A return to lists

With days blending into with each other, it is easy to get caught up and less productive. Making lists could turn that around

May 10, 2020 12:35 am | Updated 12:35 am IST

Time has become elastic. A friend remarked on social media that April seemed to last a decade, and March seemed a millennium away. We really don’t know when tomorrow will come, and what it will look like. It is easy, in such times, to fall into a sort of unending slump, as if you are lying in a hammock that doesn’t stop swinging long enough for you to get off and do anything — anything that counts for something, that is.

What keeps me going is the routine of making lists. In normal times (remember those?), some of us compulsively make lists of things to do. I have written about list-making before. But my lists, these days, are strategic; they are designed to make me feel like life can be handled; that the items on them are not only possible, but eminently so. The list has become a way to rein in the days, to give them shape and meaning, to break the hours into chunks that have beginning and end. It also gives me a way to not be distracted by the things that can get overwhelming — what is going to happen after the lockdown? How will things look? What possibilities will remain?

The list then becomes a coping mechanism. It draws me away — for a time at least — from the beckoning rabbit holes of social media and streaming apps and towards a measure of productivity.

Rationing tasks

It’s important to mix up the list with small, bite-sized pieces of effort. Clearly, you can’t put a whole project on it, or you would be defeated before you even started. One wise person said you need to look to “the next right thing”, which could be as small as responding to that email that has been lying in your inbox for the past week, or maybe mid-sized like thinking through an assignment that you have been putting off forever. If you do have a large project that must be done, break it up into smaller pieces: reading, note-taking, outlining, writing sections.

The list must be realistic, not aspirational; otherwise, it will become just one more set of good intentions. I have got pages of lists that have defeated me even before I got started on item number one. Yes, you do have that term paper to write, but it is not going to get done in a day.

So, if that is an item on your list for Monday, you can be sure you will reach Tuesday feeling like a failure. A better idea is to have a “big project list” that spans a longer period — a week or a month — with smaller tasks on your daily lists, some of which might contribute to those bigger projects. The act of making a list helps one focus on the small, do-able things. It also gives you a way to make something of the day, by setting small goals that you can achieve, and feel good about. We need that sense of achievement to move us along, to make us feel that some things can go right even when the big picture is hazy and worrisome. In the past few weeks, this has been a way of ensuring that the immediate future — the day — is under my control, to do with as I plan.

And that can make all the difference when tomorrow seems forever in the coming. But you have today — and all the hours in it are yours for the taking.

The writer teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. usha.bpgll@gmail.com

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