At seven years old, I wrote my first list. Truthfully, I copied the same list of things to do that day that Toad wrote in “Frog and Toad Are Friends,” by Arnold Lobel. (In my version I …
At seven years old, I wrote my first list. Truthfully, I copied the same list of things to do that day that Toad wrote in “Frog and Toad Are Friends,” by Arnold Lobel. (In my version I traded Frog for my BFF who lived across the street.) In the story, Toad loses his list, rendering the amphibian friends dysfunctional for the rest of their day. As I get older, this story seems to have more significance than when I was a child. As an adult with ADHD, making lists is a strategy I use to attempt to maintain organization: a simple accommodation for an annoying handicap of distractibility and poor time management. Not unlike Toad, my bad habit of writing a shopping list and losing it by the time I get to the market has upgraded my shopping list to a photograph on my smartphone of the list I write on the whiteboard on my fridge. Bearing witness to my mother’s waning memory, I realize how valuable lists may be to me as my own aging compromises what I remember. Lately, I’ve been looking at lists taking on a more meaningful role.
The internet is full of any list one can dream up: “Three ways to this,” “Four steps toward that” and “Five keys to...” might seemingly follow with the shortest path to the best ends. Yet, I would caution that seeking real personal growth in the infinite lists describing “Habits of the Successful” online is like falling down a rabbit hole of abbreviated self-help. True, Inc.com may present itself as an oracle for the modern-day yuppy, where the world’s fifth-richest man, Warren Buffet, reveals the secrets of his success. Without bothering to name the 33 books he recommends for investors, anyone might benefit from his list of four habits summarized as solid boundaries, personal development, sound leadership and a positive reputation. We could just stop there. Searching the site for the “daily habits of successful people” returned dozens of lists ranging in numbers from 17 habits to 33, meeting a total of 147 daily habits. Where do successful people find all this time for so many great habits? Don’t they work? Granted, many habits likely repeat amidst the varying lists. Plus, there are plenty of passive habits, such as “never give up.” Still, the couple dozen new rituals I’m expected to do is daunting for daily application. Often there are lists in the lists, although it is unclear if these are short cuts or extensions. For example, in one list of 33, Good Habit #16 was “Pick three things to do each day.” Should I be doing these 33 things, or only three of the 33 things, or three other things that are not already on the list of 33, but in addition to? I have no idea. Probably why I am not one of the successful who publishes those lists. Warren Buffet probably knows.
I believe the best lists are those we make ourselves. For me, making to-do lists is a way I can hold myself accountable. I don’t know to whom self-discipline comes naturally, but it is not me. I don’t even like the term. Self-discipline sounds to me like something painful I must do to myself, like masochism. Still, I aspire to cultivate more of this thing so that I may fulfill my goals. I understand well that success has much to do with preparedness. Plans laid out beforehand pave the road to the goal. Farmers and gardeners know this well, and April in these parts is perfect for just that. I argue that most things are better done proactively as opposed to reactively. To encourage this practice in myself, I have renamed “self-discipline” and instead call it “doing myself a favor.” It’s friendlier than “adulting,” which sounds like things we have to do that are no fun at all. When I do myself a favor, I feel like there will be more fun to be had somewhere or sometime, because I will not be scrambling to meet deadlines or remember later what was forgotten. Plus, crossing things off of lists is gratifying.
Lists that we make ourselves offer various benefits. We can always break down ambitious long-term goals into easily attained short-term ones. In his book, “Fifth Wave Leadership,” Morris Shechtman instructs businesspeople, or the reader, to conjure up a few personal lists to enable goal fulfillment. First, we must know our own personal set of core values. Once those are identified, we must single out our greatest mission in work or life, and then finally create a short list of attainable goals that match our values and mission. As goals are achieved, new goals are generated to move us toward our mission. We have a much greater success rate in reaching goals that match our values, while meeting success in environments where goals and values collide is nearly impossible. Having listed my core values has been a useful tool in knowing myself and seeing where I stand in any given environment.
My sister is suggesting our mother mark a calendar each time they speak to help Mom keep track of their conversations. When I consider that my mother’s fate might be my own, I wonder when my to-do lists will turn into have-done lists. I worry I’ll end up looking like the body of lists tattooed on the guy in the movie “Memento” who has no short-term memory. I don’t worry about my mother, however, partly because my stepdad is a champion in their lives by the way he offsets her memory deficits. But the main reason is that she is genuinely happy. She’s full of gratitude for their life together and more appreciative of who I am than I’ve ever known. For me, there is a newfound joy in our discourse. I tell her memories of our lives she can’t fully recall and hearing them again for the “first time” motivates a kind of delight missed originally. Maybe she hadn’t noticed before, or I hadn’t noticed that she noticed. Maybe now being more in the present moment, she sees all things differently; as if with fresh eyes, our history is reborn anew. I am relieved that she seems neither embarrassed nor ashamed when we remind her of what she has forgotten. She should certainly not be. I do agree with the calendar idea because I know how mine is a lifeline. And although I feel like my list-making keeps me on track for now, my mother has afforded me an optimistic view of aging. A time will come when my lists won’t mean anything, because all that truly matters is this. Very. Moment.