We all know the guilty pleasure of looking in someone’s medicine cabinet, refrigerator, or iPod. But what about looking at someone else’s to-do list? In a sense, our to-do lists are like diaries, only they’re the bullet-point version.
Lists can be about anything—from flossing to finding a soul mate, from buying carrots to becoming whole. When we read other people’s lists, we uncover the range of meaningful and mundane things that are on their minds. Lifelong hopes and daily tasks mix together, and “organize sock drawer” is on par with “get teaching credential,” which is sometimes exactly how life feels.
This book is a collection of one hundred real, handwritten to-do lists and the stories behind them. It’s everyday voyeurism, or to put it another way, low-budget reality culture. Unlike what passes for reality on TV, these lists are real. The people who sent them removed them from their diaries, planners, purses, jean pockets, and junk drawers so we could get a peek. Their lists offer a rare window into their everyday lives. They also provide an opportunity for self-examination. Each list is accompanied by a DIY list idea to trigger your imagination and set you down the path of creating your own.
In to-do lists, there are no narratives or artifice, just the essential truth at that one moment—things to do, done, loved, wanted, known. They represent the brain on the page, in its most raw form. They are not only reflections of our mind states, they’re also often tools for action and decision making. They represent the conversations that we have with ourselves but don’t often voice to others. When we read our own lists ten years later, they can evoke the same emotional states we were in when we wrote them—anxiety, contentment, wistfulness, or hope.
The pleasure of reading other people’s lists is certainly voyeuristic, but it’s also therapeutic, because there’s so much humanity in them. We all wonder, Am I normal? Am I the only one who doesn’t have it all figured out? When we only see other people’s polished exteriors, it feels like they have some secret that we don’t. When we look at other people’s lists, we see that functional adulthood doesn’t come naturally to everyone else either.
Reading people’s lists gives us a unique view into how others motivate themselves to look for love, get to the gym, or quit drinking. We see how they too vow to deal with tasks that are supposed to be natural and elementary, like “pay bills” or “breathe.” We see how “get passport” recurs in someone’s organizer over several weeks, or that it’s not so uncommon to list tasks after we have already accomplished them, simply for the thrill of crossing them off.
Our lists reveal our secret selves. They show us as the hilariously imperfect works-in-progress that we are every single day. We’re all figuring it out as we go along, and we’re all much funnier, more neurotic, and idiosyncratic than our finished-product versions of ourselves suggest. The evidence is in our lists.
Where did these lists come from?
Where did this idea come from? The answer, appropriately enough, can be found on another list. Back in 1999, when I was twenty-six and sick of my first job, I decided to start a print magazine about tormented twentysomethings (and thirty-, forty-, and fifty-somethings who still felt like tormented twenty-somethings) and how they pulled themselves together to become adults—getting a job, a mate, a sense of purpose, a clue. I chose to call it To-Do List to express the range of tasks we all need to accomplish to feel like “grown-ups.”
I placed an ad in another independent magazine asking people to send me their to-do lists in the mail. I really had no idea why or how I would use them. But as soon as lists started to arrive (and from people of all ages) I had a hunch I might be on to something. In those first few months, I would leave work and jog to the post office to get there by closing time. After retrieving the envelopes, I would sit down on the sidewalk to rip them open. The thrill of reading their to-do lists was too great to wait until getting home, or even to a café. At the time, it was hard to pinpoint why reading other people’s to-do lists was something I couldn’t get enough of. But it felt like I was getting insider information on how other people managed their lives.
Over the last seven years, through To-Do List magazine and todolistblog.com, I collected thousands of lists. My apartment could easily be wallpapered with them: daily to-do lists, “Baby Names,” “Santa List,” “To Do Before I Die,” “My Vision of the Perfect Mate,” “Places to See, Books to Read,” “Things I Like and Hate About My Lover.”
I had unwittingly tapped into an unnamed, unexamined community—the listmakers of America (and the world). According to an American Demographics phone survey of one thousand Americans, 42 percent of us make to-do lists. But there are scant studies about us, and obviously still a lot to learn. Who are we and why do we do it? Do we check off or cross off accomplished tasks? Do our to-do lists make us more productive or are they a procrastination tool? Are they part of a belief system that if we are more productive, we’re better people?
As you flip through the book, you’ll see that many of the lists are relics. Twelve are more than ten years old, and two were written in the 1950s. The degree to which people hold on to lists speaks to their power. It’s almost as if they were written on magical, impossible-to-throw-away paper. Some contributors sent me lists that they said they hadn’t been able to get rid of for years. They said sending them was cathartic. But then I couldn’t get rid of them, out of guilt or a strange sense that the lists had power.
A few of them floated around in my backpack until one fell out one day in line at the grocery store, and a shopper behind me said, “Here’s your list.” I squinted at it. Who’s Nick, and why would I need to bring him sheets? Oh yeah, that’s someone else’s list. Now it’s somehow mine.
In editing this collection, I was often stunned by the rawness of the confessions. There might be an element of exhibitionism in publishing a real to-do list, a sense that our lives aren’t real unless they have a witness, but there’s a generosity in their contributions, too. The lists may be desperate or joyful, but either way they are completely genuine tools that people used in their lives. As Dustin Kidd, whose list “Places Where I Am Stuck Right Now” put it, “I see my list as a little window into my life. I’m proud of the way that I live my life and the way that I make decisions. I hope that sharing the list means sharing a little insight with others who may find some wisdom there.”
The lists in this book teach by example. They show us how people use lists to make themselves happier, feel more in control, make decisions, and imagine new mates, jobs, and travel plans. They will also teach you how to be a more creative list-maker. Being exposed to other people’s lists definitely increased my repertoire. They also transformed me from a compulsive list-maker addicted to crossing every single thing off to a more imaginative lister who could see the value of throwing wild, even implausible dreams on the page, because who knows?
Lists have always been my natural response to passing depressions and confusion, a reliable way to bring inspiration and order to my life. Just sitting down with a blank page and pen made me feel more in control. But I began to see making lists as a way of life, a way of taking my pulse at any given moment. Lists also became something of an adventure, a mystery, with a feeling of magic attached to them. Items thrown on a list randomly could lead me to unexpected journeys, just like my possible-magazine-names list from 1999 on page 3 led to this book.
I hope this book will take your lists in new directions. The Middle English
root of the verb “to list” is “to want” or “to crave”; among other connotations, including our sense of cataloging or grouping, to list once meant to lust, desire, like, or wish to do something. Using the lists in this book as your point of departure, you might articulate desires and dreams you haven’t yet voiced.
Writing a list can be a secular version of prayer. It’s a way of letting the universe know what you want, whether it’s a new belt or a new husband. As most list-makers know, writing things down can have a magical way of making them happen.