Over the past several weeks, I have read a number of post around the blogosphere about the organizational habits of people (specifically women) who really love lists. Actually, the love for lists and organization in general seems to be quite widespread (so says me, based entirely on anecdata).

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with liking to be organized. Kudos to people who pull it off using lists, and I certainly appreciate the appeal of colorful stationery. But, lists don’t really work for me and never have; quite the contrary.

To be honest, I am truly  averse to lists, especially to-do lists. Averse, as in: they make me physically uncomfortable, like I want to jump out of my skin. (Again, that doesn’t mean lists are bad or that there is anything wrong with them.) I have just never managed to find any that is appealing or that does justice to the swarm of multicolored and shape-shifting, constantly moving and interacting abstract objects that are the tasks in my head (sort of).

This post is for the people who are like me and for the list lovers who haven’t met any “listless” (list-free?) specimens in the wild.

I am reasonably successful both professionally and personally, so obviously I somehow get things done. How do I stay quasi-organized?

** Recurrent appointments (both professional and personal): Class, discussion, office hours, group meeting, faculty meeting, a small number of important standing committees; the kids’s recurrent activities (such as after-school sports) — I know when those are, so I don’t need to put them on calendars or lists. The kids also remember their own recurrent obligations.

** Non-recurrent appointments (both professional and personal): One-off meetings, out-of-town travel, appointments of all stripes for self and kids… They get entered into my phone calendar, usually with two reminders each. I love how easy it is to just click on the date in an email and make an appointment. Entering appointments in my phone calendar is the ONLY way I have found that a) I don’t hate doing it with a burning passion of a thousand suns and b) once I am done entering, I am comfortable simply forgetting about until the reminder goes off. Kids’ activities also get listed on the large dry-erase calendar board (similar to this one) that we have in the kitchen. It has a bit of cork near the bottom, where we also tack birthday party invitations, the schedule of Eldest’s meets or Middle Boy’s games, and anything that may be more than a month out.

** Meal planning: I don’t do it. There are a number of things that I buy every week; for example, cereal, 3 kinds of milk, eggs; butter, deli, fruit, bread, cheese that go into DH’s and the older boys’ lunches, etc. Before I go on the weekly grocery run, I do a quick survey of the fridge/pantry to see what’s missing and, as I am about to leave, I also ask if there is anything anyone needs (usually there are a few items, or a reminder from DH to get toilet paper and the like). Once at the grocery store, I go by what looks good. I tour the store starting with dairy, then bread, meat, deli, and ending with produce;  that way I see what meat looks good, as they don’t always have the same cuts, and also what I feel inspired to make. Afterward, I get the vegetables and other ingredients to complement. Sometimes some nice produce is inspirational and takes center stage. I suppose this can be considered planning meals on the fly. If I am tired or will be busy in the coming week, there will be a frozen lasagna one day, beef and vegetables for two-days worth of of  soup or stew, and a two-days worth of pork roast with vegetables and potatoes; both of the latter take a while to cook but don’t require much tending and can be done in the evening; Eldest makes the frozen lasagna for us after he comes back from school. If I have the time and energy, I will cook dishes that have complicated prep, require more tending to, or are best eaten right away (e.g., stir-fry). But, generally, unless we have guests coming and I have specific dishes I want to make, or I am dead-set on trying something new (both can wait till the weekend, when I have some time), I don’t write out meal plans or create shopping lists based on recipe books the way many people seem to (and they seem to enjoy doing it).

** To-do lists (personal): Things like “Buy new pants for [insert kid]” I just sort of remember. Specifically, both DH and I remember them and forget them and remember them and forget them, and kind of remind each other a few times until one of us just does it. It sounds like it takes forever, but actually it doesn’t. Usually, these to-do things happen over the weekend, often en route to a playdate pick-up/drop-off or grocery-store run. Occasionally, they make it onto the family dry-erase board. I am not the artsy-craftsy type, so I don’t have long-term home projects that require careful planning (unless you count this book I am working on).

** To-do lists (professional): Teaching stuff is usually short term (write homework, write solution to homework, write exam, grade exam), so it’s easy to remember and then just do. Service stuff is often nearly brainless and short term, in which case it’s easy to remember. Anything on which I have to actually do some intellectually nontrivial work, I put in the email folded called “Pending.” I tried to have more specific folders, but it doesn’t work for me; I start obsessing where things should be classified and then I just don’t want to use any of it (I am guessing that’s why lists don’t work for me either; I have yet to find a list that is works with the way things are organized in my head). Anyway, “Pending” folder. Something comes in (requests to review paper or proposal, recommendation letters, etc.), I open email, note and highlight due date, and just dump it in the “Pending” folder. When things are done, they get moved to “Complete.”

As for research, the following is the only planning activity that gives me pleasure of the kind that some bloggers report making daily lists of small tasks does for them. I have a long-form CV in which I put everything. That means that, when I feel that we are nearing the submission of a paper, I put a tentative list of authors, a tentative title, and a tentative submission date in my “Papers in the Works” section. It  makes me happy to see the stuff that’s cooking. I do the same for proposals, the talks that I am about to give, conference abstracts, but only looking at the list of my beautiful emerging papers gives me what I guess is a tiny short of dopamine.

I do make skeletons of papers and proposals. But the technical stuff that needs to be done just comes naturally, as the next logical thing. With students, I do write and email summaries of what we discussed and decide to do next.

** How do I plan my work day? I definitely don’t write anything out. If there are non-recurrent meetings, the phone calendar has already alerted me of those (and will again, a little before the meetings). There is recurrent stuff like teaching, and then there are things that are urgent and can take much of my time, especially during the semester. I have a day, occasionally two, per week that is meeting-free and wherein I try to squeeze some writing of papers or proposals (it’s usually clear which one when). Sadly, these blocks of time sometimes get eaten by urgent non-sciency tasks. Oh, well. When it’s proposal-writing time, I have an excuse to drop everything except teaching and nobody begrudges it! It’s awesome.

That’s about it, I think. Anything I forgot?

Anyone out there who is also list-averse yet manages to get things done? Or am I the only freak?


  1. Very interesting and I immediately wonder if it doesn’t feel like your head is overcrowded by lists? I am definitely a list-maker because it makes me feel like I can relax knowing that I won’t forget things by putting them on a list. Not having a grocery list for example when shopping for more then 5 things makes me feel like I need to remember more than my head can ever contain.

  2. I admire your memory. My list of things that have to be done is similar to yours (except for the kids’ stuff, as I don’t have any), but there is no way I could keep all of this in my head. I would forget 90% of the stuff, so for me, writing lists is the only way to manage everything.

  3. I too admire your memory but also your ability to prioritize. Without lists, I end up not doing things that are important but not urgent (papers etc) and tend to focus on things that do have a specific deadline (teaching, reviewing).

  4. I like making lists and checking things off. It also gives me an excuse to use my fountain pens.

    I don’t think they are necessary though and it’s interesting to read how you organize yourself without them.

  5. I am somewhere in between. I don’t make lists, I only put things in my google/phone calendar that are non-recurring.

    The only time I make a list, is for example after the holidays, or when I had a period of mad deadlines with lots of work and I take a few days off. I take the days off to clear my head and then in order to get started, I make a list of my projects (these are my projects, as well as my students) where I check where we are at, where I need to go next. It is more like brainstorming with a piece of paper.

    So in some sense, the only time I use something like lists, is when I have to brainstorm with myself. Like preparing a talk, paper, grant proposal. It is to try and put structure to what is in my head. I can only do that in hand writing, I have tried typing, but it doesn’t work. It is something therapeutic, of on purpose making my mind blank to anything else, except the task at hand and writing my thought down.

  6. Seems so much like me. I also can not make lists or if I make them, I forget about them, so everything is on fly. The only thing additional to kids events that goes to my phone calendar is the review assignments I agree to. Those are easy to forget and when editor sends angry reminders, I kind of don’t like it, so I try to put that in my calendar on a date that is a week before it is due.

  7. I hate lists and function the same way that you do. Lists stress me out and make me focus on list-making details, instead of tasks that are on the list. I do occasionally forget to do something or pick up a grocery item, but it is never anything truly important. It is also overall less annoying than having to make lists! I also use a calendar for non-recurrent appointments.

  8. Man, I couldn’t do this. Lists let me dump useless information out of my head. Otherwise my brain will be like “call the doctor!” or “remember to send a permission slip to school,” or “your kid needs more socks” while I’m trying to get other things done! Lists let me dump those stupid pop-up thoughts somewhere so I can come back to them when it’s convenient for me and get them done without forgetting about them.

  9. Yes to what sciencedino said—putting those mundane tasks (call doctor to schedule son’s appointment) on a list takes them out of my head where they would pop up randomly (not at a time I could actually do the task, of course, more like 2 am or in the middle of trying to write an abstract) so that I can focus (or sleep). Otherwise I am constantly running through “what do I need to do?” all day/night. And like frugal ecologist, the lists for work help me focus on what is actually important to me vs. the latest “crisis” I get in an email.

  10. But I think its so interesting how different people are, how different our brains work, and thus, how no work strategy can be “one size fits all”. I’m sure there is a continuum for list-affinity from omg I need a detailed color-coded list for every area of my life, to completely list-averse so much that the mere thought causes anxiety. I am only somewhat to the right of that continuum.
    I envy your ability to focus on the important stuff AND still not forget the mundane to-dos without a list. I can probably do a grocery shop without a list (because I’m constantly running through what we need for breakfasts/lunches/snacks/dinner) but the few times my husband has tried it, we basically have to turn around and go back because he forgot to get ANYTHING for dinner, for example.

  11. My memory would not allow me to go completely list-less. I am some where in between. For important appointments such as kids doc appointment etc. I have it on my calendar. Other stuff I do on the go but lists helps some time when I am overwhelmed.

  12. I used to be an avid list maker, but it took too much time and felt too much like I was pretending to get things done without actually doing anything. Now I just write things I need to do on sticky notes and put them on my computer, and critical work deadlines go on my outlook calendar. Things I need to do at home get stuck onto the part of my kitchen counter where I charge my devices every night, and home/family deadlines and events get entered into a google calendar.

    Every few months, I do a brain and sticky note cleanup by making several lists (stuff to do for my home/family life, stuff for work) summarizing the stuff still undone and then I toss the sticky notes. But then I usually ignore these lists. I have found that stuff I don’t get around to doing is usually not that critical anyway

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