To Do List

Posted: September 11, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By James Baltrum, English Faculty.

Since my first year of graduate school, I have kept a daily “to-do” list, ostensibly to keep my life somewhat moving in the right Imagedirection. Many people I’ve known and have come to know keep such lists, and at the time I was earning my Masters degree at DePaul University as a full-time student, working three part-time jobs (one teaching freshman-level classes at Robert Morris’s Chicago campus; another at an independent bookstore in Lincoln Park; yet another at a bagel and coffee shop just up the street from the bookstore), and helping to plan my and my then-fiancée-now-wife’s wedding. I was busily being pushed and pulled in every conceivable direction, and the little yellow-backdropped with blue-lined slip of paper, torn from a small 3.5” x 2” notebook, sitting in my left pocket, though lighter than a feather, served as an anchor, comfortably grounding me with my head always facing any oncoming current.

I have not abandoned this practice, and why would I? My life has really gotten no less frenetic, just frenzied in different ways. The demands of a Masters program have promoted themselves to those of a Ph.D.; the juggling of three part-time jobs has, in Kafka-esque fashion, metamorphosed into that of two terrific kids; part-time teaching at RMU has thankfully graduated into a full-time gig. Add to this the responsibilities associated with home ownership, PTA meetings, flag football coaching, an ever-aging circulatory and nervous system, etc. and the need for an organizational system seems almost doctor prescribed. The items on my daily “to-do” lists, from day to day, of course, vary from the monumental to the admittedly miniscule:

  • Finish and send off 2nd draft of Melville chapter to committee…Image
  • Stain the deck…
  • Return kids’ books to library…
  • Pick up paper towels while out…

But, whether large or small, they add up. Looking back and unquestionably over-generalizing here, I have kept a “to-do” (nearly) every day of my life since that first year at DePaul. That was 1999. 14 years x 365 days a year (give or take) comes out to 5,110 “to-do” lists, and if I conservatively estimate each list averaged some six errands on it, then that’s some 30,660 “to-do’s” that I’ve turned into “done’s.” It’s undeniably odd if not uncomfortable quantifying my semi-adult life in such statistical terms if for no other reason than I feel the overall total should be much higher. How, for example, might I feel if, by some tragic circumstance, I’m struck dead tomorrow and across my tombstone it reads “30,660 items crossed off his ‘to-do’ list”, the occasional errant green blade of grass shooting up here and there, trying unsuccessfully to obstruct the figure from view? Would the random passerby in search of their own family member, a wandering widow perhaps, dressed in muted colors and (what the hell, why not?) pulled down black veil, hands trembling and clutching the tiny paws of her children at each side, see this epitaph and pause to widen her eyes, push out her lower lip and nod as if to say, “impressive, Mr. Baltrum, whoever you were!” or, more than likely, would she shrug a shoulder, turn a cheek, and continue her search for the dearly departed, cerebrally crushing my life’s “to-do” list total underfoot along with those greener-than green blades of grass?

Disappointing perhaps, but I’ve come to realize my “to-do” lists possess an even more troubling disappointment within them. Along with the boost to one’s organizational needs, the concept of a “to-do” list can, I’d often thought, perhaps benefit one’s psychological needs as well. It makes sense to think of one’s self wrapping things up before bedtime, brushing one’s teeth, and emptying out one’s pockets to find the given day’s list and imagine then the swelling of one’s self-esteem as he/she looks over the checked items on the list. It is as if to say to yourself, “No slothfulness here! I’m a productive member of my community!” or, more simply and more likely, “I got something done today!” On the days when the low fuel warning light on my self-esteem tank flashes desperately bright, I have even found myself taking my list out and adding items to it after the fact. I didn’t mean to get that done today, but I got it done, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to bask in the reflective glory of its getting done on a day like today (never mind that the “it” in such circumstances regularly read just “picked up dry Imagecleaning” or “called about my wisdom teeth” or “got a haircut”). The troubling disappointment that I’ve come to recognize does not surface during my nightly routine but with the sunrise of the following morning. I wake up, get dressed, make and deliver breakfast for the kids and then sit down to my own with pen and notepad within arm’s reach. By the time my breakfast is eaten, my day’s list is composed and thus the disappointment creeps spider-like across my cranium. Putting my plate into the sink and thinking to yesterday’s list, or back to the list dedicated to the day before, or the day before that, and looking over the dozen or so items on today’s “to-do” list, I have found myself increasingly disheartened by the almost Sisyphean epiphany underlying the question, “have I really gotten anything done?”

So, what are we to do…?

Increase the daily “to-do” items and, in some sort of video gaming high score fashion, boost the overall total? Not likely… Abandon the keeping of “to-do” lists entirely and run the risk of life entering into an organizationally chaotic tailspin? Probably not… Rather, do we need to re-assess what makes for a fitting item on our lives’ “to-do” lists? If the old mindset views an end-of-the-day’s list and reads accomplishment and concludes that accomplishment = success and success = happiness, then how can we find a new path to that end product? What will make up a better list resulting, therefore, in a better tombstone, wandering widow or no?

  •      Teach my son, regardless of what TV of his classmates might say, humility and strength are NOT opposites and that intelligence is a benefit, NOT to be berated…
  •      Teach my daughter that a head held high is far more beautiful than is the size of one’s waist or the number of sequins on one’s shirt…
  •       Express everyday how lucky I feel to have met my wife…
  •       Call about those damn wisdom teeth!!!

I think I can safely say that I’ll be happy when, at the end of the day, I can empty my pocket, look down, and see most if not all of these items crossed off.

So, what will make up your “to-do” list?

  1. Chachi Sev says:

    It is always good to have a To-Dolist because it keep things more organize and at the same time it is an excellent reminder, I think everybody should have one.

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