Time and To-Do Lists


I must confess that for a person whose papers are scattered hither and yon in a digital world, I am an avid and confirmed list-maker and an equally enthusiastic list-checker.  I love writing lists – it somehow gives me an illusory sense of control over a shifting and chaotic schedule that defies taming.

There is something soothing and logical about a calm, cool, disinterested list – enumerated with double spacing.  I am in full agreement with G.K. Chesterton who opined that “The greatest of poems is an inventory.”  He was more referring to the wonder we should have when beholding the everyday articles of civilization, but the same could be said for the humble, care-worn “To-Do List” scribbled on the back of a receipt.

Productivity is a wonderful thing.  It has a certain exuberant thrill and momentum that is inherent in our recognition of things that were undone in the morning and then *poof* in  the magical passage of time and effort invested, these “undone” things are transformed into “accomplished-checked-off” things.  At the end of the day, I can put my feet up with a mug of steaming tea and review with deep satisfaction the record of a “well-spent” day.

                                   To-Do List 

Letter of Recommendation – write and send (check!)

Week 5 assignments – grade and return to students (check!)

Book Chapter – finish and revise (check! well, mostly anyway…)

Mom – call this afternoon about weekend plans (check!)

Living Room / Kitchen – vacuum and clean up  (un-check….)

Gas and Groceries run – (Groceries, check! Gas – uncheck…)

E-mails that need replies – write back (un-check…)

Exercise – run and stretch at park (un-check… sigh…)

Prepare for next week’s meetings (un-check… double sigh…)


Okay… so maybe I can’t say that I review all my “To-Do Lists” with deep satisfaction, but it does seem to bring some sense of order into my day.  I can see where I am in the trajectory of tasks that have quietly accumulated at my door as I slept in the night.  More importantly I can see where my priority of time investment goes and I can see where I need to shift my priorities in order to get things done on time.  This is all done almost without thought.  In my “doing” mode, I am often running on auto-pilot.  I am a productive machine that has a single-minded focus on output and external checks on that day’s ruling “To-Do” lists.

Such external focus on outcomes and tasks checked off the list is not a negative thing.  There is much to admire in efficiency of action and prolific production and accomplishment.  The trouble with “To-Do lists” is not in our creating them or our checking them off… the trouble is when this becomes our only mode of relating to the day’s rhythm and momentum.  When the gift of a day’s worth of time is only about checking off lists and is only about actions done and tasks completed, then two things begin to be apparent

The first is that we begin to recognize that the hungry beast of “To-Do” never seems to be satisfied.  The list continues to grow like an unruly weed every time our back is turned more tasks appear on the list and its rate of growth is often proportionate to how much nervous attention we feed it.

There is a saying that says, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.”  This is because the “busy person” has learned the art of efficiency, but also has prized the doing and accomplishing of life to be the definition of success so that there is a void in their lives if they are not busy doing something at all times.  And as we have learned from physics, “nature abhors a vacuum”.  If our lives are only about crossing off “To-Do” lists, then we will never do anything else.

The second is that we are missing the inner working that is happening at the same time as our external actions and busy productivity carry us forward throughout the day.  The inner working of the day comes to us in the daily shaping of our affections and our attention.  What are we daily training ourselves to pay attention to and what we are daily training our heart to love and prize as valuable and worthy of the precious time we are given in a day and can only spend once.

Unlike the tasks that you cross off and then forget, the effect of the inner work that is going on in your heart and mind is cumulative in its effect – like doing an increasing number of push-ups on a regular basis or or learning to speak Italian with increasing fluency or eating donuts every morning for breakfast 🙂  Each habit of mind or body has its own consequence and that consequence is strengthened and expanded by continual repetition.

When my brother was younger he spent hours upon hours playing the same RPG game so that each time he went through the levels faster and faster with the knowledge and experience he had gained the last time.  In order to win the game, he had to pay attention each time to which skills, movements, and treasures needed to be utilized or acquired at the right time.  It is easier to do this when the things you are trying to master are external to you.

It is harder to take a step back from yourself and to examine the habits of your mind’s attention and of your heart’s focus.  How can I discover more about this inner shaping that is taking place every time my attention is focused on something, or how do I monitor what thoughts and images constantly flit in and out of my mind’s eye or how to discern what draws my heart to respond in excitement or anger; frustration or delight?

Without a space in my day for thoughtful reflection on the inner working of hundreds of micro-decisions about what I will pay attention to in a day and perhaps thousands of micro-heart responses to the events and encounters that occur within my day, I will never have a sense about the kind of person that is developing under the surface of all this outward work.  This relationship with time recognizes that I am not only a producer of things as a machine is, but that I am a work in progress myself.

From the day I was born until this day, I have gradually been shaped by my daily actions, decisions, heart desires and fears.  This is the lasting work of my life.  Not the hundreds of “To-Do” lists that I written and re-written, crumpled, crossed-off, and thrown away.  The real work of life is the enduring shape of my own heart.  It is in this work that I have the deeper potential to bless others and to become all that was I meant to be.

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