Monday, July 27, 2009

The power of the to-do list

Not long ago I put myself on a daily schedule, more or less. Frustrated by the frequency with which I allowed myself to divert from the routine ("Holy cow, I forgot to clean the kitty litter" and even "Doh! I was going to make myself breakfast"), I made myself a checklist of the things I want or need to get done every day.

I also availed myself of the calendar that came with my computer, mapping out my day in increments of time. I print out these two lists and keep them on a clipboard with me at all times.

Job one is to stay in the moment and keep focused on what the needs of Now are, and so I don't begin to panic when something distracts me from the task I set for, say, 8:30. But because that 8:30 task is on the list, I have a reminder in front of me to ensure my distracted mind is brought back to that particular thing to do. Except for those times when I'm scheduled to meet with someone else, the numbers are simply numbers anyway. As I write this and the clock says 6:09, 8:30 does not exist. The times I attach to the tasks are not as important as the reminder of the tasks themselves.

Yep, it's nothing but a daily to-do list, but checking off a list does add to a positive attitude. Making the list, and conquering it on a daily basis, puts me in control of the quotidian, not the opposite.

Modern conveniences, especially our powerful computers, do a marvelous job of fissioning our attention span. The ability to multitask is considered an admirable trait; indeed, we even invented that word, multitask. Sinking one's full attention into a single task, devoting all of the mind and soul and heart to one thing even for a little while, seems to be a lost art.

Keeping a list of the day's required tasks helps to screen out the unnecessary and bring the mind back to the important — especially when the important is not always the urgent. I have written down reading, prayer and meditation at the start of the day simply because my awakening mind cannot always remember exactly how I wanted to start every day, even when I have been doing it daily for some period of time. There are tasks that ought to be tended daily at the office, but I left them untended in favor of tasks that had to be done — and the less urgent but still important tasks piled up until they became urgent.

The list is a tool, a guide to focus my mind. Each check is a little success, a little mission accomplished, a little bit of the quotidian conquered. I am not a slave to the list, but neither am I free to ignore it. The mind needs a clear vision to keep moving forward, onward and upward, and the day so assails the senses that it's easy to get off the path. The list is a little roadmap made when the vision was foremost in my mind, and regular consultation with those two pieces of paper keeps the vision clear.

And I prefer the paper list to having it in electronic form. When I'm reviewing the list, it won't beep and remind me of something else that needs tending. Sometimes you need to pay attention. In fact, let me revise that thought: At all times, you need to pay attention. For me, for now, the list keeps me in the Now. You may find a tool that works better for you — but my humble advice is to find that tool.

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