I discovered the power of list making early on.
Sometime around Thanksgiving every year, my brother and I would sit down at the kitchen table to knock out our Christmas lists. Our parents and Santa received the same list, and since we usually did pretty well on Christmas morning, I recognized how important it was to put what you want down on paper. Though some gifts still managed to go un-purchased, and to a kid who enjoyed being a complete-ist (or one with budding OCD), I modified my approach
Perhaps around ’82, I realized that the more effort one puts into a set of directions, the more easily said list gets followed. I took to constructing a near full-proof survey of every toy I had ever wanted, complete with brief, bullet point descriptions, title, suggested retail price, followed by an ordered list of stores where my parents might consider looking first, then second should the first store not come through. Fool-proof.
As the years crept by, and given any event warranting a gift, my parents graciously accepted, with the advent of the Internet, the use of forwarded web-links in place of my elaborate lists. Of course they also appreciated a much smaller list, as, with age, I grasped that my parents preferred buying larger gifts to curb the time they spent shopping. They also, however, like the voting public, do far better with fewer options.
When I was an undergrad, working full time as a waiter and carrying a full-credit load, lists were the only thing that organized enough to accomplish all that I had to. On my days off or after work, on a scratch piece of paper, I listed my homework and assignments—the chapters or stories I had to read, the papers I had coming up—and assigned blocks of time to each. This provided a clear shot of what I had on my plate and also helped me manage my time: only an hour to read 25 pages? Better get cracking. Somehow, everything got down, and if something wasn’t on my list, it didn’t, in part because I didn’t think about it.
This approach to getting work done also served me well in grad school, as I had to keep track of what works I had to read for my Master’s exam. It also organized my writing, revising, and editing. Getting work done was rather satisfying, though not nearly as satisfying as being able to cross something off my list. I learned around this time that I also needed to schedule in down time, like watching a movie or going to the store. If this sounds really anal, it is, but when you’re busy, it makes your tasks manageable.
Now that I am out of school and have fewer demands on my time, I have more breathing room—though more freedom almost makes getting things done more difficult. If something doesn’t have to be done—like submitting a paper for a deadline—it can be put off. A because I can fall into lazy ruts, I use lists to maintain my goal focus.
Before Christmas, I create two lists for the coming year: what I want to accomplish, what books I will read. The book list includes a mix of books that have been sitting on my shelf for a while (classics I never got around to reading, for example); to well regarded books that stand to teach me something, in terms of craft (like the latest Pulitzer winner); to books recommended. I make sure the list includes fiction, non-fiction, and short story collections. Mixing genres affords me insight into the best variety of writerly approaches—in terms of shaping, structuring, grammar, etc.
The goals list is a bit longer—and more ambitious. It’s also gotten a bit more realistic over the years. The best goal is one that I can accomplish and one that challenges me to do so. The best list of goals includes these high-reaching goals (first 200 pages of a novel, for example) as well as busy work that can be handled easily, although it might be tedious (Have six stories out at any given time). If I were an athlete, this might look more like: enter tournaments, complete a rigorous workout schedule 48 weeks of the year.
These lists focus my mental energy because they force me to articulate the tasks that need doing. Basically, it’s a plan, and people need plans. Ever see a contractor build a house without a blueprint?