How to Make Your To-Do List Work For You

by Erica Landis August 10, 2017

women sitting on couch with laptop and writing in notebook

My mother always had an 11 by 14 yellow legal pad within arm’s reach. She made lists constantly while she sat on the couch, catching her breath, while four young kids swirled around her. It must’ve been her way to gain some control on those out-of-control days.

Obvious things were always on her list:

  • Make supper
  • Do laundry
  • Go to butcher

But then there were some lofty short-term goals that appeared consistently:

  • Take a cake-decorating class
  • Learn Hebrew with Rabbi
  • Organize rec-room
  • Call Arlene!

Arlene was her roommate from nursing school. They always tried to stay in touch even though life seemed to get in the way.

My mother has been gone for seven years now and everyday it becomes increasingly clear to me just how well she handled it all. Four kids, a house, PTA, active in our synagogue, boy scouts, piano lessons, cooking every night, my father, her aging parents, these “to-do” lists became her therapist. They were her way of talking through what she wanted to do, what she needed to do, and what she hoped to do.

I make lists now on scraps of paper, backs of receipts, and junk mail envelopes. These are the lists I shove in my purse and/or promptly lose. But without a list, I will never remember we are totally out of paper towels or Trader Joe’s Chicken Taquitos. I will draw a complete blank at Target or the supermarket and stand there feeling as if I’ve totally lost my mind.

List making and organizational methods have changed a lot since my mother’s 1970’s legal pad. We have our phones always in our hands and, within the confines of my protective Otter Box (ever since my daughter whipped my unprotected phone at her pediatrician in a moment of toddler angst), my phone now holds a myriad of useful apps and accessories that make scribbles obsolete.

Apps like Todoist, Remember the Milk, GoogleKeep, Evernote, Trello, or make pen and paper unnecessary. You can also virtually share your notes with your husband or capable teenager. You can smugly smile with self-satisfaction as you cross items off your list with a swipe (and a smug smile feels good every now and then). No more searching at your desk for something it’s okay to write on or digging into your cavernous pocketbook that has everything in it but a pen and paper. About as tech savvy as I get is using the calendar feature on my phone, but it works, and I feel super-cool and organized when I do.

However, 95 percent of the time, I’m all about the pen and paper. I make my lists before I fall asleep. It’s a way to empty my head before the next day.

  • Send extra underwear to school
  • Mail check to dentist
  • New underwear – Lane Bryant?
  • Gift cards for teachers

I feel like I can sleep after actually seeing these tasks that have been floating around in my head on paper. Writing it down, whether on real paper or tapping it into a screen, the to-do list makes us feel part of it all. It makes us feel like we’ve got it together, even just in theory.

It’s also a way to become a bit more visionary about our lives. I have recurring things like:

  • Write my one-woman show
  • Illustrate my children’s book idea
  • Surprise my husband with replacement of his favorite worn out Beatles t-shirt
  • Plan trip to Dutch Wonderland
  • Take Miriam to Hayden Planetarium

My “to-do” list keeps my dreams alive and keeps my need to remember toilet paper and paper towels at the forefront of my mind.

I posted a picture of a recent “to-do” list on Facebook. It was met with complete understanding. A few supermarket items like peanut butter crackers and cat food were followed by the more existential:

  • Michael’s Arts & Crafts
  • Decorative shit to make me happy

Every one of my friends knew exactly what I meant. Just by writing it down and feeling that communal “eternal search for happiness” (said partly in jest and partly in all seriousness) made me feel better instantly.

The “to-do” list is a place to let loose. We are the bosses of our “to-do” lists, not the other way around. Put something silly or serious on yours. Whether it’s scribbled on that coffee stained napkin, or tapped into your favorite app on your phone or tablet, you will get it all done.

Erica Landis


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