List addict falls off wagon, again

It was 5 o’clock Monday morning, and dawn was breaking over Minneapolis, a city of busy streets and broken dreams. I was wide awake.
My hands were trembling, and I was breaking into a cold sweat. What could I do? I had no guidance. The withdrawal was unbearable.
Three days without a “to-do” list. And it had come to this.
I am but one of many in this city of broad avenues, one of many young, bright-eyed, budding professionals with grand dreams and fears of failure. We sip lattes and plot the overthrow of Corporate America. We live in glass houses and burst through glass ceilings. We caress our notepads, and we clutch our daily planners as if they were scripture itself, hoping that God is contained within the jumble of appointments, commitments and projects we choose to call Life.
I’ve been addicted to to-do lists and daily planners for several years. I’ve made lists on simple notebook paper, and I’ve made complex, computer-generated templates that have divided my life into seventeen categories, each signified by an adverb; financially, socially, etc. I’ve purchased elaborate daily planners, and I’ve made stopgap lists on napkins. I’ve stolen people’s steno pads, desperately trying to manage an out-of-control schedule. My planner is my friend, my mother and my master. I love it and I loathe it. Last week, I left it behind.
This is my story.
I didn’t so much decide to begin making lists as I was pressured into it. During one summer of misdirected professional pursuit, working as a “stock boy” at a Pamida in Brainerd, Minn., my boss, Mr. Martinez, insisted that all employees increase their efficiency by making to-do lists.
I resented his imposition but complied, passively resisting by adding special messages to my litany of uncompleted tasks. It was about one week after I left my notepad lying around with the list, “1. Complete Kleenex display. 2. Finish unloading boxes of Tide. 3. Smash Mr. Martinez’ head against boxes of Tide repeatedly,” that I moved to another stock boy position at Mills Fleet Farm, also in Brainerd. My career was advancing horizontally. But I kept making lists.
The addiction had taken root.
My dependence on lists flourished when I left for college. Deprived of parental guidance, I turned to a daily planner as a substitute for lost family support. Lists provide the organization, discipline and support my mother once did — but lists are better. Mom was often busy and couldn’t always keep track of what I was doing; my planner never leaves my side.
Lists don’t yield. They make rules and stick by them. They punish, and they reward. When an item is put on a list, it stays there demanding to be completed. Unfinished tasks torment me; they keep me awake into morning’s early hours until I complete my duties. But lists are benevolent as well. There are few things more satisfying than completing a task and crossing it off a list. At day’s end, I can pull out my planner and see the things I have done and the appointments I have kept — proof that I accomplished something.
Lists make me feel good. They make me feel powerful, efficient. Thanks to lists, I can juggle multiple jobs, finish my homework and still catch an occasional movie. My planner gives my life meaning. Lists allow me to prioritize, and they let me get away with being a real jerk sometimes. They tell me what I have to do; and if something’s not on the list, I can ignore it. If I find a message on my answering machine, I can play it back and decide whether returning the call is worth adding to my list. If I do, then I will return the call promptly and congratulate myself on a job well done. If I don’t find the item worth adding to my book of hopes and dreams, I can blow off the person who left the message with a clean conscience. Too bad, caller — my mother didn’t want me to call back.
Of course, my constant list-making has had its drawbacks too.
Scheduling a simple lunch date with friends who share my addiction can be impossible. We pull out our planners and lock them in a duel to the death, arranging and re-arranging our lives until we conclude that yes, lunch is a good idea — maybe in early July. Some of my other friends, the mellow ones who drift through life plannerless and always have time for Super Mario 3, say they worry about all my list-making, and they beg me to stop. I say, “Hey, don’t worry — everything’s in control. I can quit at any time.” Then I show them my new, nine-category template (no adverbs this time) and tell them how I’m simplifying my life.
This spring I’ve been trying to slow down my pace and open up my schedule. I’m finishing school, I’ve lined up a job and I don’t need to stress myself out so much in pursuit of the great unknown, at least not at this moment. The question began to bedevil me — could I survive without my planner?
Last week I decided it was time to find out. On Saturday I quit. Cold turkey. I put away the planner and threw my nine-category template in the computer trash bin. From here on out, it was just me and the freedom of an uncharted day.
Saturday started out great. I walked over to Joe’s Market, bought a newspaper and leisurely strolled back to my apartment, not feeling pressured to do anything else. When I returned I saw a message on my answering machine.
It was Mom. It didn’t sound like anything important. Should I call her back? Sure, I thought, I’ll just put it on … my list. But I didn’t have one. I knew I wanted to call my mom, but without the mark on paper my decision had no feeling of commitment to it. And what if I didn’t call her? There was nothing to cross out. There were no consequences. Maybe I wanted to do something else. But how could I know? There was nothing to tell me what I wanted to do. Ah, terrible freedom.
I spent much of the afternoon puttering around my apartment aimlessly, wondering if I should call my mom. Finally, I did. She wasn’t home. Now what? I was about to panic, but I vaguely remembered that I had to work in the evening. I drove to work to see if I was supposed to be there. I was. I spent the evening at my job. I was safe.
Sunday was worse. I felt none of the usual pleasure when I read the newspaper, as I had no idea what would happen when I finished. I knew I had many things to do, but I didn’t know what to do first, or if I even wanted to do anything at all. I felt powerless. Inefficient. Life was bereft of meaning.
By Sunday evening I had resorted to calling friends, hoping they would give me solace. I called four people. No one was home, but three people returned my calls. But why didn’t the fourth? Should I call back? Was something wrong? What was happening to our friendship!?!
I didn’t know what to do. And I didn’t know how to take my mind off my anguish. There were no incentives to keep me occupied — or awake. And so, at 9 o’clock Sunday evening, alone and dejected, I went to bed.
I awoke at 5 o’clock on Monday morning. My hands were trembling, and I was breaking into a cold sweat. What could I do? I had no guidance. The withdrawal was unbearable.
I thought of calling my mom, but her work shift starts early. I contemplated the cold void of my new, planner-free existence, feeling like a motherless child. Be careful what you wish for, I thought. You just might get it. Sitting at my desk as dawn broke over Minneapolis — a city of busy streets and broken dreams — I reached for a pen and a piece of paper.
“1. Don’t forget to go to class. …”
I had lived without lists for two lousy days.
Yeah, I know I’m hooked. There are thousands of us walking the streets of this city. We clutch our planners like IV’s, hoping to get higher in our professions, knowing we’ll be wed to our lists for years, wishing we could get away from them and terrified of what might happen if we did. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
And give me back my planner. I’ve got a lot of things to do.

Alan Bjerga’s column runs Wednesdays in the Daily. He can be contacted at [email protected]