The Haven
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The Haven

Let’s get’r done…

On To-doing Nothing

I Don’t Do Lists by codogblog, creative commons attribution 2.0

While I was growing up in a working-class family, adults constantly preached to me the values of sobriety, frugality, and hard work. That’s to say, they taught me how to practice these values to the very least degree I could get away with.

Thus, from an early age, I was encouraged to keep a daily “to do” list. I did so religiously… and I mean that literally, for the person that recommended it was my scoutmaster, who was also my parish priest (these days, that combination alone would trigger a lawsuit), so when he told me to “watch what you’re doing,” I took it as if it was the eleventh commandment. While other kids measured time in days left until summer vacation, I kept personal chronology in my “to do” lists.

So far as I can tell, the first “to do” list-keeper was, in fact, a Biblical personage. The sage but somewhat forlorn philosopher, Ecclesiastes, observed that there is “a time to every purpose under the heaven,” then proceeded to enumerate these tasks in great detail: “A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away,” etc. I imagine him scratching his head in the morning, staring at a blank stone tablet before etching “time to sew” onto it.

Lots of people keep “to do” lists, of course, but most discard them at the end of the day, like something they’re eager to forget. For some reason I’ve saved every one of them that I’ve compiled since my youth. I don’t know why, perhaps in the event some future biographer will appreciate the source material. Recently, I re-examined the contents of my life’s story, as expounded in my “to dos,” and, upon reflection, I realized that the accumulated evidence demonstrates one inescapable fact:

I haven’t done a damn thing in my entire life!

Doing nothing does not mean that I haven’t been busy. That’s the whole problem. Doing nothing falls into two categories of endeavor: things that never get done, and things that don’t need to be done, anyway.

In general, things that never get done are those activities that might be considered “errands,” “chores,” or “tasks.” These are things that need to be done over and over, the boring maintenance jobs of daily life, such as the scrubbing of toilets, the cleaning of rain gutters, the trips to the liquor store… They are useful to the doer only insofar as they provide justification for drinking beer afterwards.

Conspicuous among these are the dreaded “honey, dos,” the whole point of which, as every complicit spouse knows deep down, is behavioral control. “Honey dos” keep one’s significant other productively occupied and out of trouble, lest they lapse into sloth and lethargy. Without being pressured to complete a never-ending list of “to dos,” many spouses fear that their partners would do nothing at all, or worse, waste away the day lying in a hammock, drinking beer, and thinking lustful thoughts about somebody other than them.

Things included in the category of don’t need to be done anyway are most jobs performed as part of one’s employment. Meetings are a perfect example. Whatever is done, built, or written in the pursuit of some workplace objective will always be undone, tore down, and re-written in the not-too-distant future. Not because it was bad or inferior; but because, in business, whatever you’re not doing always seems like a better idea that what you are doing. Hence, all progress is recycled, or, in the words of Ecclesiastes, “What has been will be again…”

Equally superfluous are those little “projects” to which we devote countless hours, despite no tangible benefits. I have dozens of these. For example, I like to garden, but it is huge time sink. If time spent carefully planting, cultivating, and nurturing my tomatoes was converted to an hourly wage, then I probably spend the equivalent of ten dollars per tomato, notwithstanding that I can buy them for $1.50 per pound at Kroger. Still, I tend my garden as doggedly as though my family would starve if not for its bounty of squash and green beans.

“Hobbies” are another form of project. For instance, I have a thirty-year collection of late twentieth century Playboy magazines, which I’ve undertaken to organize by my own personal centerfold ranking system. I believe that it is a totally unique compilation, perhaps worth thousands of dollars, not that I’d ever sell any of them, because they hold tremendous sentimental value to me.

To be honest, I often use my “to do” list not so much as a nudge toward getting things accomplished as to justify putting them off. This works at two levels.

First, the mere act of writing a task on my list indicates that I’m serious about doing it, whether I am or not. By listing a task as “to do,” I can defensibly convince myself I’m getting ready to do it. Likewise, when my spouse confronts me with, “Have you fixed the dryer yet?” I feel entitled to respond, “It’s on my to do list,” and expect that answer to suffice.

Second, I design my “to do” list to demonstrate to my own satisfaction that, no matter how little it may feel like I’ve achieved on any given day, I’ve actually done lots. The trick is to stack the list with routine, easily dispatched chores that can be crossed off quickly. Thus, even though at the end of the day I may not have gotten around to fixing the dryer, I did trim my toenails, walk the dog, check the mail, etc. I mean, really, a person can only do so much in one day.

Sometimes, I wish that I could take the psychological leap to liberate myself from my “to do” list. When I feel down about myself, the list mocks me, as if it represents an inventory of my failures. I doubt that the most successful and powerful in our society feel the need to justify themselves by crossing silly minutiae off their “to dos.” In fact, I doubt if they keep lists at all. Instead, the elite keep “calendars.” They don’t have to actually do anything; they just have to show up.

So, why do we keep “to do” lists if they are so patently worthless? Because I suspect they sustain an illusion of accomplishment; it is like an “attaboy” to oneself. Now, for example, I can cross writing this essay off my “to do” list. I may not get around to fixing the dryer today, but as I see it, I’ve done enough to deserve a cold beer and some hammock time.




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Gregg Sapp, a native Ohioan, is an award winning author of the “Holidazed” satires, each of which is set in Ohio and centered around a different holiday.

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