I’m Addicted To Making Lists

We all have our demons.

My husband, for instance, can’t go more than an hour without checking his cell for new messages and texts (according to the newly-revised DSM-5, this is indicative of a serious disorder known as Being a Lawyer). Give a pack of gum to my son, and he will steadily chew his way through it, one piece at a time, until his mandible aches. I know people who compulsively binge-watch shows on Netflix that they don’t even like all that much. What’s interesting about these people is that they’re entirely self-aware. They know it’s stupid to consume back-to-back seasons of Xena: Warrior Princess when they have housework, or errands, or even basic hygiene to attend to. And yet once they start, they just can’t seem to stop.

I get it. I’m that way with my to-do lists. I am an unrecovered, relentless — nay! obsessive list-maker. Around the first of every year, I list all the stuff I want to accomplish in the next twelve months. It’s not one unbroken annual list, mind you — I divide my goals by category and subcategory. For instance, I distinguish between what I want to achieve “At Work” and “At Home”, with “At Home” divided into sub-lists for Family, House, Finances, and Personal.

By this point, the more astute readers are guessing that (1) my sub-lists are further detailed into sub-sub-lists, and (2) that I most likely suffer from some kind of nebulous, generalized anxiety disorder. These readers are correct on both counts. My “Personal” to-do list, for instance, is divided among targets I set for my Health, my Social Life, and my Individual Betterment — an admittedly fuzzy category that usually includes things like finally installing and using the Rosetta Stone language program that’s been sitting on my shelf and giving me accusing, judgmental stares. As for the anxiety disorder, my shrink says I’m making admirable progress (I haven’t told him about the lists).

It gets better (or worse, depending on how you look at it). Around the first of every month, I break down my annual list into a monthly list of what seems do-able. Every Sunday night, I consult my monthly list and create a weekly list of what seems do-able. And, as night follows day, every morning I jot down a daily list of what seems do-able. And yes, in case you were wondering, when inspiration strikes, I do indeed break down my daily list into morning and afternoon do-ables (But not hourly. That would be overkill.).

I keep all my lists in a small spiral notebook, the kind with perforated pages that you can tear out and toss. This is essential, since I don’t want to see lists for the previous day or week — especially since I rarely complete my lists. You see, what I list as “do-able” in a twenty-four hour period is less realistic, more aspirational. Planning to “hit the gym”, “rent steamer and clean carpet”, “service the car”, and “call Barb to say happy birthday” looks eminently reasonable on notepaper, each task sitting so neat and tidy on its line. Yet actually doing these tasks on a typical workday is more often than not an exercise in futility.

There is so much conspiring to sabotage my lists. There might be a long line at the service center, or Barb might actually answer the phone and want to talk, as people oddly enough do when you call them. There are kids who need clean uniforms for practice, spouses who can’t pick up dinner after all, and cats that vomit up half-digested rodents on the rug you just steam cleaned. Not to mention the evil twins of self-sabotage, Tiredness and Lack of Discipline. I don’t know about you, but after the office I feel less like “hitting the gym” and more like hitting ebay to peruse the latest offerings in vintage handbags.

Hence, the tasks on my list often go unfinished. For every ten daily items, I usually manage to cross off only four to six, carrying the remainder over to the next day’s list — or the next week’s as the case may be. For an ultra-rational type such as my spouse, this is cause for bafflement. Why don’t you just shorten your lists to two or three things that truly need to be accomplished and consider the rest gravy? he asks me. What’s the point of setting yourself up for failure by listing stuff you won’t possibly get done? And besides, isn’t all this endless listing and re-listing just an OCD-related form of procrastination? Aren’t you using your lists as a substitute for action?

Silly, rational husband with your logical, cyborg mind. My lists aren’t a substitute for action. They’re a spur to action. Modern life means being flooded with a tsunami of objectives, responsibilities, and everyday nuisances. For an anxious sort like myself, this can feel overwhelming to the point of paralysis. Listing persuades me that the chaos can be tamed, that the storm can be corralled into a set of bullet points. The insurmountable is really just a simple matter of one, two, three. For instance, yearly goals like “learn basic Spanish” or even miserable weekly goals like “clear out garage” are daunting, but daily tasks such as “review vocab flashcards” or “vacuum up floor with ShopVac” are minor and nothing to get worked up over.

Do I over-do it and list far more than any mortal without a full-time staff can accomplish? Sure, but I do this out of a sense of optimism and agency, which is not such a bad thing. There are few things that please me more than reviewing the previous day’s or week’s list and starting afresh. I literally turn a new page and jot down a new list on blank, unsullied notepaper. It makes each day feel like New Year’s, full of possibility, resolve, and the sense that — as gymnast and human dynamo Laurie Hernandez would say — “I got this.”

Am I deluding myself with a false sense of control? Quite possibly, but it’s better than deluding myself with the false sense that I’m ineffectual. Because here’s the thing: While I don’t often complete my lists, I always complete some portion of them. This means that my aspirations to action are reliably followed by at least partial action, which is better than no action at all. And please don’t judge me as mental when I tell you that the pleasure of crossing out a finished task is visceral and gratifying, a true dopamine burst. I savor making crisp lines through list points with a black fine-point Sharpie the same way a heroin junkie savors the rush.

All of which is to say, I admit that I am powerless over my addiction to lists, but I have no intention of stopping. They don’t make my life unmanageable. On the contrary: They inspire me to take the reins, get out there and at least try, for God’s sake. You can pry that notebook of mine out of my cold, dead hands.

But first allow me to make a list of everything I want to get done before that happens.