How To Not Get Things Done

The case for to-do list rollover

Image: Rob and Stephanie Levy

You know what is fun? Writing to-do lists. It’s so nice to take the blooming buzzing confusion of one’s brain and drawing out each of the things causing the current guilt-soup and put them on a page, isolated, bulleted.

You know what’s less fun? Doing things. Any things, really, but definitely the entire to-do list. Sure, there are three or four things on there that I want to do, and I’m excited to cross off, but there are others that I have no interest in completing and I don’t intend to do. If I make the list long enough, I figure, it’s okay that certain items roll over every day, week, and month.

I stress my husband out in this way: he will make 3, maybe 4, goals for a weekend day. In general, they are all totally reachable goals, and usually they are things he either wants to do or really has to do that day. He’ll complete the list 9 times out of 10.

I, on the other hand, will create a preposterous list of 20 or 30 items. I’ll add things that literally cannot be done that day, like picking up a package from the post office that hasn’t even arrived yet, just to remind my psyche that such a thing must be done eventually. These little impossibilities make me feel less bad when something quite doable, and sometimes even quite necessary, remains un-crossed-off at the end of the day. It raises my husband’s blood pressure just to listen to me read lists like this off. I’m tempted to add things like “solve world hunger” and “lose 10 pounds” to the list just to throw him off even more.

I am not alone in this passion: I know a lot of people who love to-do lists. I know this because I idly asked my friends on Facebook if they like to-do lists and they DO. Comments on that post were some of the most thorough I’ve ever received. What I realized is that people 1. Love to do lists 2. Love tiers of to-do lists (daily, weekly, project-long) and 3. Love rollover.

Having tiers of lists inevitably, I think, leads to the to-do list rollover, the habit of not getting something done and just appending it to the next list, hopeful for another experience. Most people, it seems, see the rollover as a sign they are human, a sign that things cannot be as they ought to be. I’m here to tell you… rollover is not just okay; it’s great.

Rollover of your to-do list indicates that you are still doing things. We live in a society that seems to be systematically conspiring to make us sit in a pile of recently-delivered junk food playing with a touch screen all day while robots lick us clean — if you have things on your to-do list for tomorrow that you didn’t have time to do today, you probably aren’t that.

It also gives you a chance to occasionally take things off the list entirely, because, you know, they weren’t worth doing to begin with. Just because your coffee-addled brain told you that shampooing your gerbil was necessary for your mother-in-law’s impending visit doesn’t mean that you can’t eventually decide that you need to do your homework more than you need to call the gerbil cleaner. Priorities change, and even if you have to drag your to-do list rollover around with you for a little while before you ditch it, the list is a sign you can use to definitively let go… at some point.

For me, rollover is the sign of urgent-non-urgent, because my brain is adapted to danger and most of my life is just patently not-dangerous. I’ll write 20 or 30 things down because they all feel dangerous, like everything I’ve built with my relationships and career and family and hobbies will come crashing down if I don’t do one thing. However, that isn’t true; the first thing or two that I get done in a day might have been consequential, and after some procrastinating I might get around to a few other meaningful activities, but when something successfully passes to the next day’s list, and the world doesn’t blow up, it’s a sign. It wasn’t urgent.

It either becomes urgent eventually, and thus gets done, or it was just another gerbil-shampooing little neurosis, something I was allowed to not do after all.

Finally, I have a little secret, one that most people don’t say out loud: I don’t want to be productive all the time. I don’t know what the right productive-to-non-productive ratio is, but I know it isn’t infinite; I want downtime. I want to feel like I’ve crossed so many unpleasant tasks off that list that I get to slack on the other things for a little while. Cookies taste better when I tell myself I deserve one, I guess?

I make my lists by hand, and on the computer, and in my phone; they are completely jumbled and utterly without cross-references. There are so many ways to make lists now that I feel like some people who really need to make lists don’t just from fatigue — maybe they like physical lists but it feels weird and clunky to carry a paper or notebook when they have a phone and there are hundreds of app developers out there hoping that their optimized notetaking system will be better for you. It’s enough to make you make a whole list about “steps to start making more to-do lists.”

Ultimately, to-do lists feel like a luxury to me; the fact that I don’t have to move from task to task with such breakneck speed that I have time to reorganize wherein I won’t be bitten by a sabertooth tiger is very comforting. It also gives me a hopeful ideal: I don’t have to solve world hunger. I just have to check off a few more things on the list, hopefully at about the same pace that I keep adding new things, so that I never truly run out.