The whole idea of to-do lists is interesting, especially if we think of them as our external brain. The advantages of a to-do list (written or electronic) are obvious: we can off-load moments and ideas to a later time, when they are more needed. I won’t remember what to pack for the camping trip, except for when I’m at the campsite thinking about all the things I forgot. We are able to use our brains for better things than remembering minutiae, since the minutiae are safely written down somewhere.
But when we write down lists or to-do items, they also introduce a certain complexity. Now we can list things endlessly, and we have to try and find the right list. Our memories weaken, and we are helpless without our smartphones or a writing pen. Now there are problems with archiving, preserving, and saving the lists so that they can be accessed, just in case. Search and recover becomes a bit of an art form – if you are fiddly with technology, like me, one question is where it got stored.
The other interesting bit about to-do lists is that they invite us to deceive ourselves. Our lists end up being more aspirational than realistic. For a Buddhist, it points to the human ability to perceive the world as we wish it to be instead of how it actually is. For a Christian, it points to the mystery of human sin that hides and distorts our egos. Our lists become more of who we want to be than who we really are. For example, I’ve got a someday list in OmniFocus of things I hope to do at some point, but most of them really aren’t realistic. But I can’t just abandon the aspirations completely, as a bit of hopefulness is important in a to-do list – these are, after all, goals and things I’m striving towards. To strive is to be human, so we attempt realistic things even though we may fail (and sometimes we do succeed – “climbing the second stair,” as T.S. Eliot put it). Otherwise, why get out of bed in the morning?
With to-do list items, too many means I often ignore the list; I glance over it, but fail to commit to anything really. So there is a trick of having a practical, manageable list for any given day. Don’t overwhelm or underwhelm.
There is also the importance of being realistic with our items on the list. Am I really going to do this? With the infinity that is online text storage, it’s tempting to just type away, until the list becomes unmanageable. Any storage system that is unmanageable is pretty much worthless. So I really do try to commit to things I write down, and write down things that I commit to (as Jesus said, let your yes be a yes and your no be a no). Each one is a realistic contract. And if I’m not going to do it, then I don’t write it down.
In the end, a to-do list needs to be an exercise in honesty.