The power of ticking off tasks as you complete them, and doing "the next right thing." Plus, some Bay Area and LA events I have coming up...
In August, a tweet of mine went viral. What made that particular post so popular? A few people suggested it highlighted a simple if weird truth: that just tracking your tasks and achievements makes you feel surprisingly good—good enough to keep achieving, even when before that you struggled to stay on task, or even get started.
It’s something I know well, because for years I’ve been an avowed list-maker and ticker-offer. When I was interviewed a few weeks ago by Jane Ratcliffe for her new newsletter, “Beyond,” I talked about my list habit:
I make lists. Every day, I make a list of what I need to do that day. And I check things off…Without lists, I'm gone.
To me a list is a safety net. It keeps me from missing deadlines and other commitments, especially given that I juggle a lot of gigs. Bonus: It also helps me overcome being anxious about possibly missing a deadline or other commitment. It’s like Klonopin in paper and pencil form.
Occasionally I have so much to do, I’m afraid to see it all laid out, and I avoid making a list. I have to fight with myself, reminding myself of the logistical and emotional benefits.
Recently I found myself in that resistant state. I’m getting ready to spend eight days in California, and when you’re a freelancer, taking time off is always complicated. I’ve needed to schedule many Oldster Magazine posts ahead of time, and mail books to Oakland and Walnut Creek and LA, and make all kinds of arrangements for my California book events. (More on those events below.) In the middle of all that, my 82-year-old mom needed to be hospitalized, resulting in my being stuck on Long Island for 10 days, spending four or more hours by her bedside—important for my role as a daughter, but not so great for my role as the guerilla multi-tasker I’ve had to become in recent years to stay afloat in my fields.
But when I was at my mom’s home, waiting for my shift to visit her at the hospital, my husband called from our home upstate and talked about feeling overwhelmed with all that was on his plate. (He’s a freelancer, too.) He was struggling to be productive, and the longer that went on, the more daunting getting started became. The longer he put off starting, the more he was unproductive, the worse he felt.
I realized we both needed my lecture on the healing properties of listing. It’s a lecture I’ve unleashed on him before, always to good effect. I said, “Let’s each get a piece of paper and pen, and write down all the things we need to do today. And then tomorrow we’ll do this all over again.” We did it, and both instantly experienced a decrease in our anxiety. (Obviously we are a small sample and this is not any kind of scientific experiment, but I believe I proved that it works…?)
After that, I added another familiar shpiel that has helped both of us before, about another component of my listing habit: the next right thing. It’s something I also mentioned in my interview with Jane Ratcliffe:
I learned from some friends in Twelve Step programs about do the next right thing. Whenever you're in doubt, whenever you're lost, just do the next right thing. So when I'm freaking out, when I can't figure out where I'm going, I just do the next right thing, whatever it might be.
If you make your list granular enough, filling it with enough tasks that you can always be doing something, it’s easy to find the next right thing when you need it. In those difficult moments, I often look for the lowest-ticket item on the list, the task that would be easiest to achieve. I just need something to get me going, something to tick off from my list so that I can feel that sweet, sweet dopamine boost, and then keep going from there.
I realize I’m not revealing anything revolutionary here, and that there’s a whole bullet journal industry capitalizing on the benefits of listing and ticking things off. I’m just telling you what works for me. Also, I had on my to-do list “write Adventures in Journalism post on lists.” And now I get to tick that off. Ah, dopamine…
In other news…
🚨 I’ve got three California book events soon! Who’s coming?
On Thursday, 9/22 at 7pm, I’ll be in conversation with Susan Ito at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland.
On Friday, 9/23 at 5:30pm, I’ll be reading and signing books at Flashlight Books in Walnut Creek.
And finally, on Tuesday, 9/27 from 6-7:30, I’ll do a little reading/signing/hanging out at Gloria Delson Contemporary Arts.
If you’re in or near any of these cities, come say hi!