List Free Or Die


“WE HAVE TO do laundry,” Tony reminded me.

“It’s on my list,” I said.

“Oh, THE LIST,” he uttered with a hint of derision, as he rolled his eyes.

I love lists. Their exquisite vertical symmetry of ordered information. And they come in more varieties than 16 Handles. The possibilities are boundless: Bucket, Party, Travel, Grievances, Schindler’s, Sexual Partners, Forbes’ annual of the World’s Most Powerful Celebrities.

My first experience with inventorying life began when I was a kid. I kept a record of my favorite words. Unctuous was at the top.

I began cataloguing and quantifying just about everything. Books to read, projects to begin, favorite quotes. An Excel spreadsheet houses every play and concert I’ve been to since I was eight (notating ticket price, seat locations, theater, actors, playwright and a brief one-sentence review). I have a manifest of every place I’ve traveled (where I went, what I did, where and what I ate, where I stayed, what I saw, what I bought). There’s also a separate register for places I want to see. I recently added Bhutan.

I maintain an index of restaurants, with subcategories for Want-To-Go, Favorites, Great-For-Brunch and Cafés-with-Wi-Fi-That-Allow-You-To-Hang-Out-And-Write, each broken down by neighborhood.

I used to begin every new year by making up a tally of whom I’d invite if I were to have a party. It was my way of gauging where I was in my life, who was important to me at the time, the people with whom I was associating, and (most importantly) how popular I was that particular year. Sarah H. apparently made the list three years running (1989-1991), but I have no idea now who she is. (Sarah, if you read this, call me.)

My favorite (or, at least the one I work on daily, and the one Tony regularly mocks) is my To-Do list. While most people derive satisfaction only from ticking off their completed tasks, for me, there’s nothing quite like the unbridled joy of adding a new item. A bolt of energy courses through my body. I’ve properly identified something previously unlisted. I grab whichever electrical device is most handy (iPhone, iPad or laptop)—sometimes I even go old school and grab a pen and piece of paper—and jot down the thought, idea, task or reminder that has just popped into my head.

◆ Start 7-day Detox. Buy Kale.

◆ Prioritize Essay Ideas

◆ Get Chocolate Martini Ingredients

◆ Call Time Warner re Wonky Cable

It’s essential to write it immediately, before it vacates my mind. Otherwise, I risk being agitated all day as I try to recover the missing synapse. If unsuccessful, I’ll have no recourse but to proceed with the mourning process, and obsess over the tragic loss of the unlisted thought, now wandering homeless through the ether. Denial and remorse follow. Why didn’t I just dictate it to Siri? I try desperately to recreate the impulse from which it was born, knowing full well that, whatever it was, it was something amazing, original and extremely urgent.

My mother is a list-maker, so I come by it honestly. However, hers are crumpled pieces of paper torn from discarded envelopes and magazines and re-used Post-Its. They’re more of a hodgepodge of uncategorized scrawlings, dispersed throughout the house and littering the console of her car.

Mine are well organized into a finely-honed method of sub-categories housed in a computer program. In fact, I am forever on a quest to find the perfect program, downloading and test-driving every new app I come across. I recently made an accounting of all of the task and list-related apps available through iTunes. I stopped at 524. I haven’t experienced anywhere near all of them, but some of the ones I’ve tried are: Things, Wunderlist, Bug Me, Habit List, ListPro, Next Thing, Pocket Lists, Todo, Toodledoo, OmniFocus, Remember the Milk, Yelling Mom. That’s just a sample list.

Beth77's To-Do list from Flickr

Beth77’s To-Do list from Flickr

I have high hopes with every new download, but they always end up being a disappointment with their ugly interface, supposed organization, sloppy calendar system, or lack of categorization options. I never delete any of them and now have a collection of unused and under-performing apps cluttering my iPhone and iPad – as if I were in a new Tennessee Williams play, The App Menagerie.

Just added a new item to The List.

◆ Delete Excessive To Do Lists

Tony regards my organizational methods with disdain. “What’s the point?” he says. “You have so many things on your list that it’s become completely useless.”

So not true. It’s a necessary tool that helps me organize my life into categories and allows me to be more productive. Though, I have to admit sometimes my beloved tome of tasks turns into a ruthless, nagging mother reminding me of how ineffectual I am. (No, I’m not talking about you, Mom). Just this morning, I sat frozen staring at all the bullet points still unchecked, feeling overwhelmed. I just have too many things to do. It’s exhausting.

Added another new item.

◆ Take a Nap

I doubt billionaire and fellow lister Richard Branson has this problem. He must have at least as much to do as I have. Maybe he delegates. Branson says he has always lived his life by making lists and credits much of his success to this particular method of organization (he maintains four types: People To Call, Ideas, Things People Say, People Who Can Make Things Happen). Each day he methodically works through them, which propels him forward.

Guess I didn’t read the listers small print: Individual results may vary.

◆ Read Branson’s Autobiography

Apparently, being hyper-organized doesn’t necessarily correlate to being hyper-productive. Putting something in ink or typing it and hitting “save” doesn’t ensure that it will be done in a timely manner. But once I’ve put something on my list, I feel as though I’ve already accomplished something. I’ve identified, categorized and catalogued. It’s been put into the queue. That it may remain there without getting crossed out for the next six to nine months is inconsequential. It’s been notated. It’s on The List. And the list is life.

◆ Research Damage of Obsessively Making Lists

At night, rows of information dance around my head and haunt me. I lie in bed and run through them, mentally preparing for the next day. Did I leave something off? Did I prioritize correctly?

◆ Buy Relaxing Herbal Tea & Meditate Before Bed

Sometimes I feel them mocking me. Like that reminder that was due last December to buy holiday wrapping paper and has remained unchecked to this day. I solved that problem by changing the due date to December 2013. Now I have a few days to complete it, instead of it being 340 days overdue.

I’m constantly incorporating additional items to the point where the number of new things surpasses what gets crossed off. My enumeration of tasks and reminders has become like pi, a never-ending stream stretching outward to infinity. And, like the cockroach, it will survive Armageddon and outlive me.

◆ Don’t Die Before All Tasks Are Completed (also, Edit Tasks, Prioritize and Start Taking Yoga)

It may not be perfect, but my list is like the White Wall in Game of Thrones. Beyond it lies only chaos and uncertainty. And without it, I’d be lost to the vagaries of the day and nothing would get accomplished.

◆ Finish watching Season 3 of Game of Thrones

Umberto Eco has said, “We like lists because we don’t want to die.”

I’m not one to argue with Mr. Eco. But I think it’s more about justifying and quantifying our time while we’re here. Seeing our accomplishments. Seeing where we’ve been as a barometer to judge against where we’re going.

Tony has always said that my epitaph should read: “It’s on my list.”

But dying is probably the only thing not on my list. I figure that one just takes care of itself.

About Jeff Nishball

Jeff Nishball spent 8 long years in film marketing and publicity for DreamWorks Pictures; and yes, all celebrities do look smaller in person. He is currently working on his first novel. Jeff lives in New York (aka “the city”) with his partner, Tony, and their dog, Chankla. Latinos apparently think the dog's name is absolutely hysterical.
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