I make lots of lists. Since the days when my college roommate and my then boyfriend used to take turns adding things to my lists like “breathe” or “pee,” I’ve been an obsessive list maker.

My newspaper/magazine jobs required – at least in my mind – lots of lists because details and getting stuff done on time (and done correctly!) was important.  Every Monday, I’d get out a yellow legal pad, and I’d put all of the days of the week in two columns with space left to write the particular tasks that needed to be done on that particular day. As the week would wear on, I’d mark stuff off as well as add items to the list, as last minute tasks would come up.

At home, I’d make lists of household chores and needed groceries on scrap paper. Now that I work at home, I have running lists of work-related tasks, household tasks, and miscellaneous tasks.

When I was my mother’s caregiver, I’d keep a running list of tasks related to her care: reminders to make doctor appointments, reminders to balance her checkbook, and reminders to take her to doc appointments or to the grocery store.

Somewhere along the way, I even began to color code my lists and the notes on my calendar. Red is for personal tasks and fun things to do. Black is for business – appointments, lists, assignments, client meetings, and deadlines. Before she died, I used blue for anything related to my mother’s care and now I use it for anything related to her estate and other family matters. After years of taking notes for stories (either in meetings or in interviews), I find I remember things better if I write them down.

Sometimes, I think that being too anal about the lists is counterproductive plus I don’t like to think of myself as a control freak. Sometimes, I feel trapped by the list – mostly when I find I haven’t marked anything off the list as finished. Lists don’t leave much room for spontaneity if you strictly adhere to them.

But at its best, a list is a way to make your brain pay attention – we are all so distracted by the constant input of images and sounds all around us that the act of making a list can become a way to also take stock. What is important today? How do I deal with this crisis? What did I forget to do?

We all need to see the “big picture” in our lives, but sometimes that can be overwhelming. A list breaks your life into bits that are much easier to take care of – one by one – and a list can help you celebrate the small victories on the way to the larger goals.

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