On the Compulsion for Lists


I like lists.

Besides the physical act of puttering about my house and putting things in order (lining up books, putting away cutlery, reorganizing shelves, getting rid of clutter) few things are as eminently satisfying and comforting as the psychological act of generating a List.

What do I put on my List?

Invariably just one class of things: things I need to get done—a category not terribly refined in its distinctions as it includes items as mundane as throwing the trash and as momentous as earning a doctorate. But that’s exactly how I’ll write them down, without distinctions: throw the trash, get a doctorate, call my mother, record my expenses, upload a blog post, publish a book.

Some things have remained on my List for years: visit fifty countries, learn five languages, archive all my photographs. Some have gotten ticked off after remaining on my List for years: learn how to teach yoga, finish writing my thesis, get vaccinated against cervical cancer. (This reminds me: I need to put a new item on my list, which is to celebrate getting longstanding items ticked off from my List.)

Without my intending it, the List determines what my life is about and how I should feel about my life at any given moment. It defines what I’ve done, what I’m currently doing and what I’ve yet to do—and if I feel that I’m not “on track” against the List for whatever reason, it’s an immediate cause for feeling anxious, restless and discontent. And precisely because the List tells me what my life is about, I start feeling terribly disoriented if I don’t look at it at least once every two days.

(The contents don’t change much over short periods of time, so there’s little practical value in reviewing the List so often. But looking at it soothes me—gives me the fleeting yet welcome illusion of possessing complete control over my life, because everything in it has been accounted for, planned for, provisioned for . . . Even the unknowns, precisely by being identified and mapped as unknowns, have shed the terror wrought by their unknowability.)

I’m well aware that this compulsive list-making stems from an unworkable yet persistent belief that my worth is determined by my productivity. Letting go of it will be the work of a lifetime.

And yes, it’s on my List.

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