Turning Old Clichs into New Maxims: Live By Your List
By Richard Eyre

Note: This column appears every two weeks . with an old clich replaced by a new maxim each time.  Click here to read the full introductory column. Click here to go to the Cliches archives

To see if you’ve fallen subject to this numbing notion, just ask yourself a question: When was the last time you did something that wasn’t on your list, then wrote it on so that you could cross it off? It seems like we get our jollies these days by crossing things off our lists. The danger of course is that the lists become our masters rather than our tools. The “have-to-dos” take over our lives and keep us from any “choose-to-dos.”

Studies show that the first conscious thought most of us have when we wake up in the morning is What do I have to do today? We make our lists and we go about it all day like good soldiers (or good slaves).

Our lists seem to get longer and longer because our world grows more complex. The time management salesmen of the world want us to use bigger planners – with a space for every five minutes instead of one for every hour.

Yet we somehow know that it is not more quantity we want in our lives, it is more quality. We want more joy and more choice in life, not just more activity or more checks on our list.


A few years ago, while still heavily into the “list mentality,” I found myself on a family vacation in a place where the phone wasn’t working. After a couple of days of frustration at “not being able to get anything done,” I made a strong, conscious effort to quit thinking about business, or the office, or the market, or anything (since I couldn’t do much about any of them) I decided instead to really enjoy my family and my vacation.

I still had a hard time with the list addiction. I didn’t feel right until I’d put something on paper each morning. So I still made lists – but I found that the things I was writing were now “choose-to-dos” instead of “have-to-dos.” I was listing things like “talk to Josh about his classes for next year,” or “walk down the beach,” or “play Monopoly with Talmadge and Noah.”

I felt so relaxed by the time that vacation was over that I resolved to keep putting some family needs and self-needs on my daily lists.

But it didn’t work. There were so many things to do, especially after being away for two weeks. I’d make my list each day, and it was so long that I’d put off any family or personal notions to some other day.


The problem with a “things to do” list is revealed by the first word – things. Check your own lists and you will notice that they are made up mostly of things – not many relationships, or ideas, or beauties, or rests, or time to sit and think. The things crowd out the people, the “have-to-dos” dominate and leave no room for “choose-to-dos.”

Try something – not easy. Try resisting thinking about what you have to do until after you have thought for a few moments about the real priorities. Ask yourself what you could do that day for family, or for friends, or for self. Think about needs and opportunities first, not about tasks and obligations. Decide on one choose-to-do each day for family and one for yourself. They need not be big or time-consuming – just something you thought about and decided to do, not because you had to but because you wanted to. Then when you make your list it will include the choose-to-dos and will seem more like a light and useful tool than a dark and oppressive master.

What we need in life is not more quantity but more quality. The time is ours and so are the choices. The first thing to do each day is to choose to do something for yourself and for your family. And the new maxim is:


See you in another fortnight when we will take aim at

the ridiculous notion that the home supports the career.

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