The To-Do List

Let’s make a list about it, then we can talk about it.



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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.

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  • Marianne

    I write a lot of lists too, trying to be organized. But even this attempt at being organized is disorganised because the post-its are scattered all over the place. And then, when I stumble upon an old list I wrote, I always have the satisfaction to check all those things I did, even if it was weeks ago 🙂

  • shellBell

    I started my planner obsession in 7th grade and I still have every one of them. Yes, I am truly crazy. My mom loves all my lists and she keeps them whenever she finds one…she is probably the most disorganized woman on the planet and she thinks of me as some kind of adorable type-A alien who couldn’t possibly be blood related to her. They are a bit like diaries, chronicling all the milestones and daily tasks that I used to accomplish. I’ll be particularly glad to look back at this year’s some day, since I just got married. I’ll be so over-the-moon that I never have to plan a wedding again 🙂

    If anyone needs a recommendation for a planner…the beast of all type-A personality planners, I suggest The Day Designer by Whitney English on Etsy

  • Brooke

    List fanatics unite! My oh my there is nothing I love more than a good list, colored pens, and ruler to keep it all in line. OCD aside, I definitely have an attachment to lists. I agree that its a sort of reassurance that I’m doing my life correctly– that everything will be okay if I keep chugging along, crossing off things as I go. This always strikes me as short-sighted because I easily get caught up in the short-term goals like “take out the trash, update resume, get new notebook for excessive lists” and forget to look at the big picture, which is why I love Mary Elizabeth Williams’ guide. The balance is having lists and having a mantra to keep in check (pun intended).

    • Mattie Kahn

      So true. You don’t remind yourself to “lead a fulfilling life” in the pages of a day planner.

  • Rebeka Osborne

    Confession, sometimes I’ll put things on my list I’ve already done just so I can cross it off. Also, I kind of love these lists too, they make me feel less alone and sometimes even proud of myself for being able to say that I’ve done all the things on the list (hey, I live by myself and my parents don’t support me).

    • Clare

      I totally do that too…the cross off is oh so satisfying!

    • Mattie Kahn

      The cross off is OBVIOUSLY the best part. But is there anything worse than prematurely crossing something off when it’s only partially done only to find yourself deprived of the joy of crossing it off when it’s actually completed.

      Am I right? Anyone?

      Fine. I’m insane. Whatever, guys.

      • Charlotte Fassler

        Actually the worst.

  • Courtney

    I find lists come in handy at work, it makes sure that you get the important tasks done and you also don’t forget the small ones. I realized the importance of this when a friend of mine was actually fired for not doing something they were supposed to since they forgot about the task.

  • Hannah

    Funny post, Mattie! I was beginning to wonder when a millennial would point these absurd but oh so fun lists out. For me, it begin with American Girl magazine. Does anyone remember this pseudo-patriotic, go get girls magazine. I. Lived. For. It. Don’t get me started. The recipes, the projects, and yes, the lists. I faintly remember them but they were there. I was obsessed with list taking from a young age (yes, I was a cheesy kid). I think American Girl instilled that within its readers. The “at-a-girl” “I’m only 10 but I’m going to President one day, so MOVE…mentality”. Maybe I read to much into it. But, it created an little overachiever at the time. It was valuable but also overwhelming, because if something went wrong, I distinctly remember not handling it well. It’s funny, these days I don’t really make lists often. If I do, I end up losing it or just remembering what I needed to do. Maybe I got it all out of my system.

  • Buzzfeedismakingmestupid

    The way that we digest information in 2013 has made me worse for wear. Constantly reading information in short digestible spurts is incredibly easy for someone like me with ADHD. However, i feel my mind numbing as i monotonously scroll down some buzzfeed list conditioning my attention-span to shorten. Sometimes when I am forwarded a Times article I have a hard time getting through the whole thing because I am so used to absorbing news in bullet-like fashions.
    I will say that lists help create a clarity in their succinctness that is very helpful and impressionable way to absorb news (and to write down tasks you need to complete) I think the Daily Beast Cheat Sheet is a list format that is great out of convenience, as is the Skimm…but the issue is that most internet lists are about nothing.

    • Caroline

      Honestly, lists give me the illusion that i am absorbing more rather than small tidbits of information. I would look at it an positive light and agree with your point about the clarity that they provide–yes, sometimes they are about stupid, unimportant subjects, but I think there is definitely a way to use this medium as a way for people to easily digest more complicated subject matters and become quickly well-adversed.

      • Rachel Lovitt

        That’s not a new medium, bullet points have existed for quite sometime to enumerate complicated points and make them more basic.
        Doesn’t mean we should replace essays and research papers with bullet pointed outlines though.

  • Nicky

    I keep so many lists I need a list to organize my lists! I find them extremely helpful when accessible, but my issue is that I keep one on the notes on my iphone, one in a real notebook, sometimes i’ll write my list on a receipt, and my list becomes so jumbled I have trouble remembering what i had to do.
    But i must say there is something really cathartic about hand-writing something that needs to get done and crossing it off (if you can find the list…)

  • AS Style & Design

    Reading your post, I feel so identify!!!!
    Right now I have download Hub App to organize and make my to do lists. In addition, I always have my diary where I add a little Moleskine for “to do lists” and I also have my mobile calendar and mail calendar. Sometimes I have the same lists in three or four different places in order to “not forget”. Well, I have to say that usually, I don’t forget anything although I haven’t red it in my “to do list”.
    Thank you darling for making me funny 🙂

  • Emily

    I have lists upon lists – it is often joked that there are lists for my lists. They are both hand written and digital. I even use a calendar as another sort of “list” to write down what I did each day and what I wore (because, quite frankly, I don’t remember those things from one day to the next). Then there are the apps that function as more lists – lists for exercise, food/water/intake, groceries, etc. I can’t imagine my life without lists, I wouldn’t know what to do next!

    • Mattie Kahn

      You just reminded me that the first summer I spent interning at an office, I recorded my outfits every single day. I’d completely forgotten that I used to do that!

  • Brie

    I love to-do lists so much that I write stuff on them that I have already done just so I can cross some shit off.

  • is being a human so hard that we need a bunch of lists/blog posts to tell us how to grow up, tell the difference between a male and female, who to date, how to be a REAL man, how to live our 20’s, who my real friends are, etc…. i don’t even listen to my parents, much less a bunch of people i don’t know, oversimplifying and categorizing people/ideas into comfy little mental buckets.

    keep on keeping on with the food/entertainment ones tho. i see you, best donuts in NYC and liam hemsworth buzzfeed. (this was taken word for word from last night’s facebook status, btw, so we’re jiving here mattie)

    • as for personal to-do’s, i have many lists, and some items overlap, but mostly i just lose them and have to start over!

  • A pity I should be that damn honest … I could have written HA HAAA: I don’t do lists! right here right now and glow in the dark because it is of course so clever not to waste one’s life putting down things when one can just as well DO them … but … *damn reality interferes*:

    I don’t actually write down any lists, but I make them. Every day. In my head. About just about everything. Chores. Work. Friends, people and enemies. Objects. Treatments. Plants. Workout. Clothes. Everything.

    It’s because I need to keep my brain cell busy when not using it for work and also because I like to use it for organizing things. It keeps me calm. Writing down would only slow me down or make me nervous (“Now, where’s my pen for writing my to-do-lists?!?!?”)

    Of course I tend to forget things I dutifully to-do-brain-listed, but right now the annoyance because of the things forgotten is lesser than the smugness of sheer thinking about them … I’ll let you know when that changes and you have won. 🙂

  • Maral Halliyeva

    I used to be obsessed with making lists, until a few months ago I realised it is the worst form of procrastination and actually wastes more time and leaves you disappointed. The feeling of underachievement when you leave a box unchecked is far greater than the feeling of achievement when you cross five things from the list. My general rule now is, if I can’t keep all of the things I need to do in my head I type them into my calendar, tat way a reminder comes up and I have to do it.

  • Nenuphare24

    Are you me? I’ve been doing this since about the 7th grade as well. It started out with a fierce love of my school agenda and then, when I realized how personal my lists were I switched over to notebooks/diaries. I list absolutely everything – every day tasks (to keep my lethargy from kicking in and yes, little things like “take out the trash” are included lol), shopping wishlists (to make sure I never run out of things to buy/lust after), career goals (to make sure my life is going on track), like I said – EVERYTHING.

  • jaclyn

    i literally just semi- wrote about an obsession I have with making list! Like you, I will try to fill my list with things such as “put away dishes”, “tell bf to take out trash!” ridiculous. But If I dnt make a list I feel… like I dont have control.

    check my blog:

  • Lists are my way to tell the university “Yes I do something else other than shop and Skype.”

  • nay

    Sometimes, I can’t accomplish anything during the day because I haven’t written down my list of what I was supposed to do that day. I have to make a mental list to make a physical list of to-do’s. I think this is typical of type A personalities that feel the need to control every day happening, specifically what is happening in that persons life.
    Seriously though, I thought I was crazy. I’m so happy other people have my problem 🙂

  • Michelle

    Oh boy am I obsessed with lists and To-Do lists. I actually smile thinking about outlining my day in my Moleskin planner– the thrill of reaching into my bag to stroke my Moleskin “Good morning.” I’m a sick human being.

  • I try to take pride in my lists and sometimes I am ashamed. When it comes to my life, my check lists only extend until next week. Forget years from now.

    Your Friend, Jess

  • Anna

    Wow. Ladies! Me too! If I don’t outline my day the night before (on paper), I also wake up and have no idea what to do with myself. I end up drinking tea and browsing MR and Pinterest for… a long time. Everything is written down: not only lofty goals and major projects; I also note mundane everyday tasks, often after I’ve done them, just so I can cross them off. And I’ve read almost every article about what to do in your 20s. As I approach 30, I am coming to realize that maturity is knowing when to give yourself a pat on the back (“Write down taking out the trash! Do it! It smelled bad!”) and when to ignore what other people are saying (“30 ways to be a decent human being at age 30, with 5 bonus tips for making other people think so, too”).

  • yvonne

    I use to write just for the frivolity of it as a student. But at work, lists are great. They give you the feeling of accomplishment. tick tick tick.

  • laurabonny

    Don’t freak out but there’s a book you can buy at Urban Outfitters where you can write your own lists based on the titles written on the top of each page.

  • Jackie @ Kleiden drew

    Not at all. & you probably have a formatted spreadsheet so that you don’t have to adjust the column and row sizes. 🙂

    • Yes. Formatting. Grouping. Flat files. You name it. I’ve got it 🙂

      • Mattie Kahn

        OMG. Teach me your ways.

      • Mattie Kahn

        . . . But at the same time, until Excel invents a strike-through function that mimics the experience of crossing something off a paper-and-ink list, I think I’ll need to stick to my Moleskine.

        • I actually use Google for their task list thingy in Gmail. In addition to “things to do”, I even have “movies I want to watch”, “tv shows”. You can set up diff lists & the tick off is oh so satisfying. I use excel for home budget, travelling, savings plan, wedding budget, travel itineraries and so on 🙂

  • Honor

    I recently started writing a list a week of things I’m grateful for. Generally I am moved to do so by a particularly gruesome day, when I’m in need of some self-comfort (of a kind that you can give yourself on the train at rush hour).

    I’ve always, always made lists as a way to calm my wildly spiralling brain and make sense of a situation, and recently this has become a form of “You’re doing OK, it’s not that bad, you can make it.” therapy. The fact that my dinner and Masterchef feature often is irrelevant. I’m also grateful for my friends and family and job – so life can’t be all that out of control, can it?

    However, I find the prescribed lists of YOU MUST DO THIS OR YOU’LL BE ALONE AND UGLY quite horrid. If I don’t know how I feel about having kids by the time I’m 30, who will die? Whose life will be over, or at the very least pitiable?

    As to the idea that I should be able to communicate whole paragraphs with how I kiss (looking at you, Glamour) – well really. Why wouldn’t I just use my mouth to make words like I usually do? I could probably stop the kissing for a few seconds to say my lust words so the poor man can understand, rather than confusing him with the usual magazine-dictated ~bats eyelashes, glances sideways, smirks prettily~ nonsense that men cannot be expected to translate into “Take off my dress please, but mind the sequins around the zipper because they cost about a quid each”.

    I make my own lists. I accept that they may change daily and they may even stay unticked forever. But that’s OK because they’re MINE. And I won’t judge myself a social pariah if I don’t own a suitcase I’m proud of by the time I’m 30.

    Here are 20 ABSOLUTELY LUDICROUS things I thought I needed to do just two-and-a-half years ago:

    I now work at a big advertising company as a global brand copywriter. I write things that thousands of people read. I live with my partner of four years in a beautiful flat. I have no chickens and I still can’t drive, but I’m pretty sure the things I have done are more important than some silly little fantasy I’d constructed from mummy blogs and other people’s lists of musts.

    Make your own lists. They’re often even more stupid than other people’s (one of mine requires me to have reproduced and planted a vegetable garden by 2015) but they’re funny and encouraging and centring.

    If I could go back and add one thing to that Twenty Things I will Do list it would be this: laugh at every single thing on this list in five years. Because you’re pretty frickin’ dope, ticked or unticked.

  • Clare

    I tote around my moleskine everywhere, one side for daily appointments the other for the plethora of lists I’m always creating (lists for baking, studying, appointments, shopping, etc). I started making lists when I was young as well, it helps me to refocus amidst chaos and anxiety and gives me great pleasure when I get to cross items out (even if, like you said, I make up things to do like pick up the mail). Sometimes my lists are concise and to the point while other times they include fun activities, plus who can deny that the classic black moleskine is a timeless accessory?

  • Dee

    I am crazy about making lists too. I can’t even remember at what I started doing it, but I remember observing an older cousin sister make an insanely large list full and then seeing the joy and accomplishment on her face as she crossed things off. Not only do I make to-do lists, I also make pro-con lists about most major decisions in my life, and recently, I’ve begun to write poetry in the form of lists (“I’m experimenting” is what I tell everyone).

    However, I have to say, while crossing things off of a to-do list is satisfying and amazing. My adult self still revels in seeing a very long to-do list, it makes me feel important and like I’ve got places to be, people to see and things to do.

  • Addison Cain

    Ever since the third grade when I was forced to use a planner at school, I have been a slave to my to do lists. Not only do I carry around 2 separate notebooks for life to do lists and internship to do lists, but I also carry around a day planner with to do lists for my classes. It’s a little crazy, but there is NO better feeling than crossing something off 🙂

  • Amelie

    I’ve never tried writing a list, simply because I know it won’t work with me.

    The Neon Guava

  • Nicole

    But what about when you don’t complete something on the list? This is where I fall down. You reach the end of the day and there is a box left un-ticked (or maybe even a few) and then you feel a bit like a failure. And I don’t think I should feel like a failure for not drinking green tea and not going out and buying an Enjo so I can wipe all my dusty surfaces more easily. I say NO to lists!

  • Sabrina Haskinson

    Im in college and the only thing that keeps me going is my to do list. It’s a daily affair, I cant function without it. The list consists of things like: remember to eat, read that one study, type your reference page, and watch American Horror Story.

  • patriciawooster

    My list writing takes longer than completing the items on my list.