The Checklist

When did we all start to live by checklist?

checklistWhy is this now our accepted method to score potential mates, feel satisfied with our days, and validate our lives by flipping through agendas and calendars – paper and electronic?

  • I had a mental list of critical tasks for this week of so-called break.
  • I had a written list of the highest priority, along with the most irritating.
  • For two days I checked nothing off, and felt as though I was a slacker.

On the third day, I added an item for exactly what I had been doing for the preceding two days – so I could check it off!

Do you find yourself expanding a “to do” list just for the pleasure of checking something off as done? Please don’t tell me I’m the only one who does this…


What was the item I added?

It was a two-part reminder. Seemingly simple. And extremely important. It is the one thing that I have been consistently doing these past four days. Every day. And I’m proud of that. And it is this:

Eat healthy, including meat and fruit. Walk 10 minutes if possible.

As simple as that sounds, it’s a big deal. Like many parents, when life gets crazy, it’s kids first, and everything else after. For me, that’s included necessary attention to my health, but I’m trying to fix that. As for those few minutes of walking? Essential – to build back stamina after many months of being under the weather. So, eat healthy and walk 10 minutes? Huge.

The other items? From the sublime, to the ridiculous, of course, including:

  • Finish taxes (not sublime)
  • Paint two walls in the Toxic Zone (my son’s room)
  • Pay bills (always a two-hankie affair)
  • Exchange printer cartridges for correct size (irritating)
  • Do dishes (disgusting)
  • Finish time-sensitive research for my son (irritating)
  • Clean my closet (ridiculous)
  • Clean everything (ridiculous)
  • Try (again) to deal with wrong cable boxes (irritating)

You get the gist. Not only is there nothing sublime on that list, but some items are as simple as a phone call (or eight), while others involve physical labor which may not be possible, or an insistence on focus, even if the task is tedious and long (taxes).

Why do we need checklists?

It’s a no-brainer that we’re all carrying a larger load than we ever anticipated, or that our parents carried before us. Contemporary life is a complex and multidimensional schematic, a constantly changing diagram that seems like one giant interdependent, spaghetti mess. Checklists are a safety net, to help us stay organized. To miraculously get “too much” done. Or at least, to imagine that it’s possible.

Yet what does that say that I required an item to remind myself to eat meat and fruits, because I’m always so busy I don’t take care of my own nutritional needs? Meat for the critical iron and B12, fruits for their vitamins?

Checklists as a replacement for spontaneity?

As for the little things that fall through the cracks? They’re always there, and unfortunately, they sometimes snowball, and as they accumulate, the tumbling along of bits and pieces of what is left undone eventually gains the momentum to knock you over. Maybe it’s five days of dirty dishes, or three months of kid-hidden trash under the bed. Eventually, it all needs to be dealt with. Avoidance and procrastination have their place, but as a lifestyle? The antithesis of organization.

So the checklist – for the little things – provides a small measure of assistance and comfort that everything won’t reach the danger zone.

But here’s what concerns me. We seek love by checklist, jobs by checklist, employees by checklist – never taking the time to really get to know who or what we are dealing with. We run through vacations by checklist, ticking off the destinations we’ve fit into a jammed schedule. Mona Lisa at the Louvre? Check. The Eiffel Tower, despite the line? Check. Two days in Rome, two days in Florence, two days in Venice? Check.

We’ve extended and internalized this behavior, and we’ve gotten carried away. We take so much satisfaction out of “checking it off the list” (bucket list?) – I wonder if we’re really living the activity itself. Are we losing the fullness of our experiences and accomplishments? Our spontaneity?

Checklist organizing

I need my checklists as much as the next guy. To document critical tasks so they get done, to prioritize, as well as to capture the items that annoy me – things like painting the walls in my son’s room – my son, the artist, who should have painted those walls himself many months ago. If it stays on the list, I probably won’t do it, but I’ll remember to nag him until he does. And dammit, even if it’s some odd adolescent rebellion, I’m going to see those walls painted eventually, and that room, less of an eyesore.

There’s no question that a checklist, an electronic organizer, a planner, an agenda are all helpful. To a point. But have we gone overboard?

© D A Wolf



  1. says

    Oh my goodness can I relate to this post (which I just linked to in my own blog for later today). I’m a checklist fiend and also – neurotically, but I can’t help myself – frequently find myself adding things to my checklist which I’ve already completed, just for the sheer pleasure of crossing them off! Perhaps we should start an online support group for people who’ve grown too dependent on their check lists…

    Thanks for this.

    Delia Lloyd

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You certainly make me feel better on the addition of items that have been accomplished! I love the idea of a support group. (And thank you for the link.)

  2. says

    Okay, you’ve got me, I am a checklist person. There is something soul satisfying about checking things off. I always wanted to be a teacher, as a kid I would love just pretending to to check, check, check ona piece of paper. Maybe it stems from that. But I am also an organized person, I have a deep-seated need for order in my life. I don’t do well with randomness. If there is a plan…a list, then I feel comfortable. However, as you say, life seems to spin out of control these days, and I’m finding that my list just grows, never shrinks. That can be tremendously discouraging. So while I’m still using lists to write things down that cannot be forgotten and to my mind at rest, I’m trying to learn to focus on the immediate rather than allowing my mind to rush ahead to all that has to be done. When I do that, I simply get overwhelmed. Great post!

    • BigLittleWolf says

      The answer may lie in moderation, as with so many things. And you’re so right – the lists keep growing, and growing.

  3. says

    While I am a check list person, I like the spontaneous me on occasion. I like to know that the check list can be thrown out the window and I can just do whatever I want. While I didn’t do this yesterday, I am doing it today. I am just going to do what I want. LOL! NOT! I am going to work some and play some so a combination which is probably best for me.

    I have to break the quiet in my home now by waking up the 15 year old. He has to be to a neighbor’s by 9 to start spring yard clean-up.

  4. says

    Funny, I’m a sort of checklist person, but love spontaneous things A LOT. I started making lists when I got to college and suddenly I couldn’t just get all A’s without trying; suddenly I had to be organized. Organization is against every bone in my body, so I started making lists. Or I’d never remember what to do at the time. I still do this so I don’t forget. I wake up at night remembering stuff I forgot, and I turn on the light and make a list. On a vacation we’ll make a list of what is important that we want to be sure we see or do, but it’s broad, so we can decide what day to do what. But the list doesn’t restrict us; it’s just a starting point. I guess I have a mental list about a potential guy in my life, but I’ve never written it out; I’m willing to be surprised. Kristen at Motherese has a short post on surprise today, and at this moment it seems like the opposite of checklists. I think there can be both. But now you’ve got me thinking…

  5. says

    “The Checklist” is a way we can gauge how productive we are. I hate them. I make them because my brain isn’t good enough to remember everything without writing it down anymore! I have a few things to add to yours:
    1. Stop and have a glass of wine.
    2. Stop and have a piece of dark chocolate.
    3. Stop and smile.
    There, don’t you feel super productive now? :-)

  6. says

    I’m the type of person that still needs to be reminded to make a checklist. I think we all love the feeling of checking something off, but I think that no matter what, there is still so much about life that comes at us unexpectedly, it’s more a matter of being grateful that sometimes, we can actually see accomplishments.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Ah, Jason. You mean as in the endless list of kid stuff? Clothes, toys, school supplies, art supplies – and then the assorted cleaning products, Home Depot items to fix everything that breaks, clothes and shoes they constantly outgrow, books, and, occasionally, something to feed them? 😉 Aren’t they supposed to go out and get a job as soon as they hit pre-K? You know. Some sort of “cute kid” job, before those couple hundred thousand dollars it actually costs to raise a kid starts to really kick in.

  7. says

    Oh, I’m definitely guilty of the checklist as a form of positive reinforcement. I love crossing items off the list! Practically, a list does help me see what lies ahead and prioritize. But I agree we have taken this too far. Your point about places to visit and things to see – crossing off the Eiffel Tower – is a perfect demonstration of this. Isn’t it more to truly experience Paris than to see it and head off to your next destination? (YES!)

  8. says

    Avoidance and procrastination … That’s exactly what I’m doing now as The List sits beside me on the table and stares at me. I do love the satisfaction of crossing a thing or two or twelve off, and my sanity requires a list these days or I will surely forget things. But I am a master list-ignorer as well as a list-user. Perhaps therein lies the problem …

    • BigLittleWolf says

      And… um… do you ever lose your lists? (That’s been known to happen around here, particularly when “cleaning” is one of the items. A correlation, you think?)

  9. says

    I must have a checklist if I want anything accomplished. My brain rarely stays focused long enough to complete a task unless I can see it in writing. The checklist becomes an anchor that keeps me tied to what needs to be done.

    The larger problem may be that I’m pulled in too many directions. Maybe if my life were less full, I’d be able to focus more. The chicken or the egg?

  10. says

    Oui, oui, et oui. A tout. Quant à la spontanéité — oh que j’en veuille! Mon mari et moi, nous avons les pires disputes au sujet de ce problème. Je lui dis qu’il ne sait pas gérer son temps; il me dit que je ne connais pas une vie sans liste de choses à faire …

  11. says

    On my checklist – READ THE POSTS PILING UP IN MY BLOG READER – lol! And yes, I add things after I’ve done them just so I can cross them off! I resisted the list that my mother was constantly urging me to make for a very long time. Age and poor memory (one and the same?) have forced me to finally succumb. I don’t do one every day but I sure do them!

  12. dadshouse says

    I create checklists, then ignore them. I don’t think of them running my life – they free my mind from having to remember. They are an extension of my memory.

    Good for you that you are eating healthy! That’s always been high on my list, for me and my kids. I think because we all do sports, we have to eat well to fuel our games.

  13. says

    I make my list, then I forget to look at my list. I write on post-its, and then I have a file full of post-its and can’t find time to go through them. Slowly, I’m starting to trust that the key things rise to the top of my brain, things like breathing. I definitely think we’ve gone overboard, the problem now is with all the trash we’ve put in the ocean.

  14. says

    I’m a big list person too, BLW! And totally guilty for writing things on the list that I’ve already done, but more than just so I can cross them off. They were things that BELONGED on the list and I somehow forgot to write them there. I deserve to know I accomplished them. Truly nuts, I know. The inner workings of the listkeepers mind!

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Ah Jack! A lover of spontaneity! I will say, the two are not mutually exclusive. You can have strong planning/monitoring skills (and lists, mental or otherwise) and still have a spontaneous streak. I worry that we’ve gone overboard on the lists and gadgetry – the tail wagging the dog, so to speak.

  15. says

    My husband is a huge checklist kind of person. I only make a checklist for grocery shopping and before we travel somewhere.

    Laughing at your description of your son’s room as the Toxic Zone. I hear you on that one!

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Yes. Teen rooms are typically hazardous zones. Perhaps it’s a way to keep parents out.

      OK. I will admit – I painted one of the walls yesterday, so technically I could cross something off the list. My son will be home later, and either very annoyed, or pleased. But he’ll have to finish as I am, um, down for the count. (Hmm. That would give me time to work on another to do item, wouldn’t it. . .)


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