Column: To-do lists


I would consider myself somewhat of a to-do list enthusiast. Few things are more emotionally satisfying to me than finishing a task on a list and getting to strike a red line through it.  Even some of my motivation for writing this column is the prospect of triumphantly scratching it off my own to-do list. But while I do think to-do lists can be beneficial, if I’m not careful, they can start to put me in the wrong mindset.

To-do lists can lead to the trap of what I call “check-pointing” life. What I mean by that term is that we tend to break down life into attainable goals. At first, this may not sound altogether bad, but I think the danger comes when we start equating success in life with checking off items on our lists.

This mindset can happen in both the day-to-day routine and in the big-picture view of life. In the every day we often judge a day’s success on how much we were able to accomplish: how much homework we finished, how many projects we completed, or how many hours we worked. We can start doing this in the long-term as well, when we make mental checklists with big items like finding a job, getting married or buying a house.

What are to-do lists but a vision we have for our life? This is the reason I believe we like crossing items off so much. We start with a vision: get X or Y jobs done. We work on it, and then we cross it off, feeling like in a small way we moved our lives forward. When we don’t get our to-do list finished, then we feel like we haven’t made any progress, like we’ve finished the day at the exact same point in life as when we started. And by not accomplishing our immediate to-do lists, we’re also not further along on our big picture to-do list.

This is when life can start to get frustrating. We feel like days are passing by, but we have no success or growth to show for them. But this is the wrong view of success, and it’s not God’s view of success. After all, God owns “the cattle on a thousand hills,” says Psalm 50:10. He really doesn’t need us to get an A on a test or to drive a flashy car someday. What He does want, as Psalm 51:17 says, is “a broken and contrite heart.” God’s checklist for our lives probably looks a lot different from the lists we make for ourselves day-to-day.

So if we get to the end of the day and our to-do list remains unmarked with checks to indicate tasks completed, maybe instead of feeling un-accomplished, we should ask ourselves some questions. Did I pray for a lost family member today? Did I go out of my way to encourage a friend? Did I meditate on God’s word so that I would be changed? Sometimes the biggest moments of our lives won’t be things we can cross off a list. Progress, especially spiritual progress, takes many forms, and it’s not always easy to see. Maybe the next item we need to add to our to-do lists is evaluating what our spiritual mindsets are like and how we can grow day by day in the small things. That will eventually lead to bigger growth.