Updated: Jul 3, 2019
“Help!” cried Toad. “My list is blowing away. What will I do without my list?”
“Hurry!” said Frog. “We will run and catch it.”
“No!” shouted Toad. “I cannot do that…running after my list is not one of the things that I wrote on my list of things to do!”
From “A List” in Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel
I’m a big fan of productivity. I crave the sense of satisfaction that comes from a completed task and a check in a box. As a morning person, I get started early on what I have planned to accomplish. As my energy dips in the late afternoon, I face the reality that not much more is going to be finished. Around 4 p.m. on any given day, my mood is determined by how productive I judge myself to have been. And I’ll be honest: I can be a brutal judge. I picture that judgmental side of myself with a clipboard and a tight, librarian-esque bun.
Knowing this about myself, I’ve developed an intentional system that maximizes the good side of my productive personality, while integrating grace to temper the negative, judging side’s impractical expectations.
First, I make two lists in the morning: The “Make it Happen” and the “As If” list. I found two notepads with these titles last year, and when they run out, I’m going to have to custom order them, because I’m now quite attached to my system.
On “Make it Happen” I write the essential things that must be done. A bill that needs to be paid. Emails that must be answered by the end of the day. An article on deadline. I also use “Make it Happen” motivationally. Each week, I include at least one action step to further my big dreams for my career or ministry: contacting a new editor, creating extra online content or reaching out to a church at which I would love to teach.
On “As If,” I write the things I most want to do. A sewing project I’m dying to start, or finish. A blog I’d like to add to my website. A phone call I’d like to make to a friend.
Second: I assess these lists. Does anything need to switch places? Does one of my wants need to be moved to the “Make it Happen”? Does one of my needs turn out to be not that essential after all? Is there a self-care activity (like taking a dance or weight-lifting class) that needs to get squeezed in no matter what? If I don’t make this shift, I end up feeling like Cinderella: I can go to the ball if I get my insane list of tasks done (come to think of it, maybe my judgmental side is less Librarian and more Wicked Stepmother).
Third: I allow myself to be warned and inspired by one of the great works of American literature: Frog and Toad Together. In this book from my childhood, quoted above, poor, neurotic Toad loses his to-do list early on in the day, and becomes paralyzed by its loss. He sits still until dark, when he finally remembers the last thing on it: Go to sleep. He writes “Go to sleep” in the dirt, crosses it out and goes to sleep.
This story reminds me of two things: My List of Things to Do is just a suggestion. As intentional as I hope to be in life, as much as I encourage my readers and audiences to intentionally live according to what they most love and value, each day will have obstacles and tasks we did not anticipate. Each day also brings opportunities we didn’t expect, often in the form of another human being who needs us.
May I suggest that many of you might want to adopt my system? Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom, a working woman, a retired woman, a working mother, or someone like me (an often-at-home, work-from-home mom), it’s likely we all suffer from the Four O’Clock “What Did I Actually Do Today” Blues.
Here’s the key step in my system:
Fourth: At the end of the day, I create what I think of as my Real(List). I add all the things I did that I hadn’t planned on, and then I cross them out. Deal with flat tire. Check! Comfort hysterical child. Check! Have meaningful conversation with Best Friend about what God is teaching me. Check! Catch pet gecko from behind TV cabinet and dust him off. Check! Look at all those accomplishments! These can be the best things that happen in the day: chances to be patient, problem-solving, relational, kind, loving, grace-extending, and adventurous, which are high on my most important list: My List of Who I Want to Be.
Then, through the things I didn’t get done and realize I maybe don’t ever need to get done after all, I draw a wavy line.
This practice helps me value myself, my contribution to my family and to God’s kingdom; and simultaneously, it connects me to the gentle humility of Jesus, who offers me his light yoke to carry, which is another way of saying that I can’t do everything on my own.
When the list is done, I offer myself an affirmation for all I did that day, and offer God a prayer of Thanksgiving for my life. And the unrealistic judge, who wants to condemn me for all I didn’t do puts down her clipboard and lets down her hair. The Wicked Stepmother shuts her mouth and makes me a cup of tea and tells me to sit on the porch for ten minutes. Then, the next day, the Realist in me makes a brand new list.