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Death, Taxes and To-Do Lists: You Can Take the Sting Out of One of Them

03/30/2012 07:20 am ET | Updated May 30, 2012

There are two kinds of people in the world the way I see it: those who like to get the chores done before they play or relax, and those who prefer to relax first and put off the work until "later."

Both attitudes have their righteous aspects, so I'm not going to argue for one over the other, only mention that I am of the work-first type. And I'm familiar with the disadvantages, even dangers, of living by the to-do list. It can get ludicrous, that list -- never-ending and self-propagating like a fungus producing spores. Maybe more like bacteria doing binary fission, dividing to recreate without cease.

I've found a way to tame the beast. It came to me a few years ago when I was trying to establish a better balance between work and whatever else.

In a philosophical moment -- the kind that occur during strenuous work, while I'm on my knees, say, scrubbing the tub with one of those Magic Eraser sponges that make you feel so incredibly competent -- my mind came up with this Big Idea: my work is never done. And my house is in a perpetual slide into untidiness. The implications are huge! I could die any minute and have missed out on all the fun. Or all the intimacy, if you ask my therapist from a few years back. She suggested that perhaps my to-do list was a barrier between me and my children; that flimsy little 4x6" piece of paper? Stuff to do for my children was of course on this list -- didn't that count towards togetherness? No! The list might have been between me and my then-husband, too, who was the play-first type. I must say, in retrospect, we did get divorced over the dishes.

The other thing I realized was that if I always put work first, and the work never ended, I not only would be missing out on fun (and literature), I'd be pretty dull around others. It may not surprise you to learn that my girlfriends' nickname for me is "Presbyterian." I actually like the moniker; it has a nice austere ring to it, doesn't it? I'm not religious, but I was raised Presbyterian, so it makes sense -- having to do with the Protestant work ethic. Our country was built on that ethic! Because I love work, I love farmers, and the whole idea of that life -- getting up before dawn, putting the cows' needs ahead of your own, toiling in the immense quiet of the dark that's full of such promise for the day ahead during which so much can -- no, will -- be accomplished. Then, crashing at about 4 p.m., which for most people is when their workday is barely half done. I wonder if the work-first types tend to be morning people.

This type-A life is not always a picnic, as many of you know. One day, when my working-mother to-do list was incredibly dense with tasks piling up and things spilling over from previous days, all in blue ink, some in ALL CAPS, along with updates and urgent reminders in scary red ink, well, I finally got like Albert Finney in Network: mad as hell. "This list that's supposed to help me feel organized and prioritized is overwhelming me!" I raged at the unfeeling, finger-wagging tyrant. At the same time, I suspected I'd become a little compulsive, spending more time list-making than actually doing the things on it. I was using list-making like a security blanket to protect me from the stress of tackling so many chores and the threat of forgetting something. Ridiculous, I know. Time to make a change.

This is when the corollary to the Big Idea hit me. I decided then and there to try limiting my to-do list each day to only three things. How brilliant is that? You should have been in the staff meeting at Town & Country magazine where I worked at the time, and heard the nervous laughter all around when I mentioned my new practice in connection to a story idea somebody brought up about simplifying life; and you should have seen the glare my boss gave me as she realized she might not have been getting her money's worth out of me. Frankly, I thought my innovation showed leadership ability.

I tossed off the yoke, and you can, too. The three-task limit means you have to prioritize before you write; that's a lovely, calming exercise. If you're feeling particularly reckless, I say dedicate one of the three slots to something fun now and then. The piece of paper with only three to-do's on it becomes an elegant, inspiring influence rather than a nag. It helps you focus calmly and productively on what's really important. All the rest will take care of itself. (Okay, that's not exactly true, especially if you're a high-level corporate exec for whom this recent piece by productivity consultant David Allen was intended in the New York Times: "When Office Technology Overwhelms, Get Organized.")

It's been hard to have faith in my memory, but it's doing a pretty good job. At certain points of the year, like tax-time, holidays and back-to-school days, I fall off the wagon and write a zillion notes-to-self in different places -- the kitchen, the bedroom, the car, the back of my hand. Sometimes I do forget things, and it really annoys my intolerant teenage children, but the sky hasn't fallen, and for the most part, my mind behaves remarkably like a Post-it Note or alarm clock. Occasionally, I veer from the three priorities because flexibility is important and life is what happens while you're making other... lists.

One thing is non-negotiable, however. At the end of the day, you must always, always, write a "What I Accomplished Today" list. And let it be a long one.

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