A dream achieved: no more ‘things to do’

One of the best things I’ve done during 2012 — no, the best thing I’ve done — is throwing away my to-do list.

When I say to-do list, I don’t mean a few odd jobs scratched on a scrap of paper clipped to the fridge door. ‘Fix the tap’, ‘Call the lawnmowing woman’, that sort of thing. I mean a spreadsheet. A database. A designed system. With, if I remember rightly, importance ratings from 1 to 3 and urgency ratings something like ‘deadline!’, ‘immediate’, ‘soon’, ‘fairly soon’, ‘whenever’, and ‘just an idea’. I kept track of my ideas in a database. WTF?

I’ve always been a list-keeping sort of person. I remember being 8 or 9 and having written lists of my clothes (a weird assortment of hand-me-downs… some things never change) to make sure I wore them in turn so I wouldn’t have all my favourites wearing out before my less-favourites.

If you’re thinking of Sheldon from Big Bang Theory you have a point, even though Sheldon is a caricature and nobody’s really like him. I’m somewhat autistic, I think. Either that or I just have an unusual brain. Which amounts to the same thing, really. If you are not autistic at all the technical word for you is neurotypical.

But I digress. The to-do list! Sometime during my first year at university life seemed to get more complicated. I wrote a list of things that needed doing, to outsource them from my brain so it could get on with more interesting stuff, like studying, hanging with friends and fantasising about the opposite sex. I was studying computer science, and I made the analogy that I was putting my tasks on peripheral storage instead of keeping them in RAM, freeing up RAM for currently running jobs. My to-do list was like a removable USB drive for my mind. (We didn’t have USB drives, by the way — a few really geeky kids had personal computers, but my to-do list was a piece of paper pinned to the wall.)

But I digress. (I’m creative, alright? And kind of autistic. Deal with it! 🙂 Since then I’ve always had a to-do list, and it got longer and longer as life got more complicated, with a job, and kids, and (for a while there!) a husband, and voluntary work, and eventually, the worst of all, self-employment as a computer consultant, and later, ie, now, as a writer. At one point the amount of different stuff I wanted to remember got so out-of-control that I couldn’t figure out what I should be doing next. I’d be flipping from one thing to another, trying to do three things at once, or just standing there looking at the list going ‘aagh’. Major stress. The kind of thing that puts lines on your face and gives you backache.

I did some research on how to handle things, how to Get Things Done. Unfortunately for me, most of it’s probably written by people like Sheldon. Everything I read about ‘time management’ talked about prioritising: triaging your tasks based on their importance and urgency. I immediately thought, assign numeric ratings… use software to sort… focus on whatever’s at the top of the list… easy, right? Back in control, right?


What happened was that I managed, each day, or each week, or each month, to cross off a few of the topmost items: the things with deadlines and some of the things that were really urgent and important — and each day, or week, or month, a few new tasks and ideas would get added, and most of the new tasks would be urgent. I never got to the terrific ideas that weren’t urgent, were lower down the list. I would look at them longingly: some of them were going to be really fun, when I eventually got to them. ‘Start a non-fiction blog’ was there, for example.

And I used to mentally beat myself up about all the things that had been on the list for six months, a year, two years. What was wrong with me, what was I doing wrong, that I could never get to these things?

What was wrong with me was that I needed to sleep, and eat, and exercise, and parent my kids, and hang out with friends, and fantasise about the opposite sex, and, well, live.

Since I made my first to-do list, back at uni, the list came with a dream: one day I would finally get all the things done. And then I could spend all day playing again, just like when I was a child. I’d been carrying that dream around for almost 30 years.

Not only that, when I looked at all the things I’d told myself I’d do some day, I felt like I’d broken an enormous promise to myself. For 30 years.

Some time in the first half of 2012 I thought, what if I just threw it away?  It occurred to me that I was making life’s journey with a gigantic suitcase full of things I’d probably never use. I’d learned to travel light, physically — anything that doesn’t fit in my cabin-bag-sized wheelie case doesn’t come on tour (except for my guitar… but that’s another story)! What if I just threw it away? Wouldn’t I feel lighter? Better? Happier?

Okay, I thought. So what would have to happen, what would have to change, in order for me to throw it away?

I would need some other way to keep track of deadlines and commitments to other people. That stuff really does have to be outsourced to something more reliable than my wetware.

And I would still want to keep a few things written down. The stuff I really had promised myself I would actually do, the stuff I wanted to plan out, to make happen. But the less important stuff, and the stuff that was just ideas — that’d have to be cast once again upon the Darwinian mercies of my soggy neural network, just like it had ben in the wonderful before, when I could spend all Saturday afternoon practising somersaults or writing to imaginary boyfriends.

I’d kept a diary since my uni days (because you don’t want to think about exams and lectures all the time but it helps if you can remember when they are!). I used to have a paper diary, then a software calendar that I would print out each month and carry in my bag for ‘on-the-go’ appointments, but now I had an Android smartphone and was using the wonderful Google Calendar.  Accessible from my computer, from my phone, downloadable, printable, sharable… and I was well into the habit of looking at it every day, which is the trick with diaries. So I thought, well, I can put the deadlines and commitments on Google Calendar. I’ll use the Calendar Flair gadget to give them a red star! Yes! Of course! And the things I really, really want to do — the bucket-list things! — I’ll think about how and when I could actually make them happen and put them on the calendar as all-day ‘appointments’ on certain days or weeks. I’ll schedule them.

And it worked! That heavy suitcase feeling disappeared. Not overnight — at first I scheduled too many things and had to learn to let go even more: schedule less for each day, block out whole days as unscheduled, and stop scheduling things that didn’t really matter. I’m still learning. The calendar is gradually getting less cluttered. But I’m still achieving lots of stuff. Maybe more than before, maybe not, but that doesn’t matter, really, because I’m happier.

The feeling of liberation is hard to explain, but it’s very like when you get off a plane with your cabin bag and go straight to the bus or taxi rank while most of the other passengers are waiting around the baggage carousel.

OK, I still have the cabin bag — I have a short list of tasks for each day, most days. I can’t live without that. (Not yet, anyway!) But I’m living more in the moment, not worrying about next week until I get to it, except at certain times when I sit down and plan. And if my plans don’t work out, I don’t beat myself up. When I get to the end of the day and I haven’t done some task or other, I can just pick it up with my clicking finger and drag it to another day, or another month, or sometime next year, and forget about it until then. Or I can just hit Delete and say, well, too bad, I never did that thing, but so what? And I’m getting better at hitting Delete. Which gives me more time to do the stuff I really want to do. Like writing. And hanging out with friends, and fantasising about the opposite sex. Hurray!