Question: Do I Own My To-Do List, Or Does My To-Do List Own Me?

Lets get existential: If you cross something off your list when you haven’t done it, and no-one sees you do it, does it still count?
Publish date:
February 8, 2013
OCD, List making, organisation

If I’m feeling unproductive, or crap, or a bit panicked about work, the second thing I do (after tidying up my desk) is write a list.

It instantly calms me down, and makes me feel more organised. If I have loads to do over the weekend, I’ll write a list on my phone on a Friday night and feel like I’m going to have a productive weekend.

I also write lists for fun, men I’ve slept with (does anyone else do this beyond the age of 25?), my perfect party invite list (I do this a lot, irrespective of whether I'm actually planning a party or not), and an epic one I’m working at the moment, listing everyone who’s wished me happy birthday on my Facebook wall over the last five years (organised by year) to see a) if the number has gone up and down and b) see who’s dropped out over the years. I’m already gleefully anticipating pouring over it with my (long suffering) friends in the pub.

Basically I a) am insane b) have far too much spare time on my hands c) LOVE LOVE LOVE LISTS.

I started to think about the emotional connection we have with list making when Phoebe said she has so many that the very lists themselves are anxiety inducing – surely that's the opposite of what they're supposed to do?

I almost never finish everything on my list, because I always carry over the same not-all-that-urgent things over onto each new list, and they never get completed. But I’m not big on self-flagellation, so I try not to agonize over it too much.

That said, the natural high I get on the rare occasion I actually manage to tick everything off is massive – it’s a great feeling, knowing there’s literally nothing that needs doing.

But then again I write my own lists, I decide what I need to do (within reason – obviously at work there are things that I definitely have to do), so if I only put half the number of things on the list, and ticked them all off, would I still get that sense of achievement? Or would the list KNOW?

Phoebe’s just told me that she’s scared of the list, she feels like it owns her ass (I’m paraphrasing, Phoebe would never say ‘it owns my ass.’) Even though she devises, writes and updates all her own lists herself. Out of choice. And even though I’m much more relaxed in my list-making approach, I can see what she means.

My best friend has two ongoing lists she keeps on her phone, called ‘shit list’ for all the bad stuff she’s got to get sorted but keeps putting off and ‘things I want’ for…well, things she wants.

‘Shorts’ has been at the top of the shit list for about 18 months now. She can’t remember why she put it on there, and suspect that it was added to the wrong list in error – and she probably just really fancied buying a new pair of shorts. But she can’t remove it, because you’re not allowed to move something off the shit list until it’s been resolved. That’s the shit list rule.

My mum is a compulsive list maker, and definitely garners great pleasure from it. She gives my dad lists of things to do during the week, and at the beginning of the year, they sit down together and decide what they want to achieve in the upcoming 12 months.

This is then broken up into sub sections per month. She also has five-year plan lists, with corresponding desktop folders and spreadsheets.

Conversely, this is what my desk looks like right now:

Obsessive organisation clearly isn’t genetic.

But, I'm starting to reach a sinister conclusion. Does the list have a mind of it’s own? Is it a sentient being? Are the lists (plural - all of them) actually in charge of the planet? Are we merely puppets, obliviously dancing to their tune?


Erm, anyway, I’ve asked some of our writers to talk me through their list-making habits, because I’m increasingly starting to suspect that our relationship with THE LIST is a bit more complicated than we’d care to admit:

PhoebeI love lists. But the thing is, I might love them a little too much. I have an ongoing list in my iPhone which is divided into subsections – current, immediate tasks like ‘Nana’s birthday card’ and ‘pay gas bill’ and a long term, terrifyingly epic list beneath that one with things like ‘write novel’ on it.

In the back of my notebook I have lists for: my budget, stuff for the house (ranging from ‘rolling pin’ to ‘new bathroom’), clothes I need, countries I want to visit and then ongoing lists of potential birthday and Christmas presents for my family which I update throughout the year.

Every time I fill up a notebook, I carefully copy these lists into the new one. They never seem to get any shorter. I have lists for work, Brownies, my blog and God knows what else floating around too. They help me feel grounded and in control.

But I suspect deep down I am a slave to my lists and have elevated them, even fetishised them in an unhealthy way.

For example, I sometimes write something on a list that I’ve already done, just so I have the satisfaction of ticking it off. I suspect I also spend more time obsessively flicking between my various lists than actually accomplishing any of the tasks of them.

Allan Mott

I only ever write up funny lists like this one I did of 50 Reasons No One Wants to Publish Your First Book or the one in the image below, which I wrote up for a post on the American site about strip clubs.

In real life, however, I never ever write them up. I'm not a planner. All of the best (and worst) things that have happened to me have done so through random happenstance, so I try to avoid organizing my life in such a way that such things can't happen.

I'm weird in that I take comfort in living an existential existence, so rigid structure like those that lists impose only makes me feel anxious and uncomfortable--not happy and safe.

NaomiI'm writing one now as I've got to go away on Tuesday AND I AM RUNNING OUT OF TIME!!!! I tend to only have a productive day when I am face to face with a list.

I'm bad at writing them ('coz I always get more done when I have them, but only tend to get on written when I am already busy . . . whereas freelancing is either lazy enough to not need to make one or TOO BUSY to even get one scribbled down).

And my other problem with lists is that they need to be in my eye line most of the time - so notebooks are not much good, on the computer - no good, must be written on loose piece of A4 kept at my side all the time.

When i did my MA I was working at the same time, I managed to motivate and organise myself by writing dozens of lists in huge marker pen on plain A4 then stick them to the bedroom wall I had to face while working on the computer - and it worked.

The physical nature of the list of paramount, as you need to constantly refer to the list throughout the day to try and stay on task. The most disorganised person I knew used to write her lists of things to remember on POST-ITs in pencil, in the smallest handwriting ever then promptly lose the POST IT. Needless to say not all (if any?) of these tasks were actioned.

The most organised person I know (My mother) also a bit neurotic used to keep a small notebook and pen beside the bed at her most anxious so when she woke in the night she could write to-do lists before going back to sleep.


I'm an absolute pro at bossing through a to-do list, if bossing through it mean writing things I've already done down and crossing them out. I will never finish a to-do list in a day, mainly because my job is so damn busy, but also because I tend to just carry the last three tasks over to the next day if they aren't absolutely urgent.

I have also had 'do competitions' on my to do list for so long I can't remember what it means. Anybody?

MariI want to love lists, but I'm just horrible at them. Case in point, the list here is about a year old and the only thing I've done is 'book taxi for charise.'

Yoga Tuesday and Wednesday? Swimming Thursday? Nah.

I think my train of thought was that if I wrote something down, it would become official and therefore, more likely to happen. My boyfriend on the other hand is really good with lists and sort of needs them to survive.

RobynI am a habitual list-starter. This is my process:

1. Buy hideously expensive Moleskine notebook

2. Buy a (thoroughly tested on back of hand and friend's face) nice gel ink pen

3. Open Moleskine and start making list

4. Spell "write" wrong, rip page out of Moleskine, start again

5. Think "my handwriting could be better here", rip page out of Moleskine, start again

6. Entertain brief internal conflict regarding the rainforest

7. Realise that the item at no. 3 (floss teeth) should be after the item at no. 4 (brush teeth)

8. Panic

9. Write something with a question mark?

10. Write something with two question marks??

11. Get bored

12. Wander off.

AlisandeBelow is a picture of my "work" area at home complete with disgusting tea stained notebook that I write all my lists in, laptop, back up drive, make-up and a marmite cake stand.

Glossing over the fact that that list looks as though it may have been written by someone who just escaped from the asylum, it's basically just to remind me what needs doing for whom. On particularly stressful days I'll number the tasks in priority order but no, I've never managed to clear it entirely.

Squeamish KateI write to-do lists in an incredibly idle way. I write them in scrappy notebooks and if I tick any of them off I feel most accomplished. If I don't, I don't particularly care. Because I feel quite accomplished for writing a list anyway.

I quite like the whole process. Unless it's a packing list, in which case I have to have it on a Word file and I like sub headings and different fonts to give myself the impression I'm very organised when I haven't packed a single pant.

I also have a revenge list, but that's just in my head to be revised on a day to day basis.

AlisonI abandoned lists for a while, partly due to not having a diary for a bit (negligence), which is where I usually write my lists. A list on a given day gives it even more pertinence/pressure, depending on how you look at it.

As a substitute i was writing small lists on one of those tall pads you have by the phone. Because these are tear away sheets though somehow it makes the to-do points seem more throwaway too. What i inevitably end up doing is tearing of an old list and starting a new one and then i have this silly pile of notes, under the main pad. MADNESS, I tell you.

i'd say my success rate at completing said tasks is 50%. Lists do help to calm me though. The act itself helps to organise your brain and realise what's to be done and potentially prioritised. Whether you actually complete everything though is a different matter

Do you make lists? Does it calm you down or have you become a slave to the list? How do you feel about my notion that the lists are sentient beings, sinisterly plotting to take over the planet? Have I gone too far?

Send me your favourite lists on Twitter @rebecca_hol.