COLUMN: To-do or not to-do: a life of lists

This is my Sunday column for the Jan. 29, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. It’s an expanded version of the piece I wrote for “Between You and Me” on 91.7 KAXE the previous day.

To-do or not to-do: a life of lists
By Aaron J. Brown

We live a life of lists, parsing our rented time on this spinning rock into arbitrary sections. We catalogue our days because that is how we know what was and what must be.

But lately these lists have grown shallow. Websites and magazines bellow: “Five ways to use bacon as a garnish” or “The eight most famous short people.” There are three moves that will drive your man wild and four that will keep your woman from hassling you all the time. Just last week I wrote a column listing five things to be grateful about. Why five? Why not? It’s a number. And, of course, there are the to-do lists. I write a lot of those.

Time management experts recommend using to-do lists. To be clear here, these are people who make a living telling other people what to do with their time, people who while away the hours as time agents, who spend vacation time forgetting about time, retiring from their work having managed millions of hours they never lived. These are the people who tell us what to do with time.

When I was still in college, commuting 85 miles from Hibbing, Minnesota to the University of Wisconsin-Superior, I forget a meeting I had schedule with a professor before I drove home one night. For a GPA-hungry nerd this was unforgivable, even if my professor seemed utterly unfazed when I called him. It was at this time that I began formally recording my schedule and to-do lists every day.

These reams of lists now sit on a shelf in my home office. Years of records document the birth of my children, the construction of our house, new jobs, tedium and triumph, failures and redemptions. Most items have been checked done, if not on one day, then the next, or the next and eventually. The only thing that didn’t survive the churn of my lists was a novel I wasn’t ready to write, and this only serves to benefit the unsuspecting readers who might pick up such a thing.

It is indeed the mark of civilization that we must list our goals. All writing is really just lists. To do, to done. Even to-do lists, however, are becoming vapid with the times. And I’m not innocent in the least.

An honest list includes everything. While a casual observer might not be able to discern all the contents of my lists, if only because of my terrible 21st century handwriting, the lists do tell. In code you can find the distractions and fool-hearty notions of the past. Nothing specific, just the rings of a tree, the high watermark of an ancient river bed. Over the last ten years you gradually see my life move online – away from reporting on city council meetings and toward Twitter exchanges with reporters.

Today, you can mostly find lists of tasks to be completed on the internet, as though social media optimization were an acre of timber to clear. And I suppose it is. “FB.” That means Facebook. “Boards.” That means my online course discussion board maintenance.

I’m glad I keep paper lists if only because it gives three dimensions to a modern world that includes so many electrons dancing through the wires. And something seems that this will all come in handy. How long can we go without turning shovels and chopping wood? My working theory is the first day that the Diet Coke truck fails to make its appointed rounds we will learn the limits of the internet.

Wilco has a song “You Never Know” that goes “every generation thinks it’s last, thinks it’s the end of the world.” Well, this generation is doing a fine job convincing itself that there won’t be anything left when we’re done. Truth is we will fade to the next generation as surely as last week’s shopping list.

The lists will tell our story. To-do, or not to-do. Here’s hoping those lists are worthy of our time.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He is the author of the blog and host of the Great Northern Radio Show on 91.7 KAXE.

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