It's 5 o'clock in the morning, and the house is quiet. I'm sitting up in bed scribbling a to-do list in the dark on a small notepad. It's a habit that started a few years ago when I would awake from a sound sleep with tasks streaming through my brain like the stock ticker on CNBC.
Writing to-do lists has become an addiction of sorts. It gives an illusion of order in my chaotic life, a desperate attempt at ensuring I don't forget something and nothing falls through the cracks. I've posted the lists on the refrigerator, the front door, my computer desktop. I've carried them around in small notebooks in my purse and read dozens of pointers on how to keep better lists.
I'm not alone. Americans are obsessed with their lists. In an age of overwhelm and constant interruption, we find comfort in organizing our complicated lives into tidy columns of tasks. In our mind, if it's written down, it's all under control.
But I wonder if to-do lists have gotten out of hand. A friend of mine had a to-do item on her list to make another list. Do these lists really make us more productive?
Maybe no one understands this list-making craziness better than Leo Tonkin, who keeps as many as three dozen lists going at a time. Tonkin, CEO of Distinctions of Boca Raton, is an expert in corporate productivity and an advocate of the brain dump, getting everything out of your head and onto paper. Tonkin's motto: "You can't manage what you can't see."
He keeps lists of "urgent," "longer term" and "someday" tasks, each with subcategories. A slippery slope, he said, is creating overstuffed lists and becoming overwhelmed.
"It becomes easy to say ('forget it') and revert back to whacking the mole" — handling tasks as they pop up. To tame his tasks, Tonkin decides how much time a task will take and slots it on his calendar. "Getting on a list has no value unless you make it happen," he said.
At work, the biggest benefit to a list is its potential to keep you focused. There are people who can't face the workday without their list in plain view; it's a roadmap for what they should be doing when interruptions take them off task.
Linda Knudsen keeps her list, often created in the middle of the night, beside her computer, referring back to it after a distraction.
Knudsen, corporate director of advertising for Baptist Health South Florida, applies strategy to working through her list. Knudsen sets aside time on Microsoft Outlook's calendar — usually about an hour during the day — to work through pending items. "Sometimes I'll even make up a name of who I have an appointment with so they leave me alone for an hour."
These days, hundreds of to-do notepads and productivity systems line the shelves, some geared to business planning, others more targeted to personal interests. In recent years, list-obsessed people have dipped into the digital world to keep their tasks straight. You've got smartphones and iPads with list-making applications.
Tamara Bell, founder of Y Gen Out Loud, a nonprofit news organization for Generation Y to discuss national issues, keeps her list on an iPad to curb her fear of forgetting something important. "The to-do list will never go away, but it has gone high tech," Bell said. "By keeping it online, I know where it is, and it's available all the time."
Of course, not everyone believes in the power of to-do lists. There are those who feel that lists do nothing more than create stress or an oppressive mind-set that leaves no room for free thinking.
Jan Yager, author of 365 Daily Affirmations for Time Management," suggests using lists wisely. "Lists can be a tool but people become obsessive when creating it is more important than doing what's on it. A list is not a substitute for action."
Just as important, she said, is flexibility. "You might decide you don't want to do certain tasks, and that's okay. You could put your entire life on a list, but where's the room to enjoy living the life?"