Ditching the List

I turn 48 tomorrow.  And you now have a little bit of an idea as to why the still 47 year old man is partly incapacitated because of all the to do items cluttering his brain.  Is it possible for that habit to change?

The real question might be whether I even need a list at all.  If I had the courage to say no, then I could work consciously to build a whole new set of neural pathways that don’t involve compulsively scribbling down bulleted lists of things to do.  But that might be too much of a thing to ask.  For now it would be enough to just bring the list under control.

What if I still kept a list, but made an incremental shift in how I managed it?  What are the basic requirements given my list keeping pathology:

  1. Infinitely extensible (so bigger than a piece of paper)
  2. Always with me (I start new lists because I don’t have the last one with me)
  3. Enables easy prioritization (Next month’s stuff is separate from today’s)

So against my larger impulses, I’ve reinstalled a copy of Things on my devices and for the last six weeks I’ve been operating off of an electronic to do list. (Just to give you a visual  -Things is running on my laptop and phone and is constantly synching between both)

Why’s that newsworthy? Because (and this is important), it has required me to address a slate of other habits.

  1. I’m training myself to no longer write items down, but instead to add them to the electronic list. The floating sheets of paper have gone away.
  2. It’s forcing me to take a few moments at the beginning of the week to prioritize my activities. And then I can monitor whether the stuff I’m doing is really helping move forward on those New Year’s Evolutions.
  3. I’m not afraid of loss.  The list is endlessly extensible.  And the wild peripheral stuff like Riemann’s Hypothesis?  It can go in the bottomless Someday stack and I need not worry about losing it, nor having it clutter my head.

I hate to say it, but that incremental technological fix is, for the time being, giving me some air cover so that I can get to the real task at hand which is to retrain my underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. I’m training myself to order information, to make decisions, and to follow through.

I am now ready to tend to the next priority:  Dental work.

Interlude: The List

I now confess:  I’m a compulsive list maker.

My friend Danny often teases me about it.  He once said that if something ever happened to me he wanted my signed copy of The Ants and my Lists.  His point is worth honoring:  the reason I haven’t written (or for that matter, read) The Ants may in part be due to the multitude of distractions on my lists.

And mind you, they are lists.  I start one.  It gets filled to the edge.  I start another. I misplace that one so I start another.  So these lists of duplicate mutually distracting items litter my office.

Why I do dat?

It’s a good question.  I’ll take a stab at it.

1. I’m Seeking Order.  My house growing up was in absolute chaos.  I’ve told some people stories, but I think it might be hard for most folks to imagine.  Junk and trash everywhere.  At times dog shit covering the kitchen floor. No one ever cleaned up.  No one did much of anything.  I had no set bed time, no meal times, often times not even meals.  In that environment it was hard to keep even my thoughts straight and so early on I learned that a list could provide at least the illusion of structure.   I remember over spring break in 5th grade I approached my friend Leo with a schedule for everything we would do and what time we would do it.  He was baffled.  Why do we have to have  a schedule, he asked?  It’s Easter vacation.

He was right.  And yet I didn’t see it as at all weird.

2. No filter: From the very beginning the sheer number of things that would land on that list were near infinite.  In a world without structure and rules, all things are necessary.  And all things are possible.  So on any given day in 6th grade, my list might include: clean the kitchen, vacuum the house, edge the lawn with a pair of hand scissors, buy groceries, do homework, explore the canyon, ride my bike to North Park, read Les Miserables, and make a present for mom.  I had no criteria by which to differentiate between grownup stuff and kid stuff.  In 7th grade a friend once asked me what I was saving my paper route money for.  I’m going to buy a refrigerator, I answered.

And there was no distinguishing between important stuff and non-important stuff.  It was just one big soup.  Everything needed to be done.  My mom’s stuff.  My brother’s stuff.  My stuff.  And it was all possible because there was nothing or anyone to say it wasn’t.

3. Incented to be a generalist: Feral creatures are opportunists.  You don’t know where the next meal is coming from so you take what you can get.  I was too young, though, to distinguish what was truly necessary for survival.  I started reading company financial reports in 5th grade because (and I swear to god this is true), I figured I needed to know how to manage money. This information, I thought, might one day be useful.  So my floor was littered with Huck Finn, Tolkien, notes on scientific experiments I should complete, those financial reports, word searches, a half eaten omelette, recipes I might want to cook, a Scientific American issue devoted to number theory, and Readers Digests.  I grabbed whatever came in front of me. And mind you, there’s no one in my life to set boundaries, to perhaps say it’s not necessary for a nine year old to be reading financial reports or, as the case was, trying to understand periodic functions.

4. DP thinking:  Displaced Persons – folks who’ve been displaced from their homes and consequent emotional stability – tend to become packrats.  I love DP’s – In my twenties and thirties I spent a lot of time with emigres from Latvija and Russia and Germany – in part because I could identify with them.

We all were afraid of loss. And physical objects or pieces of paper become mnemonics for those things we were trying to hold on to. If I lost the piece of paper, I would in turn lose the emotion or idea that I associated with it.

That’s why I still have my record vinyl.  And certain New Yorker’s from 1992.  It’s a very interesting sickness.

And it’s also why, in part, I’ve been buried by my own lists.  If I lose the list, or even an item on the list, I stand to lose another small sliver of my self.

And that self, defined early on by loss, cannot bear it.