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Listology

Learning to live with lists

If I could venture back in time to talk with farmers in the 1920s, one thing I’d be sure to ask is whether they used lists to organize their days. Did they scribble down the plan for the day, as we do, or did they have all the activities filed away, in an orderly fashion, in their calm, capable minds?

On our farm, lists help organize everything from annual equipment maintenance to daily farm tasks. I write one out each morning, wildly optimistic about what can get done, essentially crafting a birth notice for a new day full of promise. In the evening I revisit the same list when all too often it has turned into an obituary for what appears to be largely failed, mediocre day: Oh dear, look at all thing things that didn’t get done!

Are lists the best way to organize our days? Certainly time management experts think so. Every day pilots the world over use checklists to help avoid errors. Not so long ago Atul Gawande, a writer for The New Yorker, had a bestselling book, The Checklist Manifesto, that argued, basically, that surgeons do a better job when they use lists. Lists result in fewer scalpels getting left in sternum cavities, apparently.

The list and its military cousin, the checklist, have become such a part of modern life that they have come to resemble an efficiency expert’s version of an organized philosophy, like Confusionism, or even religion. Consider the evidence:

? a list offers a plan, a roadmap, for success. Inherit in the composition of every list is a fundamental belief that it will all work out—that the irrigation pump will get fixed and the barn gutters cleaned and the kids delivered to hockey practice on time. Otherwise, if you weren’t so hopeful, why would you bother making a list at all? No one writes on a list, “Don’t see doctor”. Lists are for people who believe there is at least going to be a tomorrow, if not eternity.

? lists embed a value system. Unless a list has just one item (is that even a list?), there is an implied value judgment. This is more important that that. It is more important to see that the electric fence is working than it is to check the tire pressure on the pickups. If there are 10 items on your list, you have made/will make at least 10 decisions about priorities. You could even argue that leaving something off the list is a judgment of sorts. If you don’t believe me try leaving “pick up wife at airport” off your list, as I once did, as see what happens.

? if you don’t complete the daily list, you feel guilty and the day, if not your actual soul, goes to hell.

A few years ago a friend decided to forgo lists for good. He said they were ruling his life. For awhile I was in awe of his freedom, which he often reminded me about. The joy of the listless life, he called it. But then he lost track of when the rams went in with the ewes, the ewes lambed when he was away, and, well, let’s just say that he doesn’t farm anymore.

Perhaps my uncle had lists figured best. A big, impetuous man, he had the sort of indulgent creativity that would have the efficiency experts in spasms. He dutifully made a list each day, but instead of dealing with the most important items first, he tackled whatever was easiest. That way, he said, and no matter how unpleasant the task, he was always, always doing the easiest item on his list.