In praise of the to-do list

In praise of the to-do list

I think that it has become automatic for most people to say ‘oh I’m just so busy’ when they are asked how they are. Busyness evokes images of frantically rushing from activity to activity, being constantly stressed and running late, and having a lengthy, endless, and unwanted to-do list. Because of this I prefer to describe myself as ‘occupied’. Most times I feel a sense of flow in life, with my various interests and activities integrating to make up the wholeness that is ‘life’. A friend recently described me as ‘productive’ and I think she is pretty much on the mark.

I admit to finding it hard to do nothing, and regard myself as a ‘human doing’ rather than a ‘human being’. There are always gardening, cooking, and craft activities on my project list. And I love to keep a to-do list of everyday things that need doing, and always have projects unfinished. Meanwhile I’m thinking about what new projects I want to start, and not necessarily after the current ones are complete! My never-ending wallaby will need to be renamed soon, as I’m hoping to get it finished to exhibit in the Mudgeeraba Show in a couple of weeks. Once it’s done I’ll get on to finishing the tablecloth I bought in Salzburg in 1999! There are always more cards that can be made, and whilst my scrapbooking is currently up-to-date that will change after our traditional family day at the Show.

Learning how to do drawn threadwork is also on my project to-do list. Apparently my great-grandmother was exquisitely skilled in this art. A family history book comments that a drawn threadwork tablecloth she did ‘has to be seen to be believed’. I hope to channel her spirit whilst closely following instructions in a very old booklet passed on by a friend’s elderly mother.

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Do we ever get to the end of the to-do list, and have all projects completed? What would it mean if we did?

At one point in his book ‘Night Letters’ author Robert Dessaix, who is waiting for almost certainly adverse test results writes “…..and I refuse to put my affairs in order, to clean out the cupboard in the bedroom, get the side gate rehung, sort out my tax and generally tidying up. It’s a temptation, but I refuse to start crafting a neat ending to my life, as if I were some minor short story. The more loose ends the better.” He seems to suggest that the absence of any untidiness or mess in the form of things half done or not done at all could lead to a quickly forgotten life. It would also be symbolic of a disengaged life. Not having a to-do list either means that our earthly existence has come to an end or that it doesn’t feel worth living.

So whilst we are all still here there will always be loose ends, unfinished projects, and a to-do list with more things to be added to it even as other items are satisfyingly ticked off. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The ‘collective unfinished’ is not only a sign of life, but also of our engagement with the process of making that life more meaningful and fulfilling.

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  • Margaret says:

    Oh Jo I am totally with you and I also prefer the word ‘occupied’ to ‘busy’ and am always amused when paid workers describe their day as busy cos I thought that is what one is paid for. Glad to hear it is ok to have numerous unfinished projects as each has a story and a certain resonance in their unfinishedness.

    • Jo says:

      So true Margaret, though I like to think of being occupied and productive rather than busy at work also. I recently revisited Stephen Covey’s four quadrants for time management, and his circles of control, influence, and concern. His principles and ways of thinking about managing time, and therefore life, are so relevant and helpful.

  • Sherri says:

    Jo, I enjoyed this post so much I read it twice, the second time more slowly so I could savour it.

  • Kate Careless says:

    Love the post and very happy to enter a new mind set!!!

  • Sandi says:

    What a great post Jo. Its also very exciting to think that the never ending wallaby might be finished for the show – hope you make it and good luck. Sandi (Blinky)

    • Jo says:

      Thanks Sandi for the lovely feedback. Yes, some intensive cross-stitch sessions are coming up in the next couple of days. Let’s see how we go.

  • Hello Jo
    My dear friend Gabriella led me to your blog which I love !!

    In particular she wanted me to read your To Do List story. I found it very interesting and very insightful, just as she promised.

    I feared a little lol that it might be going to be a little rap on the ‘busy’ knuckles for my overflowing never ending lists of my own, but what I found was a lovely, very much appreciated package of perspective, realigning guidance, encouragement, and a nice little sense of re-validation.

    I won’t tell you about my own Never Ending Teddy Bear sampler (bought in 1988 !! ☺️), but I will try and learn from your wise and kind words, and will definitely keep reading your blog.

    Thank you again and good luck with your winter garden !! xo

    From Cherie

    • Jo says:

      Hello Cherie,
      Thank you for your lovely comment – I saw Gabriella yesterday as you would be aware and she told me she had passed my blog link on to you. There are more like-minded people around then we think, and it’s good to connect with each other. The Teddy Bear sampler is there just like an old friend – you may not ‘speak’ for a long time, but then you pick up where you left off. I experienced this wonderful feeling again yesterday with Gabriella and others from our old group. When Teddy is finally finished there will be another project on the to-do list to take its place, and who would have it any other way?!

  • Vanessa says:

    I hate the word busy. I don’t like to be and I enjoy having no plans!

    • Jo says:

      It’s wonderfully freeing isn’t it Vanessa, to have the courage to question why we have to be ‘busy’ all the time. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Deborah says:

    I’m a lover of #ToDo lists and find them really comforting, but need to get better at dealing with stuff I don’t get done as I feel more stressed about what I don’t do. (Think I wrote about it last week!) There’s nothing like crossing things off though!

    • Jo says:

      It’s great to get things out of your head and on paper Deborah! But we need to all go easy on ourselves too, when things don’t get done. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Jo Tracey says:

    I rarely complete much on my list, but also have a fear of having nothing on it. My favourite lists are bucket lists and playlists. 😉

    • Jo says:

      I probably have a mental bucket list Jo! “Have a surfing lesson” and “Go on one of those European riverboat cruises” are 2 things on that regularly pop up on my mind. A play list sounds like a great idea too. So often, we leave leisure til last.

  • Great post! Everyone is always busy and it’s a word I dislike too!

    Your wallaby looks amazing!


  • writeofthemiddle says:

    I love what you’ve said about being ‘occupied’ rather than ‘busy’! That’s me! My mind has a lot going on but I’m not physically running around from one to point to another (usually). I am also a HUGE fan of the ‘to do list’. It helps me feel organised … but it is never done … I keep adding to it! lol

    • Jo says:

      Good on you Min for being sufficiently well organised that you don’t have to run! I think achieving some sense of flow in life, rather than a sense of overwhelm, is a good aim.

  • deb dane says:

    Love this. “The ‘collective unfinished’ is not only a sign of life, but also of our engagement with the process of making that life more meaningful and fulfilling “- boom!

  • Johanna says:

    How funny Jo – we both wrote about To-Do lists this week! I loved what you had to say, and I really admire Robert Dessaix who I once saw interviewed at the Perth Writer’s Festival. You’ve prompted me to read his books 🙂 #TeamLovinLife

    • Jo says:

      “Night Letters” is a beautiful read Jo. I’m so glad he is still with us, living life as we all should, and no doubt still refusing to tie up loose ends!I must read his other works. I’ll put it on my to-do list!

  • Talking about tying up loose ends reminds me of my F-I-L. He is going through that process at the moment, he’s in his late 70’s but doesn’t have a terminal illness or anything so it’s kinda weird. He says he wants to make it easier for M-I-L when he passes but she could go first, you just never know. It feels like he’s checking out of life. Kinda awkies.

    • Jo says:

      Janet it must be just so difficult to know how to respond to that! He’s being thoughtful, but I’m sure your M-I-L and the rest of the family would rather he not be!

  • I am one of those people who is always busy. Why? Because I choose to be. So I am loving the final lines of your post “The ‘collective unfinished’ is not only a sign of life, but also of our engagement with the process of making that life more meaningful and fulfilling.”

  • BoomingOn says:

    Praise Lord for to do lists! Always writing them, usually ticking some things off. Bit like deadlines. Once they’re clearly articulated, it’s a bit of an incentive to get it done.

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