Listing Toward Sanity? A List Maker Explains

Do you like a well-written to-do list? Then you will find a friend in New York Times bestselling author Mary Roach, a lover of well-executed errands and all things you can cross off a Post-it.

Mary RoachKang KimThere are three kinds of people in this world: 1) People who make lists, 2) People who don’t make lists, and 3) People who carve tiny Nativity scenes out of pecan hulls. I’m sorry, there isn’t really a third category; it’s just that a workable list needs a minimum of three items, I feel.

I am, as you might have guessed, a person who makes lists: daily to-do lists, long-term to-do lists, shopping lists, packing lists.

I am married to a man whose idea of a list is a corner torn off a newspaper page, covered with words too hastily written to later decipher, and soon misplaced or dropped on the floor. Every now and then, I’ll discover one of Ed’s lists in some forgotten corner of the house: Rescrangen polfiter, it will say. Pick up grellion. Bregoo! (underlined twice).

It isn’t entirely accurate to say that Ed has no formal to-do list. He does. It’s just that it isn’t Ed who makes it—it’s me. It’s easy enough: The same ten or 12 items, mostly involving home-repair projects abandoned midterm, have been on it for years. I once wrote it out for him and put it on the side of the fridge. When I glanced at it some months later, Ed had crossed nothing off, though he’d added a few items of his own: Make violin. Cure diabetes. Split atom.

I make lists to keep my anxiety level down. If I write down 15 things to be done, I lose that vague, nagging sense that there are an overwhelming number of things to be done, all of which are on the brink of being forgotten. Ed, on the other hand, controls his anxiety precisely by forgetting them. If they’re not numbered on some piece of paper, they don’t exist. So there’s no reason why he shouldn’t come directly home and turn on the game. People like me really gum up the works for people like Ed by calling them during the day to see if they’ve gotten around to any of the things on the to-do list we’re secretly keeping for them.

Here’s the sick thing: I don’t really care whether Ed has done the things on this list. I just want to be able to cross them off. My friend Jeff best summed up the joy of crossing off: “No matter how unproductive my week has been, I have a sense of accomplishment.” Jeff actually tried to convince me that the adjective listless derived from the literal definition “having no lists.”

It is possible, I’ll admit, to go overboard. Ed once caught me crossing an errand off my list—just for the satisfaction. I have a list of potential party guests in my desk drawer that dates from around 1997. Every so often, I take it out and add people we’ve met, cross off couples that have moved away, and then put it back in my drawer. I long ago came to accept that we’re never actually going to have this party; we’re just going to keep updating the list—which, for people like me, is a party all by itself.

My husband is the first person I ever met who doesn’t even make a shopping list. Ed prefers to go up and down the aisles, figuring he’ll see all the things we need. The problem is that he has no idea whether we actually need them that week, and so it is that we have six cans of water chestnuts and enough Tabasco sauce to sober up the population of Patoka, Indiana, on any given New Year’s Day. It seems to be a male pride thing. “Men don’t want to admit that they can’t remember everything,” says my friend Ron. It’s the same reason, he says, that men carry their groceries in their arms: “We’re too proud to use a cart.” Ron finds shopping lists limiting. “Take M&M’s,” he says. “Those are never going to be on the list.”

Ed agrees. He says the things on lists are always chores and downers. Ed wants a to-do list that says, 1) Giants game, 2) Nap, 3) Try new cheesesteak place. Meanwhile, the polfiter sits unscrangened.

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