On Lists

In an interview with Der Spiegel in 2009, novelist Umberto Eco referred to lists as ‘the origin of culture’. He argues, ‘What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible’. Eco points out that cultural history is comprised of lists – dictionaries, museum catalogues, encyclopedias. He adds that novels are full of lists. Culture is made up of lists and so too are our everyday lives. We write lists to make life comprehensible, to create order in a world full of chaos.

I am made and marred by lists. I write lists when I’m feeling optimistic. Lists seem tangible; a clear delineation of what needs achieving. The lists I write range from the simple – send an email – to the ambitious – clean the whole house, write an essay, do a job application. I write lists so that I don’t forget to do things but also so that I can have the satisfaction of ticking them off, however small. I love the feeling of reaching the end of the day, all my tasks completed and a deserved gin and tonic in hand. But this doesn’t always happen.

The mistake I make is overestimating what can be achieved in a day. At work, I write a list of everything that needs doing in a week and feel disappointed when there are still 10 items unfinished by the end of Monday. I put ‘clean the house’ at the top of the list forgetting that this will take half a day, leaving little time for me to finish the article I am writing. I fail to acknowledge that the completion of certain tasks invariably depends on others; waiting for sign-off on a piece of copy or an email response to a reference request.

I have discovered that my personal sense of success is in direct correlation with my list-dictated productivity. I become frustrated if things are perpetually unfinished. Regular chores are a constant battle – as soon as they are ticked off, there is more to do. I have spoken to others who experience similar anxious sensations about productivity and needing to have a measure for their personal success on a day-to-day basis.

My solution is this: make achievable lists. It sounds simple but I am still working it out. Think realistically about how much time something will take and ensure you have allowed space in your day for it to take that long. When it is clear that the day is full, draw a line. Anything else that needs doing can wait until tomorrow. Next, prioritise. An application deadline the next day is more urgent than cleaning the bathroom. Accept that you may not have time to clean the bathroom for a few days. Do not punish yourself for this. You could even, god forbid, ask someone else to clean the bathroom this week.

I recently saw an anti-capitalist lovenote emblazoned with the message: You are worth so much more than your productivity. Remember this slogan. Print it out and put it above your desk if you have to. Sure, make a list if it helps you but don’t let it dictate your day. Feel free to stray away from the list; adapt it as the day goes on, cross off things that aren’t important or scrap it entirely. After all, the best days are those when you have space to be impulsive.


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