Sunday Ramblings: Maggie Checks Off…

A typewriter Maggie Blaha wishes she has…

Of all the seven deadly vices of Dante’s she had exhibited at one time or another, Margaret Blaha thinks envy is her worst. Her virtue? Resilience.

In others she values dignity, courage, humanity, but also [the desire] to have fun. “People who have these three qualities but don’t take themselves too seriously are the jesters of society; they live to mock the king,” she says.

Maggie’s writerly aspirations began in third grade. She wrote a story about a bearded lady in the circus which her teacher had praised. “[I write] partly because I was told I was good at it but mostly because I’ve always found it easier to communicate my thoughts and feelings with a pen than by any other means.”

Writing did come naturally for her.

“In third grade when spelling was a subject, my class was always given the choice of writing sentences using the week’s spelling words or stories, I always found a way to incorporate the words into a story. In high school I started writing and editing for the school newspaper and literary magazine. God, I remember I had my own advice column: “Dear Gertrude.” No one ever submitted any letters to me, so I always had to make up the problem as well as the solution. Apart from that, I was given diaries as gifts, which I always filled up in no time.”

The diaries she kept throughout grade school however were “highly fictional”.

“I much preferred to create a more exciting life for myself than the one I was living. I must have thought that one day my diaries would be published.”

They might well be. Today though, Maggie shares some not-so fictional thoughts on something she had been obsessed with; to-do lists.

Check-off not Chekhov: The art of keeping lists

To-do lists help me give linear order to all the thoughts and plans that would otherwise form a tangled web in my head. I can’t catch my breath if I feel I have so much to do that I don’t know what to do. Writing down everything I have to do or want to do solidifies these things. A to-do list is like a contract I have to uphold.

Obviously, a to-do list in and of itself does not make me feel happy or empowered: it is only when I am able to check-off items on my to-do list that I am able to feel in control of my life. I get anxious if I am not able to check-off at least one item each day. (“Was I active enough today? Could I have been more productive?”)

Listing the things I need to do and want to do is not a method of organization. No. It is “listing.” Organization needs to be applied to make a good, manageable to-do list. For instance, a list can have different categories for tasks to be grouped into. As for me, I like to make separate to-do lists. (Anyone who has seen my computer’s desktop knows about the six different sticky note lists I have so I can easily keep track of what still needs to be done and what I can check-off.)

I used to pile everything on top of each other, but the bigger projects that required more time and effort and would not be checked-off for a period of time started to bury the more mundane daily and weekly tasks that could be checked-off much more readily. An imbalance between checks and no checks grew. Because more abstract projects shared a list with more routine tasks, the abstract continued to be put off for the sake of an easy check-off task. This is when I decided that separate lists would be an advantage.

The list I always check-off items on is the sticky note (by the way, the sticky notes application on my computer is a godsend) entitled, “This Week.” This is mostly a list of things I have to do. Each Sunday, I delete the past week’s list and replace it with a list of the things I need to do in the coming week. These tasks are specific, which is why they’re easy to accomplish. On one list, I never check-off anything. My “Practical Resolutions” list is a reminder of things I would like to continue doing throughout the year but are not really tasks to be completed.

My other lists contain the names of publishers and literary agents I want to query, and the abstract projects that I intend to complete over time. I always check-off the name of the publisher or literary agent I’ve queried and mark the date the query was sent. On the abstract projects list I can break down projects by adding specific bullet point tasks for each one. For instance, under the project headed “Apply for Grad school scholarships,” I made a bullet point list of the different scholarships I hope to apply for. Or under the project headed “Work on novella,” I can list “write for 20 minutes a day,” “develop this character,” etc.

One of my professors (at his weekly Thursday Club) over tea and Oreos, told me about how he compartmentalizes his reading material. He spends his time reading on the forty-five minute train ride he takes to and from campus (well, every other day he practices his Latin), and only brings a book that he has designated to be a “train book.” These are the books that do not require intense close reading and concentration or absolute silence (though he wears earplugs and sits in the quiet car, anyway). He boasts that he is able to complete sixteen books a year just with the ones he reads on the train. This is impressive, and I admire his compartmentalization skills. But I’m not sure how beneficial compartmentalization is for creativity. At least for my creativity.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison, John Lennon, and Benjamin Franklin, apparently, would not agree. Although, Franklin did recognize the pitfalls of a to-do list: while a to-do list is meant to bring happiness, having too many things on a list can cause frustration and dissatisfaction. Franklin’s quoted as saying, “Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.” Basically, don’t try to do everything all at once or you will accomplish nothing.

In a blog post from February on, Maria Popova discusses the psychology of a to-do list’s success. An important strategy is to prioritize, to “reconcil[e] the long-term with the short-term, or the ‘fussy with the fuzzy.’” I feel that this is the point of my many lists: they are all prioritized in some fashion, but I feel that in doing this I have over-compartmentalized my life. I feel I have too many balls in the air, too many fingers in too many pies. I find it difficult to focus on one thing without starting to think about the six other things I want to accomplish. I suppose I haven’t mastered the to-do list or, at least, find what works for me. How can I organize my productivity without driving myself crazy?

Thomas Edison’s list is certainly no help. 

I’m assuming these are all things Edison wanted to invent and that he eventually got the chance to check-off a number of them, but I’m cursed with impatience. I receive gratification in checking-off tasks.

Maggie tells us that she is currently checking off the following: packing, trying to secure financial aid, reading and also doing a lot of exciting things like looking into writing a script for the BBC and moving to China for a year.

She had also just found an artist, Stephanie Hufford, who would do the illustrations for a children’s book she had written, The Care and Feeding of Stuffed Ducks. (check!)

Wonder what is next on her list, but watch that space I reckon!

We had our first Readings last Thursday which was good fun. The works read will be posted on Mondays. We are now super excited about Ali’s coming book launch. I am not sure who will be with us at Ramblings next week, but I promise it’d be another fun conversation.

Until then check out Maggie’s blog, leave us your thoughts on to-do lists, enjoy our weeks’ posts and have a great week ahead!