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17 May 2011
To-do lists as cultural artifact

What do you have to do today? Is it on a list? The to-do list is undoubtedly a cultural archetype of great antiquity (early hominid to-do list: gather berries, hunt mastodon, tame fire), and yet it seems especially suited to our post-industrial world. When your life involves juggling a multitude of shifting opportunities and demands, when you have been set free from both the organic rhythm of the agricultural seasons and the mechanical rhythm of the industrial factory, sometimes your biggest task is simply keeping track of what comes next.

In the restless blogosphere, the last few years have seen an explosion of interest in time management, as information workers flitter (or twitter) from one system of Getting Things Done® to the next, signaling their newfound productivity schemes to one another like so many scouting honeybees. The to-do list is clearly one of those cultural artifacts that keeps on giving. But are we getting any more done? What do to-do lists make of the world?

1. What do to-do lists assume about the way the world is?

That there are things which ought to be done.

Mike Hickerson

That we have control of our time. That we will be able to parse our time out the way we want to control it without any interruption.

Carl Holmes

It assumes that “wasting time” is a waste of time. I often listen to the story of how the woman at Jesus’ feet “wasted” her life.

—Joseph Myers

It assumes that there should be a “to don’t” list as well and that getting things done in some kind of priority listing helps you feel like you accomplished something or are a step closer to where someone (or God) wants you to be.

liz rios

Bookmarked this page/question assuming that I’ll have time to come back to contribute something “profound” after I’ve finished a number of other tasks and somehow snuck in time to consider the question more fully before the conversation expires. 

And if I don’t, I’ll not turn to the archives (who would dig into past lists/topics) BUT instead use a similar pattern to address the next question.  Now hold on. ...

Tom Grosh

The world has become complex with excess accessibility to knowledge and information.  It forces us to choose and prioritize our lives in order to keep up with the hamster wheel.


It assumes that we are so busy that we won’t remember the tasks we need to perform unless we write them out on a list.

—Cheryl W H

To do lists assume that, at least certain things, should be done in a timely manner.

Michael Thompson
2. What do to-do lists assume about the way the world should be?

It assumes that the world exists without interruption. It assumes that we should genuflect to the list and let it control the outcomes of the day.

Carl Holmes

organized and respectful of YOUR valuable time lol

liz rios

That if we get it all down in a proper manner, we can get it all done.  Such is a perfect minute, day, week, month, year, life. ...

Tom Grosh

Isn’t it funny how many people spend lots of time reading about productivity (presumably productivity in something other than reading blogs).  See, for example, this page:

Stuart Buck

It assumes that we would prefer to be task oriented, and wanting to move from thing to thing rather than letting us be in the moment.

—Mike Lane
3. What do to-do lists make possible?

A sense of order in the chaos of the day. Ultimately though it is up to the person with the list to make the to do list bring any order. I write to do lists all the time, and they stay on the fridge until I must get them done.

Carl Holmes

Ability to prioritize, and let go of what can’t be done when:
# of things to do >> # of waking hours in a day


As a mother of four, no one has stated the obvious,  “To do-lists help us remember to do things that would be detrimental for us to forget to do.” 

For example, remembering a doctor appointment, picking my girls up at school, getting all the groceries I need in as few grocery store trips as possible, special events/opportunities (family, neighborhood, local congregation, school).

Theresa Grosh

Speaking as someone who hasn’t had a to-do list in a long time until this morning…  I have been forgetting to do a couple tasks (okay, actually 5 or 7 things) for a couple weeks now.  It has been somewhat distressing, because I’ve never forgotten things like this before.

Hopefully, I’m not getting old.

Jon Daley

Adding a task to a list allows me to forget it and stop worrying about it, because I know the list will remind me later.  Thus my mind can be less cluttered and I can focus on the current moment (whether a task or rest).

—Peter V —Susana

To do lists, especially the host of partially completed ones, allow us to reflect on what we really value.

Michael Thompson
4. What do to-do lists make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

Task lists, GTD… though I’m a practitioner and reluctant believer, these approaches propogate a notion that we should always be accomplishing something in our waking hours. This makes it more difficult to relax, meditate, listen, and contemplate. Even scheduling relative downtime on “the list,” where no tangible outcome is required, is rarely successful when unfinished things remain on the list. This is a cultural tension that is not entirely necessary, yet we choose it.

—Barry Sherbeck

Frog and Toad’s “The List” is insightful. :-)


To-Do Lists make more difficult establishing a satisfying rhythm of daily life populated by the sorts of tasks that never finally get done. By breaking up life into discrete chores that can be accomplished and then checked off a list, The List seems to devalue repetitive, routine stuff of which life is made.  I suppose one could put things like “change diapers” on a to-do list, but just as soon as that task is done, one knows that soon enough it will need to be done again.


I once heard from a psychologist that the more people write down in the form of to-do lists, it makes it harder to retain in their own mind a sense of their day. i.e. the more people write down, the more they become dependent on their task lists and the more likely they to forget important details.

—Cole Lyon

It makes it more difficult for me to relax!  Though one would think that prioritizing activities would help us to relax…


They make it much more difficult to remember to do the things that are truly important.
(As an inveterate ‘Type A’-er in a Type A job, it has taken me far too long to realize that
’ invest in relationships’, ’ enjoy beauty’ and ’ make room for joy ’ should have crowded out
the nonsense I kept putting at the top of my lists.)

5. What new culture is created in response?

Daytimers, planners,, GTD, to-do-list software, and an entire industry devoted to helping us manage our personal and corporate to-dos.

Mike Hickerson

While this is probably a bit overstated, I do wonder whether an over dependence on To-Do Lists does not serve to lead us to see our lives as a series of tasks to be completed rather than a unified whole that is made coherent by an overarching narrative.  Or, to put it another way: maybe we over rely on to-do lists because, culturally, we lack a unifying narrative which enables us to live coherent lives.

Several years ago I was very sick and confined to the hospital for a couple of weeks.  Although I did fret about the many things I needed to be doing (i.e. the list), I was happy to understand my illness not simply as an inconvenient interruption to the accomplishment of my tasks, but as a part of the unfolding narrative in which I was living.

As a result, I did not experience the events of my life (whether tasks or illness)  as just “one damn thing after another” but as another event in the unfolding story of God. 

Because I was not overly task oriented I was able to ask not “what now?”  but “what’s next?”  i.e. not why has this thing happened that breaks up the flow of my task achievements but how will God use this experience in my life to serve others?


I wonder if there is a retro “to-do” list that could record the narrative of life…oh wait…that’s called a journal.

Maybe we can journal our lives (narrative) instead of “to-doing” it away (proposition)

—Joseph Myers

I put things on my ‘to-do list’ which I’ve already done to cross out and realize I’ve already accomplished some urgent things as my list grows with necessary (but not urgent tasks). 

As a mother of four kids, urgent items which don’t make the “to do list” include drinking my morning coffee, making meals (particularly dinner), changing diapers, cleaning up messes, vacuuming before our 9 months old eats food dropped on the floor by our 4 year old, checking culture-making & facebook ;-)  Gotta go ...

Theresa Grosh

I’m not sure there is a cultural response to to-do lists. From my perspective, the lists reflect each person’s personality/thinking/habits. My husband prints very neat to-do lists, does the “tasks” in a straightforward linear manner and finds pleasure in crossing off the things that are done. I make hard-to-read lists on scraps of paper and then lose them, have 7 lists with the same 3 items, and on and on. He is orderly and linear and tidy. I am scattered and sloppy and get bored easily. He likes to do; I like to think—and write comments.