t working out to proving it in an employment tribunal if the need arose.

Nobody’s responsible for our productivity.  If we have a boss, it’s us.  If we’re underperforming, what are we going to do – fire ourselves?  Put ourselves on probation?  Probably not.

I can now assure you that we’re nearing the end.

I’ve created a whole gamut of systems consisting of logframes and Excel files intended to help me stay focused and remember what I’ve got to do next and what I’ve forgotten to do and so forth and so on.  They’ve been helpful.  But things have changed.

Without boring you with my daily tasks, suffice it to say that my calendar just got a whole lot busier.  So much so that in a panic the other day I went across the street and, like the Luddite systems and procedures junkie that I am, I bought a diary.  A day planner.  Like the ones we used to use before smart phones made them virtually obsolete.  I do not have a smart phone.  I’m not sure I would use it if I did.  As soon as the diary was in my purse, a sense of calm came over me.

But that’s not all.  I’m in the process of changing my outlook on my writing.  In France, one is never simply a “writer” – one is a pigiste (contracted magazine writer), romancier/e (novelist), nouvelliste (short story writer), journaliste (journalist), or redacteur/trice (article writer or editor – hard to figure that one out).  There are probably thirty more specifying titles I’ve not yet heard…which one am I? (more on this soon, methinks) And furthermore, am I an amateur, hobbyist or pro? I’m too damn broke to consider this a lucrative endeavor.  Owing to the fact that I’m not independently wealthy, I’ve already begun teaching English and am exploring further options for bringing home the (veggie) bacon.

I’m not quite sure what all of this means for the future of my writing career.  I know only that I’ve got to redefine my role…rewrite my job description, if you like.  There are no handbooks at HR to which I can refer for this task – instead I’ve got to once again mix a concoction of hopes and dreams and cold, hard reality. Something I can stomach.  Something that goes down smooth and hits the spot.

My organization (i.e., me) is undergoing a critical restructure (i.e., reality check), and our consultant (i.e., reality) is very much at odds with the organizational vision, mission and values (i.e., my soul).   Not surprisingly, this is a difficult time for the organization.  No severance packages will be available if our efforts prove fruitless.

With these very big questions hovering over my head at every turn, and with a million and three things to do, finding the time or the reason to write out my to-do list each week is becoming an activity I increasingly resent.  My accountability partner has frankly never been that much of a fan.  And yet…

I have finally arrived at the second point:  what on earth does all this mean about to-do lists?

I write out my to-do lists because they ground me.  I write them when I have a million things to do because they help me keep track of those things.  I write them when I don’t know what to do because they help get me started and they give me direction.  And I write them regardless of my task load because nothing – nothing – feels quite like crossing off something once it’s done.

With the thunderstorm of life change and ideas and uncertainty that’s currently gathering in my midst, I’m driven to panic attacks.  Perhaps more now than ever, I need those to-do lists.  But I think I’ll be taking them offline.  Scraps of paper scotch-taped to my desk – that’s how I roll best.  Arrows and tick marks and dog-eared pages in my diary, post-its and reminders scribbled on my palm.  Because this is how I am.  It’s precisely this sort of conceivable disorganization that gets my brain into gear.

And I need my brain on my side in a big way right now.

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5 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of To-do Lists

  1. suncitymom says:

    Well I read it once, read it twice and then finally got around to writing my “to do” list…..but admittedly at this age, if I don’t write it down, I will forget what I wanted to accomplish….and probably after writing ‘to-do’ lists for 45 years, it has become a habit. I have always written new year’s resolutions too……and goals…….and I have a bucket list……but let me share a goal I wrote on Oct. 28, 1996……we were living in a condo…Long Range—“Home w/office/guest bedroom, large kitchen, dining room, family room, w/2 car garage and a garden for vegetables, flowers and fruit trees”…………..it all happened in 2001. Writing things down is powerful……YOUR words are powerful and each day they become even more so……don’t allow the gift you have been given to not continue to develop so that it can be shared with the world…what you have to say is important and meaningful.

    • ann says:

      words are powerful indeed…thank you for saying all that…not sure i agree that what i have to say is so important, but i do like to be read/heard! and don’t worry…i don’t think words are going to stop being a big part of my life any time soon 😉

  2. maxzografos says:

    Reading your posts every morning is the best jump-start to my day Ann. Your words (be it the diet advice I sorely needed, or elephant posts) help and inspire people. They certainly do that for me. I know there are more question-marks than answers right now, but if there is something you should be certain, is that your writing matters. Keep at it 🙂

  3. […] way back in St Tropez, not long after we arrived in France.  And what it really comes down to is my personal obsession with to-do lists.  But in my efforts to write only SMART (specific/measurable/achievable/realistic/time-bound) […]

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