A constant reminder of my failings

Scott Feschuk on how the to-do list is meant to organize your life, and yet it’s so easy to ignore

A constant reminder of my failings

Photographs by Andrew Tolson; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

A New York museum currently has on exhibit a number of mundane to-do lists left behind by the famous and the obscure. Consider it a wake-up call: if there’s even a small chance that any of our lists will one day wind up on public display, we need to start padding them with made-up tasks that will impress future generations—such as “Fistfight with bear” and “Rehearse with A. Jolie for sex Olympics.”

What’s striking about the exhibit is its simple truth—that over centuries of technological progress and changing social mores, there has endured one vexing constant: the eternal struggle to get one’s s–t together.

I could fill a museum wing with the sad artifacts of my failed attempts to stay on top of things. I have scrawled lists on the front of envelopes and on the backs of my hands. I have purchased daytimers pricey and cheap, large and tiny. Last year, I bought a nifty box that housed a separate little agenda for each month. Before the end of February, I had lost April.

I have spent a small fortune on overpriced Moleskine notebooks—each purchased with optimism, each quickly abandoned as I moved on to another journal that I was certain would work better. I’ve used both a blackboard and a whiteboard. A few years back, I relied on a system of my own creation: I called it Scraps of Paper Jammed in My Pockets. Worked well enough until laundry day.

I have tried keeping my to-do list on a BlackBerry—but have never had the discipline to input my new obligations. Turns out that part is important. Falling every time for the promise of a tranquil and tidy life, I have shelled out for several iPad productivity apps. One of these days I may open them.

For a brief period this year I kept every clerical detail in a large black binder. At my desk one morning, I realized I had left the binder on a shelf on the other side of my office. It’s still there. I’m looking at it right now. Hi, black binder! You contain a chronicle of so many things I never ended up doing in March. I sincerely hope none of them led directly to a fatality.

My latest system involves compressing the sum of my professional and personal obligations onto a single memo card—and transferring all uncompleted tasks to a new card at breakfast. Nothing beats beginning the morning with a precise and itemized reminder of how you fell short the day before.

I display a rigour to the making of the list that is entirely absent from my attempts at tackling the list. It has to be written on a Moleskine memo card. It has to be written with a Uniball Deluxe Micro, black only. Sometimes, if a chore is especially important, I will write it in CAPITAL LETTERS. That is my personal shorthand for ensuring that, by the end of the day, I simply must—without fail—feel even worse about having IGNORED IT.

Last October, I received a notice indicating I needed a new registration sticker for my car’s licence plate. Immediately, I wrote “Buy plate sticker” on my list. Over weeks of ignoring that reminder, the notation evolved as it was transferred to new memo cards—it first become “p. sticker,” then “sticker,” and finally “STICKER.” Round about December, I forgot what “STICKER” meant and dropped it from the list entirely. Two months later, I was pulled over by police. No sticker. The next morning I wrote at the top of a fresh memo card: “Pay fine.”

Once, in a dark moment that will forever mark a grim personal low (tied with the cheetah-print Ferris Bueller vest I wore freshman year), I put on my list two or three tasks I had already completed—all for the hollow thrill of crossing them out. Worse still, it actually felt good. In your face, Tuesday!

The peddlers of daytimers and to-do lists, agendas and apps: they are not selling a good. They are selling hope—the hope that we will one day cross off more than we add on.

It’s an easy sell, but a hard road. In a few moments, I will finally cross off “Write column” from the top of my memo card. Tomorrow, I will write atop the new one: “Write column.”

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