The danger of to-do lists

I love to make lists, but there are some I should not check twice

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Jacqueline Kester is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Christina Anton | Cavalier Daily

I am a big fan of a good list. My life is filled with checklists — homework, errands, miscellaneous “to do” items — some are scribbled in the margins of my notebooks or on random scraps of paper, but the majority of these lists can be found in my daily planner. In fact, somewhere in its November pages and between color-coded lines lies bold green print reminding me to submit this article later today.  

Making lists is more than a way of organizing myself — it is a cheap form of motivation. There is nothing like the satisfaction of picking up my pen and checking off a box. Sometimes I will break up a task into two parts just so that I have more items to check off. Acknowledging that I have one less task to go is a rather harmless and easy form of reward that encourages me to get my stuff done. 

One night, after a late-night phone call with my best friend in which we rambled on about how our busy schedules were robbing our lives of enjoyment, I decided it was time to bring lists into more personal aspects of my life. I jotted down a simple list of things I wanted to do more — I want to read for pleasure more. I want to exercise more often. I want to spend more time outdoors. Next to each of these items, I inevitably included a small square.

This was no creative or inspired idea. Cataloging personal goals is widely encouraged. People make New Year’s resolutions and five-year plans. We articulate our aims so that we can see the target more clearly. It would be pretty hard to work towards something if you don’t know what you are working towards.

That checklist stayed in the back of my mind for the following week. I hit the gym a few times, read through the chapters of a book that had collected dust on my shelf and made plans to go on a hike with friends. But as my list of schoolwork grew, my other checklist lost priority, and I began to lose sight of those goals I had set for myself.

A few months later I rediscovered the paper copy of my list. The empty boxes glared at me as I reflected on how I had failed to truly complete any of the items. A wave of guilt washed over me. I went to my desk drawer and dug out a stack of Post-it notes. I recreated my list, this time making each item quantifiable. Read one book for pleasure each month. Work out at least three times per week. Do something outdoors every weekend. Now my goals were quantifiable —  I had either done it or I had not. I added a few more goals for good measure and then stuck the highlighter-yellow square on my bathroom mirror. It would not be forgotten or ignored now.

Famous last words. The second that I articulated my “goals” into a supposedly attainable checklist, I put pressure on myself to complete these tasks like I would any other list. But as time went on, the boxes remained empty. The adhesive of the post-it wore out and the paper began to peel back from the glass. The words I wrote became a constant reminder of my failed expectations.

Personal goals should not feel burdensome the way homework or errands might. While there can be great value in setting goals, to enumerate all these things I wish I were doing was to express a dissatisfaction with the way I currently lived my life. To create a laundry list of self-improvements is to hold oneself to an impossible standard, instead of taking direct action to self-improve.

Nike says, “Just do it,” and they make a good point. I end up spending more time thinking about how I could do life better than actually living it. Goals and organization are great for academic pursuits or even deciding what groceries I need that week, but when it comes to enjoying life, it is time to put down the pen and to stop drawing checkmarks. Instead, it is time for me to do the things that make me happy or better my life.

Jacqueline Kester is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com

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