I can predict without fail whether a working day will be an exceptional one or not based solely on whether I make a list in the morning.
I cut my teeth on the old Franklin planners, back before they were Franklin-Covey. I've tried moving to electronic task lists a dozen times since then, using any number of tools. The Handspring Visor, Tiddlywiki, Reminders, Things.app, Remember the Milk. Probably a dozen more that I abandoned and forgot within two weeks. I had a long, successful run with Entourage, which managed intermittently recurring tasks with a brilliance I've not seen since, but my calendaring and email needs have brought me elsewhere over the last decade.
Yet I always come back to pen and paper. Maybe a pretty notebook, with thick, creamy paper; maybe a grungy Moleskine with stickers on it. And pens! Gel pens, mostly, or my beloved Waterman Audace fountain pen, one of my most well-loved possessions. Smudgy pencils only as a last resort.
For years, I've tried to explain to myself why paper works when digital fails me. It's not like me. I'm an early adopter. A technophile. A full-on digital native. And yet every electronic task system falls short for me, cluttered up with things I no longer intend to do, or things I can't possibly get to until next week, or simply ignored until the shame of restarting becomes too heavy to bear.
But with paper, every day is a fresh start, if I need one. Just... turn the page. Coffee, pen, paper, ten minutes for contemplation of time and energy and deadlines.
And not just one list; I have many. One of all my active projects, so I remember all the flaming swords I'm juggling. One for things I want to remember to do, so I don't lose track of them, but don't mean to get to today. And one, carefully curated, spelling out the shape of this today. Big things: writing a thousand words, a conference call, read and sign a contract. Smaller things: shower, water the plants, paint my daughter's toenails.
There are days, weeks, months where I don't make any lists at all. I get some stuff done in that time, surely I do. It might even be about the same amount of stuff, to be honest. I can't know. But those times are a bleak and hazy wasteland in memory. Those are the days I'm tired, the days I fritter away, the days I stay where I am instead of moving toward what I want.
But even knowing this, knowing how important a list can be, how it can make or break a day, I don't always make a list. I mean to, of course, but sometimes I just can't bear to, I don't have it inside me to write one. A chicken/egg paradox, it would seem.
I've come to realize that my lists aren't about productivity or planning. Not really. To me, my lists are a signifier of intent and potential, and that is why I can't move to digital. Glancing at a screen pre-populated with the stuff I thought today should be for, all chosen sometime last week? This isn't the same fundamental action. It's the making the list that's important, not merely having a list.
Making a list is creating an arcane focus for the mind. It's an act requiring a summoning of will in the moment. It's not really that a list makes a better day, I think. It's that it's only on a good day that I'm capable of making a list.