Doing the ‘To Do’ List

Does anyone else write endless lists?  I spend my life writing the damn things.  I can’t help it.  I’ve even just bought myself a new Moleskin notepad for jotting notes down on my next book, and instead of exciting plot ideas and cool character names, it’s already filling up with ‘To Do’ lists.

The thing with obsessive list-writing is that I don’t find it particularly satisfying, even though on each list I always include something I’ve already achieved, just for the satisfaction of crossing it off.

I’ve been writing ‘To Do’ lists all my life.  I found a list in my parent’s attic which I wrote when I was nine.  It said:  Grow up.  Live in London.  Get married.  Be a writer.

How simple!  I should be thrilled there’s a list I’ve finally completed.  Even if it took me 30 years.

I think the problem is that my lists these days, is that they are so panoramic in their vision and not at all specific in their time limit, although it’s always my outlandish assumption that each list is a day’s worth of tasks.

Take today.  At one end of the spectrum are the small things I need to do.  These include: wrap present.  Send text about a play date.   Both list-worthy entries and not to be forgotten.  So far, so good.

However, in the middle of the list, is the whole bunch of every day tasks that are permanently repeated on every single list I write:  load washing machine, make kids’ beds, take out compost, unload dishy, go to supermarket, school run etc etc.  This stuff runs to a page.  I don’t know about you, but when I start committing the machine of life to paper, it seems absurd that I ever get anything done at all.  But the list isn’t finished there.  Oh no…

Because now comes the occasional jobs section of the list.  This section can get a bit out of control and can make me feel a bit panicky.  Today’s pressing tasks include: mow lawn, clean cooker, sort car insurance, put landing pile of clobber in loft, take jumble to charity shop, dry-cleaning, hire carpet cleaner….Stop!  STOP!  See what I mean?

Then at the end of the spectrum there’s the big stuff.  A hang-over from my nine-year-old self, perhaps:  Get a new computer. Learn to speak Spanish.  Put solar panels on the roof.

I think list-writing is an entirely female affliction.  Emlyn never writes lists.  Or if he does, it’s because I’m dictating the shopping list and he goes to the shop and buys exactly what’s written down.  No more, no less.

See, I don’t get it.  How can he do that?

Because I go to the supermarket and obviously I have a list, but  I never look at it.  Why would I consult it?  I wrote it, so I know what’s on it, right?  Wrong.  I always forget the one thing I went to the shops for.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that secretly I’m an off-list kind of girl.  I write lists and then do a fraction of the tasks on them.  So for example, the washing is still in the washing machine, the kids’ beds are unmade, I haven’t wrapped the present, mowed the lawn, or organized solar panels for the roof, but I AM off for lunch instead.

All of which leaves me wondering, why do I write these list at all?  Are they a job advert for a magic fairy, perhaps?  Or is it because I can control my world on a piece of paper and not in real life?  Or is it just that I’m a writer and writing lists is a justifiable literary procrastination?  Maybe I’ll put that on my list of things to find out.


Filed under Jo Rees

93 responses to “Doing the ‘To Do’ List

  1. Love it, love it. And I feel exactly the same way. Congrats on getting freshly pressed!

  2. “Or is it because I can control my world on a piece of paper and not in real life? Or is it just that I’m a writer and writing lists is a justifiable literary procrastination?” You’ve hit the nail on the head. I am nothing without my lists!!

  3. Hmm … good questions. I am thinking it’s just the writer in you:)

  4. I like putting the little things that I repeat every day on my lists. That way I can look at it the next moring and actually see things I crossed off. I love lists. They are so satisfying to make. More satisfying to write than to actually do. I started a book on a procrastinators guide to organizing and keeping up with the house work. I’ve been procrastinating writing it for three years now. The outline was fun. The actually work is, well, to much like work. Ironic I should see this blog just after I made my Thursday Night To Do List.

  5. elisajoy

    I can totally relate!! I am an obssessive list writer as well! I have a small notebook I keep in my purse. It helps me keep in my thoughts in order, if I get too stressed out I am like, “okay have to make a list.” once i write it out, I feel a hundred times better…and I always put * next to the “big”
    stuff. so funny
    great post! 😀

  6. Lists rule my life. They hang on my refrigerator, they are on my phone, they are on my blog. grocery lists, gift idea lists, to do lists of many varieties, things we need at some point in the near future lists (e.g. high chair, baby gates). My blood pressure is rising just writing this!

  7. I love lists! I have one notebook devoted entirely to lists– things I want to accomplish, keep track of, or simply remember. For everyday lists, I have a stack of post-it notes on my desk that gets used constantly. And yes, I think it is a female thing, although I’ve met guys that make lists too, which is awesome.

  8. great post and i can so much relate to this!!! i always make a list of my college submissions “to be completed today”!!!most of the things get repeated on dialy pages untill of course last couple of days,where i have no option left!!!
    and then there is the list of high aim goals in ‘life’…starting a lifestyle accessory store,become a writer…but its fun…looking back at the lists,it becomes a scale sorts to compare your dreams with your real life!!
    Totally going to subscribe for you…cheers!!

  9. I love this! I am a list writer too. And I almost always forget my list for the store, my kids always ask me, “Mom, did you make a list, to remember your list?” as we’re getting out of the car.
    For the to do list, I make 2 sections, the important things that really need to get done, and the stuff I aspire to get to. It for some strange reason, causes less stress that way.

  10. FABULOUS post!!!!!!!!!

    I think I feel all the accomplishment I need once a “to do” list is hammered out. Then the list disappears and new ones are started. lol.

  11. I don’t like lists and refuse to write them, though I will occasionally do a shopping list if we have to do a big shop. But my partner loves lists and is forever writing them, he has messages come in on his phone and computer to remind him about them. Not quite sure why as mostly he ignores them. I know what I have to do, why waste time with a list?? I often forget things but lists never get complete anyways.
    I guess some people make lists and some people don’t, its just who you are.

  12. Thanks for all your feedback. I’m so pleased I’m not the only obsessive list-maker out there!

  13. I’m 21 and I’ve all ready been a list maker. I make one almost every day. Do I finish what on my list, no, I find other things to do instead. Good post, very relate-able.

  14. I’ve tried to-do lists once but didn’t really work out for me. I like to do things my own time, haha! Hey, I love your blog!

    Visit mine too please? I’m kinda new here! 😉

  15. i LOVE writing lists. accomplishing EVERYTHING on my list… a different story.

    i must say writing everything i want to do and one by one achieving them is a pretty good feeling-except like you said, when its the same everyday/weekly things.

  16. nothingexistswithtime

    As much as it sounds is sooo true..
    I’m so obssesed with writing to dos..

  17. Ishana

    I write lists all the time, but I keep them ‘themed.’ So I have one list for groceries and another list for tasks. I also work very hard to accomplish every item on the list in as little time as possible.

    However, I’m not like Emlyn. I often partake in off-list activities as I see fit. Little things come up or I simply change my mind. I will occasionally X-out something on my list I decided I don’t want anymore.

    Lists are a way to organize your thoughts, and as one writer to another, I think that’s something incredibly helpful. How can you expect to keep your plot in order if you don’t have some sort of mental timeline? As a timeline is a list of events that just happen to be ordered by time.

    Just my thoughts on it. Thanks for the post and congrats on FP!

  18. tashination

    I love lists! I find it somehow calming to have it written down on paper rather than flying around my head. I even have a list application on my blackberry so I can make lists on the go… haha :p

  19. I think it’s a writer thing. A way of getting things down on paper and out of our heads/under control (two sides of the same coin, maybe).

    Particularly the larger goals, which are more aspirations than, err, lest we forget…


  20. Great Post! Thanks for sharing the story, it’s somehow different in my case. Every time I make a list, I don’t have any troubles making them but following them is a different story.

  21. There is a book I read early last year that consisted of peoples handwritten lists.

  22. Be awesome. Get pressed. Take over the world. Nice job 😉

  23. Pingback: Berry's Blog

  24. Black Sam

    I don’t write lists, ever…and I think I just discovered why I never get anything done.

  25. Sufism World

    I do but in my head – the safest place and can never get lost – train your mind to do it

  26. Love this post! I’m the same exact way! I write things down partially knowing that I may not even get to them in the near future. What’s worse is I write things downs after I’ve already finished them!! Just for the satisfaction of crossing it out!

    Congrats on freshly pressed!

  27. Paragraph two – it’s like you’re describing me. And I totally did that today. I wrote down something just to scratch it off. It felt goooooood.

  28. I never used to be a list writer, but as time has passed I find I am unable to multi-task as well as when I was younger and so lists keep me on track. I find it a comfort that if it’s on paper I don’t have to keep it all in my head…. North Coast Muse @

  29. esc9

    I can definitely relate, however, mine is my schedule. I have a cute little planner, write everything down on the proper days, but after it is written, i never again consult it. I could probably do without a planner, but somehow I feel more at ease when I write these things down–a sense of security that just in case I forget, I know where to find it.

    Love how relatable this piece is-for old and young alike–contolled and free spirits alike. 🙂 pleasure to read!

  30. A Dreamer's Thoughts/ S. Larsen

    I always write lists to remind me of what I should do. They’re everywhere. There’s a post-it on my alarm clock, on my school books, on the table where I eat my breakfast, in One Note on my laptop and… As I said, they’re everywhere AND all over the place. But I never finish them. It’s always a downer to sit down with a to do list and a pen, and only be able to check about one third of the activities. And I’m guessing mine are easier than yours, after all, I’m only eighteen…

  31. haha I do this constantly at work. Write list after list after list, and only get a few things done on it. I agree, I’m not really a list kind of person, so I’m not sure why I make them. I thought it was so funny that you said you always put something on the list that you’ve already achieved! I do that too…just to make me feel like I’ve accomplished something. So funny.

  32. Love lists–I write on a certain size and color post-it and stuff them in my calendar. A friend and I admitted that each day we even write down the day and date just to mark through it–great post!

  33. Dear Ms. Rees,

    Poisonally speaking, I do not make a list of my life as more-methodical sorts do, and certainly not for protracted or long-term results.

    A life lived according to such a list of duties is much like the kiddie ride at Disneyland in which children are allowed to drive a car on rails. It has all of the stop-and-go of driving, but none of the inspiration.

    You are a woman of much courage. Remember that your loved ones are there to support you in your struggle.

    Yours Truly,


  34. Congrats on gettin’ freshly pressed!

    I don’t really deal with those kind of lists. Everything is stored in my head, but guess what, I never get to buy that one thing I’ve gone to the market for 🙂

  35. I just spent a half an hour writing a list of things to finish at work today and I’m certain I won’t finish it. Next to it on the same piece of paper (a steno pad with a margin down the middle) is my list of life “to dos” — full of things to finish before I leave for a trip this Saturday. I’m feeling like it will be impossible to finish everything on the list.

    But taking the trip is one thing from my life list. (It’s my first trip to NYC.) So Maybe I should just concentrate on that big check mark on my life.


  36. Nice writing about lists! My take on lists is from a slightly different angle I think. Many years ago I started making lists because I was a single mom with 2 small boys, putting myself through college, and I had a poor memory. For many years I wrote my lists and taped them to the front door so I could not miss them when I went out. The only way this methodology can possibly work is that tasks that have either been completed or are past their “due date” have to be crossed off and/or removed. If not it is total chaos and useless. It was serious business for me, but you make it sound like fun for you. Good for you! P.S.: My memory is much better these days and my lists are shorter!

  37. what kind of books do you write?

    • Hey there. I write all sorts of stuff. I wrote a comedy before teaming up with my husband to write and we wrote 7 romantic comedies together. Recently I’ve written two big, dramatic sexy beach reads, Platinum and Forbidden Pleasures. Although most of my energy is taken up writing lists! Thanks for your comments. I find it particularly reassuring that my memory might improve after this little kids stage – Jo

  38. Pingback: Doing the ‘To Do’ List (via Mum Writes Books) | Writer's Cramp

  39. Congrats on getting freshly press! Also, I write endless “to do” list. Goals – long term – short term – grocery lists – things I want – things I need- things I’m going to buy when I reach a goal – I list my bills each month! I think you are right definitely a girl thing. And a hopeless obsession.
    But I do have to say nothing feels as good as crossing something off that “TO-do” list. and I do, do that!

  40. LOL.. I write list all the time then I put them away and can’t find them so nothing gets done.. lol.. great post.

  41. I always make a list before I go to bed, or otherwise I’d get nothing productive done and I’ll end up spending the whole day on facebook and youtube. P.s. Maybe it is a girl thing because I can totally relate to this article and by the comments so can many other women.

  42. Congratulations on being featured on Freshly Pressed! I enjoyed reading your piece about lists, as I too am an obsessive list-maker. I bought a three-pack of Moleskine notebooks for my writing ideas, and have had to dedicate one entirely to lists.

    I loved the list from your childhood; congrats on achieving your youngest ambitions! I would love to find an old scrap of paper with my childish To-Dos – I wonder what on earth I would find.

  43. I’m an obsessive list keeper, not just to-do lists. It makes me feel like my writing “career” is doomed to stay in list form. Need to get out of the linear rut!

  44. #1) Write to Jo
    1a.) Tell her “Great Job.”
    1b.) Mention you do the same.
    1c.) Encourage her to live list-free.
    #2) Make a list about all the things you have to do.
    #3) Go do the things on list in #2.

  45. Absolutely TRUE. I hate them yet I can’t stop writing them. I think it’s a fear that one day, something very important may slip my mind.

  46. I think lists are a real-world example of how the act of writing helps us make sense of things. While journaling and creative writing helps us to make sense of the bigger things, like complicated events and who we are, list-making helps us organize the minutiae of our lives into something tangible, something that seems do-able.

  47. 90% of my blog entries are made into lists. They never end!

  48. Love this post on To-Do lists. I am the same way. I write to-do lists, to-buy lists, to- achieve lists, not-to-do lists…and the list can go on! haha I usually remember after I write them & don’t have to refer back but other times I look at the things that I write & I realize that putting them on paper is the determining factor of whether or not they are important or even worth doing. I’ll write down “Buy new make up” and then later I’ll say to myself “why? my make ups fine!”
    Great post! Congrats! 🙂


  49. And hello, I too am a compulsive list writer! My reason is simple – when it’s on paper, it’s not in my head. It’s a way of clearing head space for other functions.
    And when I realize that I am still in dysfunction despite the clear setting in my head, I too write something down that has already been completed, simply to cross it off and give myself the impression that I have indeed completed something that day! 🙂

  50. I am guilty of list writing without follow through too. It might be a creative person thing, not just a female thing b/c my hunny makes lists & he’s an artist. I think we’re (the two of us) are trying to not be absent minded artsy types to get things done, but it seldom works… Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed AND accomplishing your 9 year old self’s list!! If I had made a list like that, I wouldn’t have accomplished anything on it.

  51. I am a huge fan of lists! I have different lists for long-term/short-term goals, for school-related things and extra-curricular thing. My list of lists could go on forever! And I’m glad that somebody else puts already-completed things on a list for that instant gratification, like me.

    But I agree, I never actually complete everything on my list. I feel like I just write it to get myself grounded – to stabilize myself and sort through everything. And making lists for me is both calming and stressful. But I still do it!

    Congrats on being FP’d by the way. Great post!

    • Thank you. You’re right. Lists are stressful AND calming. I am astonished at being Freshly Pressed! And how many of us write lists. It’s bonkers. How very weird to have an on-line list of comments about lists!

  52. lists COMPLETELY freak me out yet i know they’re the only solution. keep on going. and don’t stop putting the nine-year-old big stuff on them either. maybe have a separate moleskin for that?
    Tangentially, when you said “advert for fairy god mother,” it reminded me of the scene in Mary Poppins when Jane and Michael write a song listing all the traits they want in their new nanny. 🙂

  53. Yes that sounds like me too. I have an addiction for notebooks just to write lists in. Characters, plots, novel ideas, they all go in there. Different notebooks for different things. Now I thought there may be something wrong with me but I can see there is a host of us out there. Makes me feel much better.

  54. Edi

    Nice post, I am a TO DO LIST writer myself. And sometimes I take ages to cross out the things I have writen on it, but my secret is not to wirte a new list till I have finished the current one, so I keep adding things ot the list and it becomes endless. I guess I am a DO THINGS person, that’s why I am always going to have things on my list!

    My husband is a TO DO LIST list writer too, even bigger than I am into the whole post-it thing, but I believe that’s because if he doesn’t write he forgets the things he has to do. Maybe it’s just a man thing, the forgetting, not the writing, but just in case we keep pens and paper in hand around the house.

  55. Love It!!

    I’m an aspiring Professional Writer and I have NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER written a single solitary list.

    I am the type that wakes up in the Middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep because I am going over and over in my mind all the things that I need to do the next day and the day after. Not to mention all the things that are Urgent and Important (Which BTW, don’t get done, well sometimes they do. Rarely).

    Perhaps I should try making a list, my Husband says I should…But who’s going to listen to their Partner 😉

  56. I’m exactly the same, though my notebook of choice is a penguin classics Wuthering Heights.

  57. I make lists of homework that I need to get done. Usually remembering all the homework that I have and writing it all down in a list takes more time than opening my backpack and just doing my homework! Wonderful article! I will be adding this to my blogroll!

  58. Naked Revelations

    I TOTALLY relate! Women l-o-v-e our lists. I rewrite mine daily because I love to watch it shrink.
    Highly relatable post!
    Congrats on Freshly Pressed!

  59. I write will do lists, not to do lists…and I only ever have 6 tasks on a list at a time. It doesn’t matter what order I complete them, cos they are all gonna get done this way. It stops me from procrastinating.

    Mind you I never put running on my will do list….maybe that’s why I haven’t done half as much training as in should have done for this weeks race.

    Wish me luck

  60. and I thought I was alone…I feel the same way!!! This is totally cool 🙂

  61. I’m twenty and also an obsessive list writer, but I’m also a writer, too. I, too, make lists daily. I look forward to every August because I get to buy a new planner (I buy the academic planners since I am still in school). I take planner purchasing very seriously. I also write things on my to do list of things I have already done to get a daily dose of satisfaction and make my list look a little less overbearing. I don’t think us list writers should be too hard on ourselves. Maybe a list means were motivated and that we expect a lot out of ourselves each and every day. I’d venture to say that those who do not plan out there day, week, or lives may not fulfill all they wanted to. Because how would they know what they wanted to fulfill if they haven’t thought about it? And if you’ve thought about it, why not write it down. So, I think lists are psychologically healthy, but I’m a biased list maker.

  62. I don’t write lists.
    I just live.
    Go through each day and each task as it comes.
    If I hear the blog call I drop the laundry and blog.
    If I hear laughter outside I’ll abandon phone calls and go out.
    Of course I have a toddler underfoot currently and he doesn’t believe in lists.
    He believes in finding the amusement in every moment.
    I’m with him.

  63. Generation 26

    I don’t really mind constantly making lists. It helps me remember everything I have to do. I do hate it when there’s one thing on the list at the very end that I can’t complete for whatever reason though lol

  64. lol

    Lists … can’t live with em, can’t live without em. I think I should make a list of all the incomplete lists I have around the house. Never mind that they’re in different notebooks ( or on whatever I grab a hold of at the moment.) 🙂

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!


  65. I am exactly the same way! How refreshing 🙂 Love the post!

  66. I think I’m not old enough to run a house yet but I did fancy sticky notes (and I still do), can’t wait to get my hands on notebooks AND the sticky notes. Interesting post, congratulations! 😀

  67. Haha I am a list maniac too 🙂 I keep writing lists daily and try to follow but end up procrastinating.. so things keep jumping from today’s list to tomorrow’s often. Nice post 🙂

  68. Michael Flores

    Have to admit I am a To Do list writer, and I even got an for my Blackberry that lets me keep task, and sub-tasks.

    I keep my daily on going lists, my short term lists, and long term lists. It can me madness.

    Unfortunately, I am also a procrastinator by nature, so stuff stays on for awhile. sigh!

  69. Pingback: Doing the ‘To Do’ List (via Mum Writes Books) | Sin,Faith,Duty

  70. I love lists, I love writing things down, I love writing down story ideas, writing down my bills ever single month, even if they don’t change much, I write down every penny, cent, and dollar I spend on groceries, food, and non-bill items.

    I’m obsessed with it, and extremely organized. When I write down a list, list, I do tend to miss something on it, but when it comes to bills and stuff I don’t even wait to send it off, I just do it the day of I get the bill. I totally think it’s a woman thing too, I’ve never seen a guy make a list, ever.

  71. i had a bad moment the other day and whined to my husband about my obvious incapability “to do ‘anything’ right!” He said : “yeah, but you’re really good at making lists, hey”
    which is totally true. hum.

  72. I am a big fan of lists! Mainly because it gets everything out of my head – instead of having it bang around inside it! – but also because I get a huge sense of achievement once I’ve achieved everything on my list. I particularly like crossing off tasks that I’ve either procrastinated about or felt they were a little arduous (and turned out not to be!).

  73. I am a recovered list writer. I just go with the flow now. I never crossed anything off the list, because I could never find the damn things. So I’d make new ones. And promptly lose them as well. I had to break the cycle before it was passed on to my daughters.

  74. Its good to keep a To-do list.But then in India people who keep such lists are looked down upon especially the advertisements for nutritional foods have such derogatory messages about a person who keeps to-do lists and is considered as a person who cannot remember.Personally i appreciate your habit but really I don’t have the time

  75. .tangga ilmu.

    It’s the same with me >.<

    And my hypothesis is.. i'm a real forgetful person!!!

  76. Hey, I know i have the exact same problem with lists, its like, I make a thousand lists for my school work but I cant seem to complete anything.
    Haha. Maybe I’m lazy. Bite me.
    Anyway i’m new here and if anyone wants to view my blog about my views on many many different random things and little stories from my dad to day life, please visit 🙂

  77. candypoetrygirl

    congrats on freshly pressed!
    I write lists reminding me to write a list!
    At this moment I am staring at my whiteboard (150x150cm) in the office with an astronomical amount of things-to-do-before-5-Oct- list!
    Well I write lists to help my with my ‘forgettery’ and because I like my own handwriting and maybe so that my boss/family/husband/kids/assistants can see that I am trying to reach a goal.

    Thanks for this post!

  78. Me

    My life in a nutshell! I have lists everywhere about everything! Post-it pads are gone in no time! I especially recognise the shopping-list issue. I write it, but it somehow remains at home, and reminds me of the one thing I actually whent out to get when I return! And I totally agree with your theory on why you write lists. I also find it a means to keep my mind rather clutter-free, as well as a manner in wich to control my life.

    Anyway, nice post! 🙂

  79. hahaha…job advert for magic fairy! good one!

    funny post. great theory 🙂 we could be twins.

  80. This makes me laugh! My best friend is a lister but I’m not. I figure, if I can’t remember it isn’t that important in the first place. If I look a little nuts, my friend will make a list FOR me!

    I’m glad you finished the “Write your blog” portion of your list because this certainly gave me a smile. Thank you!

  81. I am a ‘to do list’ kind of woman, too. But I go in spurts — lately I’ve been feeling the urge to start making lists again. This happens when I’m overwhelmed with stuff to do and can’t seem to organize myself. Problem is I always forget where I put the lists so I have to start all over again. There are little trails of ‘to do’ lists all over my house. . .

  82. Oh my, I totally connected with this article, particularly when you mentioned writing lists and adding things you’ve already done, just so you can tick it off!

  83. As it happens, I write lists all the time and like you do cross off some of the items and forget all about some others. More often than not it is the process of writing the lists which is important to me rather than remaining slavish to the list. Congratulations on being freshly pressed. 🙂

  84. amandasperspective

    I always get caught in the list-making land of make believe. I have so many lists and if I don’t complete everything I need to make a new list the following day to incorporate what still has to be completed. To make matters worse, there is the long term list (extending about a month or so) and the THIS WEEK’s list and then I have to iterate what I can reasonably accomplish TODAY. That’s not including overall life goal lists, that would just be silly to include here, haha.

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