Confessions of a compulsive list-maker

I admit it – I’ve grown somewhat compulsive about my list-making.

I created a “master list” that I use to track my daily productivity — and to make sure I’m doing all the things I’m supposed to be doing. I also have separate lists for work things and home things.

I have lists that track the longer-term and more complex items that are on my to-do agenda: clean my study, file my taxes, fix the broken faucet in the kitchen, sell extra items I have lying around the house online.

I also have lists that detail “big picture” things I need to do — like clarify my Life’s Work, strengthen skills I need for long-term employment, and distant goals in the future.

Now, it may seem like a lot — and on some days, it is. But frankly, if I didn’t keep these lists, things would fall off my plate and not get done. Things that need to be done — like fixing the faucet in the kitchen and filing my taxes and taking the trash to the dump. These are just things that regular people do, they’re just a part of life — and if I don’t write them down, they won’t get done. I’ll forget all about them, while I’m off doing something else that did get written down on one of my lists. Or something that looked like fun that popped up out of nowhere and pulled me off in a different direction… only to eventually dissipate and disappear into the aethers.

These lists are not only helpful in keeping me on track — they also help me monitor my fatigue level. And my overwhelm. When my lists start getting longer and longer and increasingly involved, I can tell that I’ve got too much on my plate and/or I need to spend some time catching up with myself. Having a lot of things on my list overtaxes my system, yes — but it’s not only a cause of fatigue and overwhelm. It’s also a symptom.

I can tell I’m getting over-tired and not taking quite as good care of myself as I should, if I start listing an increasing number of small steps in between big ones… or I list things that really don’t need to get done. When I start micro-managing myself and adding things to my plate “for the fun of it,” I can tell I’m getting off track, and I need to step back and reassess where I’m at — not just in relation to my tasks, but in relation to my life.

Here’s a healthy list:

  • Clean my study
  • Work on taxes
  • Fix faucet in the kitchen
  • List items for sale online

Here’s an un-healthy list:

  • Clean my study
    • Find bank statement folders for 2005
    • Organize letters from family
    • Collect all journals since 1994 and organize
    • Vacuum and dust
  • Work on taxes
    • Clear workspace on dining room table
    • Gather calculator, scrap paper, pencils with erasers
    • Defrag computer
  • Fix faucet in the kitchen
    • Locate wrenches
    • Buy parts at hardware store
    • Clear out sink to make space
  • List items for sale online
    • Take pictures of items
    • Download to computer
    • Crop and edit photos
    • Write up text for ad
    • Research comparable prices
    • Check email regularly after listing to see if there are any takers

It’s not that these steps aren’t all appropriate. Some of them are, and some of them aren’t. The point is, when I get to the point where I’m writing down every last little thing I need to do (sometimes I go so far as to specify which jeans and boots I’ll be wearing when I mow the lawn), it’s an indicator that my brain is not trusting itself with relatively basic details and it is compensating in advance for problems it’s anticipating. That means it has an inkling that it’s having problems, and I need to listen to that – pay attention to the signals and signs, and adjust accordingly.

The way I adjust is by taking time off. Stepping back and pacing myself. Not getting so wound up and frantic over every little thing that I can’t function unless I’m giving myself explicit instructions down to the most minute detail, but breathing deeply and relaxing and just thinking things through, before I get started with them. When my brain is in decent working order, I don’t need to have every little action item outlined for me. I can identify the big things, the main activities, and then work from there, stopping frequently to check in with myself about how I’m doing… and not being afraid to step away for a break, because I know I’ll come back to finish the job.

I suppose it’s about trusting myself… knowing my limits… and recognizing the signs of overwhelm — while it’s happening, while it’s building, and before it snowballs into a massive Sisyphusean boulder of hurt-in-the-making.

Yes, those lists do come in handy… so long as I don’t  become too dependent on them and let them take over my life.

‘Cause when the lists do take over my life, I end up being so busy keeping them updated, that I actually get less done. And then I’m upset with myself at the end of the day. And that’s not good. The point of the lists is to get things done, not keep more lists. The point is to live life, not just observe it. The point is to establish a real connection with what I do, how I do it, and why I do it, and inject some consciousness, already, into the whole act of living. It’s about turning work into art, life into art, and using extra tools — in this case, lists — to deepen my involvement in my daily life, which can (when I ignore it or gloss over it) can rapidly get away from me.

Anyway, last night — after not getting much of anything done and realizing I’d spent a whole day tracking my progress, instead of making progress — the following occurred to me about my lists. And I quote from my journal:

It’s quite simple, really.

It’s (list-making) not just about keeping lists and checking off items and critiquing myself at every turn.

It’s much more about paying attention to your life. Not taking things for granted. It’s about participating in your own daily activities with full consciousness and mindfulness.

And learning along the way.

It’s about having a fully involved life that you live by choice, not by default. About being open to experience and not falling back on rote repetition of someone else’s ideas about what your life should be like and what should matter to you.

Indeed, tracking what I’m doing, how well I’m doing it, and understanding why I’m doing it in the first place gives me a safe and convenient and tangible connection to my life. It relieves me of the pressure of keeping everything up in my head, and it helps me see — right there in front of me in living color (green for success, orange for still-in-progress, and neon pink for rats-didn’t-work-out-I’ll-try-again-tomorrow) — how my life is shaping up, where I’m doing well, where I’m falling down, and how I can do better next time.

Ultimately, this record-keeping compulsion serves a very useful purpose, in showing me where I’m at… Where I’ve been… How I got here… And where I think I should go next.


Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

8 thoughts on “Confessions of a compulsive list-maker”

  1. Here’s another perspective – based in part on my own issues, on rehab guidance and what I have read and been told by others.

    1. A simple systems for tracking what needs to be done and what has been done is good, very good.

    2. Many TBI folks have a struggle with sequence, steps and big picture visualization (yes, that’s me raising my hand, though it’s a lot lot lot better than it was 3 years ago). So writing out steps is HELPFUL.

    3. However there is a tendency among tbi folks to, ummm, shall we say overdo things, get a little excessive….the fear of forgetting and the inability to see a big picture with order in your head compels one to lists. If the lists are becoming too much then that is indeed a warning sign that your activity has become making lists and not getting things done.

    4. Generally pick one system, one place to track things. Try to keep it to the level of ‘do 2005 taxes’. Then schedule time to do that. If you are prone to wasting time trying to organize and figure out what needs to be done (yes, that’s me waving my hand again) then put some time in the night before or the morning of or whenever to make the detail list ONLY for that topic. The key issue here is to focus on ONE thing at a time – the multiple detail lists are multiple focuses.

    5. There are a few exceptions to this of course – if you are planning a trip you might have a trip list that has many details in addition to some current to-do list. But that is a planning thing.

    6. A good number to keep in mind is 5 – keep your eye on the 5 most important things, try to keep the detail to 5 things – things like that.

    But I know what you mean about lists….


  2. The best time for me to plan anything: the night before.

    Just enough distance to keep my head clear.

    Not so much distance that I forget that I made my plan/list the night before.


  3. I am still refining my list / organization process – generally I find a hardcover notebook (like a composition book) is the best way for me to go – becasue the pages are bound I can’t easily rip them out (a bad habit of doing this to take the list along in a pocket) and the books are sturdy and cheap. Lately they have made them with unlined pages which oddly I prefer…who knows why, but I have always liked ‘no lines’ (story of my life). The problem for me is that I also use the computer a lot and so I have lists on my computer as well – and sometimes when I don’t have my notebook on scraps of paper – I hope one day to get a digital organizer because I believe that would be helpful but I don’t have the money right now. But even there it is a matter of disciplining myself to use it.

    Two major weaknesses I have is a) not crossing off accomplishments – very important in order to give you awareness of how much you do and b) not scheduling time ahead for activities. I always let my ‘state of mind’ dictate and I think that is bad.


  4. BB – here are a couple of thoughts –

    1. A reach out to list possible alternative or less known treatments for TBI – especially for things like chronic pain, sleep issues, fatigue, headaches, focus, etc. For example

    HBOT – A research team led by Dr. Paul Harch, Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center New Orleans and Director of the LSU Hyperbaric Medicine Fellowship Program, has published findings that show hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) improved spatial learning and memory in a model of chronic traumatic brain injury. HBOT is the use of greater than atmospheric pressure oxygen as a pharmacologic treatment of basic disease processes/states and their diseases. The paper is reported in the October 12, 2007 issue of Brain Research. (Paper available upon request.)

    EEG biofeedback
    Cranial sacral therapy
    Burdenko Method (a type of water therapy)

    OR any others – I would like to know about folks who have used them and to what succces

    2. Feedback from others and a reviews on services recieved – vocational rehab, private brain injury rehab centers, public rehab centers, etc – have you found in any state a model for treatment/recovery/supports etc that works?

    PS. The article I suggested can be found at Questia – you can use the free trial for 72 hours to download it Thomas Bennett and Michael Raymond are the authors – the title is Emotional Consequences and Psychotherapy for Individuals with Mild Brain Injury. It’s dated 1997 but it’s on target. If you can’t get the article at Questia you can ask for a reprint from Thomas L Bennett at Dept of Psych at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO – Bennett and Raymond have written a lot of stuff which looks good.


  5. Thanks – I’ll definitely check it out. I was reluctant to sign up for the 72 hour trial with my credit card #, because I have a tendency to forget about it. But if I plan it properly and coordinate my trial period so that I get a bunch of useful articles, I can make the most of it AND not rack up the $$.

    Questia has been on my list of services to sign up for, but $20/month cuts into my therapy cache.


  6. Talk to the Brain Injury Assoc in your state about state waivers or any special funding that might be available to cover your NT and other services. It may be a long shot but I can imagine that you are putting out a hefty hunk of change for this and if you can get anything re-imbursed its worth it.


  7. Actually, I’m in pretty good shape, as I’ve got insurance that covers the services. It’s the rest of my life that’s really expensive. However, this may be changing. Insurance companies are cutting back on neuropsychological services, which seems counter-intuitive. In today’s economy, when things are more challenging than ever for people, they need all the help they can get with their cognitive processes. But it seems insurance companies are being penny-wide, but pound foolish in this regard. I wish I were more surprised.


  8. I have been hearing more and more about HBOT. I’ll need to check around about it, as I’m not sure about it, or how much good it would do me? I would need the folks who are helping me to understand, first of all, what all my issues are. I’m not sure any of them grasp the breadth and scope… I’ve just acclimated to so many of them, they’re all but transparent to me at times. Once I get farther into things with them and they start to understand where I’m at, then we can start coming up with some real solutions. It’s been nearly a year since I started doing serious diagnosis, but it has been a long and very interrupted process, so there’s still a lot of ground to cover.

    Ah, well… in time…


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