1 The Benefits of List-Making | The Billfold

The Benefits of List-Making

I keep two main lists: A “to-do” list and a “ta-da” list. The former is daily, boring, and first accumulated tasks like, “groceries,” or “pick up dry cleaning,” but has now devolved into reminders like, “hot chocolate, woo!” “windex the stuff,” “trim your damn nails,” and even, “PANIC.” (And while I no longer remember what I was supposed to panic about, it’s checked off, so I’m sure I got it done admirably.) It’s a very satisfying short-time way to convince myself to stay on top of all the boring chores that ensure that I remain well-fed and vaguely hygienic. Without it, I might be trapped, starving, within a pile of decomposing, unlaundered clothing while creditors circle predatorily around my apartment.

The ta-da list is long-term, cheesy, and is meant to track life events and what a self-help book would probably call active decision making: “Moved to DC,” “Toured the east wing of the White House,” “Kayaked on the Potomac,” or “Watched Battlestar Galactica Season 1: Felt All the Feels.”

At first, it seemed like there was a problem with the system: items that fall outside the purview of either lists. These were the reminders that were more like goals than tasks—things that would, hopefully, go on the ta-da list of accomplishments, but didn’t seem to fit among the to-dos. I worried that if I put down items like, “save enough money for retirement,” or “travel to Turkey,” on there, they would just give me serious side-eye and slyly suggest that they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

However, there ended up being a few ways to get around this. Instead of, “Save a billion dollars for a condo with a handsome doorman, wood-brick pizza oven,” I could write, “Put $50 into savings by Friday.” Or in place of “Find a job I actually like,” I could write, “Email Contact X asking to meet up for coffee.” My best recent list addition, “Make and store a weekly meal,” has, as it turns out, already been saving me about $30 each week since its first inception on my to-do list. As a novice cook determined to ensure that my hours of agonizing beginner’s mistakes in the kitchen aren’t wasted, I have become religious about taking my little packed lunches to work with me. My previous Whole Foods lunches, which I never particularly enjoyed, have become few and far between. And the money I don’t spend there, I can now use towards guiltless purchases of salted caramel hot chocolate, which I adore, and my savings account, making “Put $50 into savings by Friday,” seem like an increasingly manageable weekly task.

These are small steps, but effective ones. But they do make it harder to remember what I’m working toward, and I’m not really the type to plaster my apartment walls with inspiring, beribboned collages of organic pesto pizzas or the sun setting over Istanbul.

A more serious problem are the tasks that are only a partial success—the goals that are never reached. What do you do if you aren’t able to go the distance? Or if you end up somewhere different from where you ever wanted to go?

A ta-da list is affirmative. It can’t cover the events that shape a life by virtue of not happening soon enough, or just not happening at all. And there are bound to be plenty of those in anyone’s life. We all find more doors closed than open, and passing by a threshold can change you more than going through it. I know that the only reason I’m in this city, living in this apartment, working this job, is because I wasn’t accepted to a program that would have sent me to teach English abroad. In my pride, I had considered my application a shoo-in. I didn’t even get an interview.

I’ve thought about this off and on, and am torn between two philosophies. The first is that, despite my Type-A worry wart personality and love of McSweeneys, this whole debate is ridiculous from the get-go: life can’t be summarized through lists, no matter how complete or clever. The second philosophy is that all I need, really, is just one more list. The No-gos, the Too-bads, the Oh-wells. Lists where I can officially establish that rejections, failures, and non-events are, in fact, events, and deserve an equal amount of consideration and respect that I’d give my successes.

But if I ever decide which of those two sides I’m on? It’ll go down in the record books as a ta-da.


After growing up in sunny southern California, Lynn Michelle moved to the East Coast for a job and was lucky enough to get an apartment, a Netflix account, and an allergy to cold exposure soon afterwards, which tragically is not a joke about Los Angelenos who can’t deal with winter weather. She enjoys making lists, making fun of BBC heroines, and contemplating how many times per week she can cook sweet potatoes for dinner. Photo: koalazymonkey


7 Comments / Post A Comment

Blondsak (#2,299)

Lists are my life. Seriously, I would not survive without them. I am constantly updating personal lists: a “to-do today”, a “to-do this week” and a “to-do before [insert vaguely important but mostly arbitrary date here]“. I also have to-do lists for work and each of my classes.

My boyfriend, in contrast, never makes lists, besides the reminders he occasionally pens on the back of his hand. He usually makes 3-4 trips to the grocery store every week, because he forgets to buy things.

In this way, we really balance each other out: I make sure things get done, he reminds me that it’s okay when some things don’t.

swirrlygrrl (#2,398)

I love “to do” lists – but I think I need a “ta da” list too.

DrFeelGood (#401)

I am making a ta-da list today.

colbeagle (#486)

I use a 101 list for those in-between life-goal type to-dos. It’s 101 things I want to accomplish in 1001 days, which is not quite three years. There’s all sorts of different goals on there, some with longer lead times than others, in a bunch of different categories (financial, travel, self-improvement, work, etc.) I find that so long as you are specific with the 101 goals it strikes a nice balance between long term life planning and daily actions, and serves my love of list-making.

noralo (#581)

Can we talk about what y’all use to make your lists? My biggest problems with lists is not being able to keep track of them. I jot immediate things down on post-it notes now to stick on my computer, but anything beyond what I have to do that day at work is a lost cause for me because I can’t figure out which format I’m most likely to refer back to. If I write it down, I’ll inevitably leave the list at work and go stare at a wall all night instead of doing the stuff I meant to do. If I make the list in a document on my computer, I’ll never look at it. I find gchat tasks to be really unsatisfying. Any tips for an amateur listist?

LynnMichelle (#2,578)

@noralo I just failed at using a comment thread correctly–blaming that Thursday afternoon malaise–and replied below in a separate comment.

LynnMichelle (#2,578)

I use the “Reminders” function on my phone for my to-do list, which is really great. It lets users check off items and rate them in order of importance, and the portability of having the list on my phone stops me from forgetting what I’m errand I’m supposed to be running while I’m in the middle of it, but I’m an Iphone user (convert?) and don’t know what the equivalent is on other cell phones. So that might not be very helpful at all?

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