To-do lists … or not to-do lists, that is the question

There’s a trend, a splash across the internet that’s troublesome. I’m noticing articles with titles, such as, “Why Successful People Don’t Use To-Do Lists” and “Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work.” 


I remember returning home with my daughter Summer from Hospice House the evening my husband took his final breath. The thought of all that needed to be done unraveled me.

But Summer and I did the oddest thing. We notified immediate family members, put on pajamas, popped some corn, and watched HGTV’s “Love It or List It.” 

I suppose it was our way of coping in the moment, of leaning into the unthinkable, pushing the details of funeral-planning out of my head, and embracing the simple pleasures of fleecy pajamas, flickering fireplace, salty buttered popcorn. 

The next morning, we wrote three basic rules for that first full day without husband and father: 

  1. Stay in pajamas all day
  2. Don’t get off the couch except for coffee-and-tea breaks … oh, and food and bathroom breaks … and maybe to answer the door 
  3. No one is allowed in unless they’re wearing pajamas (although we did make exceptions to this rule)

Ironically, in between all the remembering and laughing and crying, Summer and I got quite a bit done from the couch in our pajamas. 

The simple pleasure of staying in PJs and drafting lists of things that needed to be done removed the backpack full of bricks that I’d been lugging around and placed the weight on paper—planning a Celebration of Life service, arranging housing for out-of-town family, determining meals and gathering times.

By the next day, Summer and I were rested and ready to tackle the items on our lists.

And thankfully there were lists that kept us somewhat organized and focused.

The problem with these trendy “anti-to-do list” articles is that they assume each day has its own list, and therefore if we don’t get everything checked off for the day, we feel bad about ourselves. Or overwhelmed. And we add unnecessary stress to our lives. 


One of the articles even indicated that we should put tasks on our calendars instead of on a list. 

But if I’m in the middle of work and the creativity juices are flowing and I remember that I want to send a thank-you note to my favorite aunt, I’m not going to schedule that on my calendar. 

I’m going to pick up my phone and say: “Siri, please remind me to write Aunt Emma.” 

And boom. It’s on my to-do list. 

And it will get done, whether today or tomorrow or the next day. No pressure. No stress. No feeling bad about myself. Simply a reminder to do something that needs doing.

If organization is part of living well during the hard and holy moments of life—like, when there are funeral services to plan—then to-do lists are one of the tools to help organize us and offload that backpack full of bricks.


There’s balance to everything. Of course. This insight from Alan Cohen:

The only thing more important than your to-do list is your to-be list. The only thing more important than your to-be list is to be. 

Hence, 3 things to remember:

1. When life is overwhelming, schedule a Pajama Day. And while you’re in your PJs, consider listing the most important things that need to be done. And then put aside your list until it’s not Pajama Day.

2. Your to-be list is more important than your to-do list.

3. You are the boss of your to-do list. It is not the boss of you.

I’ll leave you with this parting thought:

I made a huge to-do list for today. I just can’t figure out who’s going to do it.


No matter your size, you can still be fierce


46 highly effective self-care tips


  1. Allison J McCormick


    I do enjoy my To-Do lists! I have them tucked into notebooks, sitting on my desk and YES in my phone. So much to-do, all important and I guess that is where the To-Be list comes in. I will admit I haven’t heard of a To-Be list but I love the idea. I think it will bring priority to all my other planning.

    Thank you for this wonderful reminder, I think I will add it to my list – as soon as I find them.

  2. Tricia Stutheit

    Hi Marlys,
    I so loved your story on your To Do List. I love making to-do-list, but I don’t make them as often as I should.
    Thanks for sharing, you are an amazing communicator in you’re writing. I also loved the idea of a To-be-List.



    • Seems we have a lot in common, Tricia – the love of a good cup of chai tea … and writing lists. I’ve been known to complete a task, then add it to my to-do list for the sheer pleasure of checking it off. Have you ever been guilty of that?!

  3. I’m a to-do-list person and love making lists! It helps me to not only prioritize the task but to organize it in my mind. And I get such satisfaction when I can cross something off my list! But I could never understand why I didn’t get more done until I just read your blog! Now I just need to make a list of potential volunteers! LOL Thanks for the insight. Keep up the good work and keep writing. You are an inspiration and encouragement to many.

  4. I’m all for to-do lists. And I’m all for grace in the doing! And for delegating when possible! Thanks, Marlys. Love your parting quote.

  5. Susan

    I could not function productively or responsibly without a list but I agree, prioritizing & making sure to focus on what really matters in the long run is crucial. Taking time for self, family & friends keeps me sane in the midst of handling all that’s required in my new widowhood state. I love giving myself days off to just veg knowing the down time will energize me to tackle the never ending list. I’ve learned how to be humble and accept help in the big things on the list & have even asked for support when the small things on my list are surprizingly emotional for me. I have found others are impressed with my organization in the midst of my grief and are appreciative when I’m okay with allowing them to help with my list. Especially when they want to help in some way but don’t know how to approach me. It’s been an interesting time of learning as I work on my list. Who knew! I’m amazed, my list turned out to be the tool God used to remold me this year.

    • Oh, Susan, it sounds as if you’ve learned so much in the middle of your grief: asking for support, letting others help, giving yourself days off. Well done!

  6. Nora Weed

    Hi Marlys, I’m a huge fan of “to do lists” & “life lists”. I feel guilty if I don’t have a list when I walk into a grocery store. There are lots of different types of “to do lists” and mine is a daily list of things that come off my calendar with just a few add-ons. Sometime around dinner I pause to see how I did with my daily list and then I just relax & smile. 99% of the time I’ve only given myself the things that I know I can do and so 99% of the time “mission is accomplished”. It is a lot easier now that I am retired but I think knowing & seeing that I have things to do gives me purpose. Maybe the younger generations sees list making as old fashioned but I know they have their own way of keeping track of what must be done. I think we “list makers” feel good about how we have learned to be efficient & organized. So I raise my glass and give high praise to the “to do list” & “to those of us who use them”!

  7. Peter

    Great read, thanks… Teaching Law (so many years ago), included the subject ‘Time’. Basically, time can’t be wasted, it can only be used unwisely!. It’s not my mantra but it is a starting point and to use time wisely, making a ‘To do lists’, along with prayer, soothes the ‘being’ and allows one to function, I do believe. Personally, I return to remind myself of ‘using time wisely’, especially when one is a carer, thinking, arranging, doing and being there for the two of us, in our ‘togetherness’. God Bless, Bx P & family.

    • What a good reminder for us all, Peter: Use time wisely. I hope you’re using time wisely by refueling yourself mentally/emotionally, physically, and spiritually as you provide care for Barbara. Blessings.

  8. Peter

    PS : It’s the 14th, so ‘Happy Valentines day’ and may you all be blessed by someone’s love.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © 2024 Marlys Johnson