Lists, we can drown ourselves with well-intentioned lists. Some of us may get carried away enough to make lists out of lists, where each item slowly becomes a link to a never ending chain that may shackle us. Lists can stifle spontaneity and keep us from living in the present.
The benefit of lists though is that they make the process as transparent as possible, and transparency often serves like the spool of thread Ariadne urged Theseus to take with him as he wound his way through the labyrinth. Lists allow us not only to foretell the future but track our progress from past to present. For many of us, lists are the rungs on a ladder that help us pull ourselves out of the swamps of daydreams or mental malaise.
In a New York Times article, “A New Gauge to See What’s Beyond Happiness” John Tierney covers the work of Martin Seligman, who writes on the malaise that all of us find ourselves mucking through regularly:
To avoid that sort of malaise, Dr. Seligman recommends looking at the basic elements of well-being, identifying which ones matter most to you, setting goals and monitoring progress. Simply keeping track of how much time you spend time each daily pursuing each goal can make a difference, he says, because it’s easy to see discrepancies between your goals and what you do.
You might also start to question some of your goals and activities, the way that Dr. Seligman occasionally wonders why he spends so much time playing bridge. It’s brought him some clear achievements — including a second-place finish in the North American pairs championship — but he doesn’t pretend that bridge provides any meaning in life. He says he plays for another element of well-being, the feeling of engagement. “I go into flow playing bridge,” he writes, “but after a long tournament, when I look in the mirror, I worry that I am merely fidgeting until I die.”
The most empowering element of lists is they show us we always have choices. Lists demonstrate that we can prioritize how we want to live our life and how we want to spend most of our time. In the Career Advice Column from Inside Higher Education Chronicle, June 28, 2010, Kerry Ann Rockquemore advises support for summer writers who finally have some open space and time to finish their literary pursuits:
Error 5: The tasks you have set out are too complex. Take a piece of paper and pencil and map out whatever it is you need to do. When I feel overwhelmed by a big task, I write the big-overwhelming-thing on the right side of the paper and a stick figure (me) on the left side. Then I work my way backwards from the overwhelming thing to myself by asking: What are the steps that need to be accomplished to complete this? I keep breaking it down into smaller and smaller steps until I’ve reached the tasks I can do today. It will also help you to uncover if there are aspects of a project that you don’t know how to do, so you can pinpoint areas where you will need to seek assistance.
Error 6: You can’t remember what you have to do. Make a list. Get all of the things you need to do out of your head and onto a piece of paper in one place. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, electronic, or synced with some gadget or gizmo. A note card, post-it note, or your paper planner will do fine to capture all of your to-do tasks. Start the week with a 30 minute planning meeting where you determine what needs to be done for the week and place each of those items in a specific time block in your calendar. If they don’t all fit (and they won’t), then figure it out how to delegate, delete, or renegotiate the deadlines on the least important items.
The bottom line is do it now, or it will never get done, and the best way to tackle our projects is to break them up into bite-sized tasks, which is exactly what lists do for us. They show us the itty-bitty, step-by-step climb that we assign ourselves. That climb is steep, but its not as if it hasn’t been trekked before, and those who achieve simply put one foot in front of the other, moving inch by inch. Lists shouldn’t be reserved just for New Year’s Eve Resolutions, but we should revisit where we are, reflect on where we’ve been, and revel in where we want to go next with each turn of the season and every milestone met.
Do you have any surefire strategies of using lists to get your writerly tasks accomplished? Let us know what ways and means work best for you.