To do lists – productivity tools or evil underminers of happiness?

I’m a list fanatic and totally depend on them to help make sure the zillion balls I am juggling all stay in the air. I have list notebooks that are casually scattered around the house like Twinky wrappers on my night table, kitchen counter, dining room table, everywhere. I rely on them so much I wonder how in the world other people stay organized and productive without them.
How do people work full time, travel, raise kids, get said kids to band/baseball/hockey practice, maintain a house/car/yard, eat healthy meals, keep relationships and friendships, and exercise without some time management skills? I honestly think some people can make all this happen in their heads. But I am SOOO not one of them! If it’s not on a list, it doesn’t get done. The good news is that if it IS on a list, it happens.

Lists are my friends. They bring me peace and make me feel secure. They are reliable, trusted evidence that everything is in order and a benevolent plan is in progress.

But I’ve discovered an evil underbelly to list-making. Lists can take on a life of their own, like HAL does in 2001 A Space Odyssey. HAL is the ship’s computer system, programmed with human capabilities like speech, natural language processing, appreciation, emotions, and reasoning. HAL was programmed to serve the crew but turns against them when his own survival becomes threatened. At one point HAL justifies his mutiny by saying “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”

It seems I’ve conditioned my lists to serve the god of productivity, often at the expense of fun. On my list, “get manicure” or “take nap” looks like ghetto graffiti when squeezed between “pay mortgage” and “schedule eye appointment”. So what happens when I want to build unstructured, pure nothingness or fun into my day? I basically have to fight my own agenda!

This challenge has become more apparent on the weekends. I look forward to a few days of recovering and family time only to find by Sunday night my entire weekend was filled with chores. I’m left mentally satisfied but emotionally cheated. I get grumpy and irritable and wonder if this is what being adult is supposed to be like. I’ve let productivity take over the school yard. Now that I recognize that, I’m making a conscious effort to keep productivity in its place and give fun a big fat promotion (and one of those gigantic foam fingers to wave around).

In terms of happiness currency, if productivity is a nickel than fun is a $100 dollar bill. From that perspective, you can’t fit enough productivity into the day to equal the happiness value of pure fun. I will never get rid of my lists but I will no longer let them bully me into forfeiting fun, either. What about you? What are your strategies for being productive while also making guilt-free time for fun and relaxation?


  1. says

    Hi Holly! Loved your post. I love making lists too but my problem is twofold:
    I forget to put important things on the lists.
    I forget where I put the lists.

    You are so right. Sometimes we get caught up in our “Must Do” Lists that we forget to have fun. I recently discovered this beautiful Italina phrase “il dolce far niente”…. the sweetness of doing nothing or “il arte del fare niente”.. the art of doing nothing. I refuse to let doing nothing or just having fun or doing something for myself let me feel guilty. Life is too short. I don’t want to miss the good stuff with my head buried in my lists. What will get done, will get done. In our busy worlds we just can do our best and let the rest go. Now I’m off to enjoy “il dolce far niente” on the kids first day back at school:)
    Enjoy this post I found:

  2. Julie says

    As I’m reading your post I realize that I have a list sitting in front of me that I want to add to the list sitting on the kitchen counter in addition to the one sitting on my desk and not to mention the one in my planner for work! You are not alone, I too live by my lists but have found a way to enjoy my coffee, friends and making new friends. I met you this past weekend through one of my close friends at the conference in Tampa. We had a very relaxing and peaceful chat at the hotel pool. That was not on any of my list and I am now even more grateful for good friends (thank you Nicole) who make sure I remember to stop and smell the roses. I am also grateful to her for introducing me to new friends like you. I enjoyed our conversation and look forward to our next chat wherever or through whatever venue that might be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *