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I have been measuring my life in to-do lists since the ninth grade.
I suspect you might find this fact depressing, which is why I’d like to lie and tell you that I keep them in the name of some experimental journaling project or because a large-looming, corduroy-wearing English teacher told me that Virginia Woolf attributed the strength of her writing to a similar practice. If only. The truth is so much less glamorous.
It goes something like this: as a self-important fifteen year old, I had decided I needed a better system to organize my highly demanding existence. Previously, I’d recorded academic responsibilities on the inside of my forearm in blue ballpoint pen. The method suddenly struck me as incredibly juvenile. I was in high school, goddammit. I had obligations! In search of an alternative that did not necessarily compromise personal hygiene, I set off for Staples and bought myself a slim, black notebook. “Would Judy Funnie have carried this?” I speculated. Yes, I believe she would have.
That year, I filled the planner with enthusiastic reminders to “Do history reading!” and “Read Hamlet!” I used it to document doctors’ appointments and the particulars of a growing number of extracurricular activities. I do not exaggerate when I say that it taught me accountability and discipline and the importance of routine. It also and most importantly introduced me to the potent, private joy that comes with crossing something off its pages. I ask you: Is any household act so satisfying?
By now, I’ve been playing the list-making game for over half a decade.
Sometimes, if I’m having a particularly unproductive day, I’ll scribble some inconsequential task in my beloved Moleskine’s margins just to have something to show for myself. “Take out trash”? You bet I did! It sounds crazy, but I mean it! Each checked-off box is an affirmation. It’s a tiny, real victory. It’s proof: I did it.
Given my confessed, pseudo-psychological dependency on the ritual of it all, it’s no wonder that I’ve become the type of addled millennial capable of wasting much of her Sunday morning perusing such pieces as: “30 Books to Read Before You Turn Thirty,” “The 20 Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make in Your Twenties,” and “The 8 Things Every 20 Something Woman Needs In Her Apartment.” Does it matter that I do not currently have an apartment? I hope not. Either way, I’m sure Elite Daily would still encourage me to invest in “A Sophisticated Laundry Bag.”
More embarrassing even than the fact that the one it suggests is stamped with the words “Soiled Garments” is the reality that I’m quite literally tempted to buy into its recommendations. Like those of my own idiosyncratic to-do lists, its implicit claim is so tantalizing: Do these things. Buy this laundry bag. You too can be an adult!
Earlier this week, The Cut’s Allison Davis cogently took issue with the kinds of itemized articles that I can’t seem to stop reading:
[T]hese convoluted, inspirational lists . . . offer no real value. Adulthood becomes a deadline, a specific abstraction, involving lofty goals like spiritual growth, crazy life experiences, and the kind of emotional intelligence that takes most people a lot of therapy and just livin’ to achieve. The flowery phrasing makes for a fun Facebook post, but for a generation of adults who often still rely on their parents for money to pay bills, where is the utility?
Later, Davis goes on to cite Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams’ more practical guide to “being a grown-up,” which declares that even nominal maturity demands — among other things — exercise, empathy, and basic money management.
By now, I can theoretically appreciate that not even religious adherence to such arbitrary lists can guarantee a lifetime of security. There’s no small, square box for that.
And yet, I can’t seem to tear myself away from Elite Daily and BuzzFeed and the treatise that Davis spotlights in her own piece — Glamour’s “30 Things Every Woman Should Have and Should Know by the Time She’s 30.” By the way, neither can my roommates. The prospect that someone else might have devised a perfect formula to justify our twenties and make it through our thirties is too enticing to pass up.
But are we the only ones who think so?
Let’s Talk About It.