An Intentional To-do List


We rarely notice the wonderful absence of awful.

ho notices the dust-free surface on a piece of furniture? Do we remember at 5 p.m. that we got up at 5 a.m. to get difficult work emails written? Do we think to look back on the previous week to acknowledge that we ran in the cold November rain three times? How long has it been since we over-indulged our sweet tooth by having peanut butter cookie dough for lunch? When was the last time you got hit with a late fee on your house payment?

The point I’m hammering home follows from the epigraph – it’s very hard to remember to remember to give ourselves credit where credit is truly due.

A well-written to-do list can do just that, for there is joy to be had when looking at a bunch of scratched-through items on the tablet in front of us. I call it the to-do ta-da!

There are two ways a to-do list can serve as an enlightened tool – by giving us that tangible tribute of crossed-off items at the end of every hard-earned day, and by training us to bookend our days with preview and review. What I’m saying is, in addition to helping us organize ourselves, minimize missed tasks and providing us with a ta-da, a well-crafted to-do list can put guardrails in place to keep us safely on the road toward becoming the existentially defined being we most want to be.

Crafting a to-do list is, however, a little more metaphysically dangerous than one would think. As is always the case, most of us are more naïve with respect to this life skill than we realize. This article is designed to review for you the pragmatics and pitfalls of devising an intentional to-do list.

The to-do topology

There are three types of to-do lists. Two are helpful. One is very much not so. The most obvious of the helpful type is your basic checklist – let’s call this a Chores List – containing everything that needs to be both sequenced and remembered when you are, for example, having 20 people over for Thanksgiving or you want to keep your modern life running smoothly by paying your wireless bill on time. When we make this type of list, we have wholeheartedly bought into the reason for the list, and therefore the need to complete all the tasks therein. When this is the case, we find it beneficial to have the items jotted down rather than floating around in our heads creating a Keystone Cops state of affairs. Most of us are pretty good at making this type of list, and the Internet is full of examples for anyone who could use a little help designing a format that works well for them. There is also some input from me about writing a Chores List if you follow this link.

The other two types – let’s call them both Life Lists – will guide you toward actions that develop your personal hobbies, careers, neighborhoods, physical activities, communities and so on. Life Lists will fill your days and often leave little room for thinking. When we stop thinking about the items we are putting on our lists, we run into trouble because…

…there are two types of entries that make it onto our to-do lists. One is very helpful. One very much not so. The two types could be labeled authentic and inauthentic. The distinction between the two is one of the most obvious and ignored truths of daily life. Authentic items are those that we want – to do or to have done. The crucial words in that last sentence are “we" and “want.” Inauthentic items are those that someone else wants us to do and, more importantly, are things we actually do not want to do because they do not lead us anywhere we actually want to go.

With enough inauthentic entries on a Life List, our days gradually turn us around and head us directly into the jaws of an existential crisis. To quote the Talking Heads, we have been letting the days go by and will find ourselves thinking, “Well, how did I get here?”

What that all adds up to is this: Life Lists can be inauthentic or authentic depending on how much thought we put into each entry that we consecrate through the deceptively simple act of jotting it down. Unfortunately, most of us are pretty good at making the former but pretty bad at forming the latter.

The topology of a to-do list, then, is made up of helpful Chores Lists, helpful Authentic Life Lists and unhelpful Inauthentic Life Lists. The physical features of our lives are formed by the entries we select. Careful examination of what we write down will reveal lovely meadows of sincerely derived chores as well as the glorious peaks of things we want to do and the uncanny valleys of the things we feel we must do. Our aim, again obviously, is to learn to craft lists that are predominantly authentic – a veritable mountain range of exciting peaks to summit.

This article is about the process of crafting a Life List that, to the greatest extent possible, is authentic – moving you along those paths that lead toward your fullest and most unique essence. There will be struggles and triumph along the way, but there won’t be a panicked voice within you someday wailing, “My God. What have I done?”

Note: I’m going to simplify our discussion from this point on by just using the term “list” and making the distinction between inauthentic and authentic versions. I trust you to understand that all lists (Chore Lists and Life Lists) usually have a blend of tasks that take us in both healthy and unhealthy directions existentially speaking.



- Daniel Quinn



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If we want to ensure that the majority of the line items on our lists reflect the more creative tasks that underlie our next important move in life, we need to practice thinking along the genuine and straightforward lines that authenticity demands. It’s time, in other words, to awaken an honest-to-goodness attitude within us. This requires us to learn how to kick our inherited, specious reasoning to the curb. To do that, we need to recognize where the spurious reasoning comes from and then figure out how to work around it.

We start by deepening our understanding of authenticity. If we look at synonyms for this word (originality, validity, trustworthiness, fidelity), we get the deeper sense that authenticity represents a state of self-loyalty that is robust and credible to us. Inauthenticity, by that reasoning, is both unreliable and inaccurate. Let’s look at how that translates into unhelpful to-do lists.

An inauthentic list is created when we willingly shackle our day to the tasks that our world wants us to complete. Many and sometime all the items on such a list will have no connection to the wishes, hopes and dreams we may have for ourselves. Every assigned task becomes a link in the chain that hobbles our ability to stride fully into our unique life. As such, such a list is a self-betrayal of massive proportions. By voluntarily listing someone else’s ideas about how we should spend our day, we become, in essence, our own jailors. It’s very, very hard to like ourselves when we can’t trust ourselves with the explicit task of reliably directing our day. And, to further distance ourselves from ourselves, we are mostly unaware of what demand characteristics are driving us to assign ourselves these misfitting tasks. Because demand characteristics are created by unspoken social pressure, they are extremely difficult to identify and rebut. For assistance in finding those sources of pressure, please see the article on myth busting.

An authentic list, on the other hand, is a written contract we make with our best, bravest and truest self in order to advance us toward the most audacious version of ourselves that we can imagine. This self-navigation process sounds sexy indeed, but, like most sexy things, the dominant culture actively discourages people from learning how to engage in it.

We now arrive at a meta-narrative of this website which is this: very often in life we think we have been thoroughly taught a psychological skill by the adults who were tasked with raising us when, in reality, they taught us only what they knew, and what they knew wasn’t nearly enough. This sad truth is quite germane to the humble but powerful art of writing out an authentic to-do list.

The Gaslighting Two-Step

Let me take just a moment to reiterate how it is that our upbringings drive us so often and so far down the wrong road in terms of how we spend our days. (If you are already a believer in the need to self-construct, you can skip this section. I also want to remind you that parental misdirection isn’t necessarily done out of malice even while it is always harmful.)

Cultures use two mighty tools to successfully train citizens to be compliant, eager worker bees: commerce and lying. Since humans locked up the food, we each have to earn cultural credits in order to eat. The culture, in large part, dictates who gets credits, how many and for what. As a result, we can’t go too far afield from the demand characteristics of society if we want to eat. Or have a roof over our heads. Or shoes.

And the lies are created by the constant messaging about how each culture wants us to behave – urging us relentlessly into a herd mindset. The more those cultures wish for compliant citizens, the greater will be the flow of propaganda directing us to a little corner of the world they have assigned us. One tricky example of this is the “soothing” message: “You can be anything you want to be.” First of all, that message is almost never true. Only a handful of people are provided with an unimpeded route to their unique and successful place in the world. Second, even if we are lucky enough to get cultural support for our dreams, Fate has the last word about whether or not we will be able to complete the journey. How many folks with a dancer’s heart have bad knees? And finally, that message would only be possible if we were actually allowed to want. Another theme running through my website is this: The majority of mental health problems are created by a severely truncated ability to want. Wanting well is the first step of the self-navigating process noted above. (There is an article about the existential skills underlying wanting here.)

Compounding those problems with the example phrase promising us that we can do what we want with our lives is the lying subtext that suggests if we don’t find our bliss, it’s our fault. It is never, ever our fault when, as adults, we rely on misinformation fed to us during our long and powerless childhood. Until it is corrected, each lie will always create a psychological sinkhole in our lives.

Because the lies that permeate our upbringings are so relentless and toxic, there is an entire article dedicated to discussing them. If you can’t identify the cock and bull in many of the stories about “how things are” from your childhood, you might want to take a break from this article to read that article.

Hopefully you can see how the gaslighting two-step – value-laden commerce and routine cultural lying – has fouled up your relationship with yourself. This gruesome indoctrination process is captured beautifully in the Cat Stevens’ lyric: “From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen.”

We can begin to reverse the cultural misdirection only when we understand that most of the demand characteristics affecting us are coming from a culture that seeks to assign us a tidy life that probably has very little to do with who we actually are designed to be. That realization alone – although very difficult to have and to hold – straightens the existential spine of any human who can achieve it.

The first thing we must do to create an authentic to-do list, then, is to reject the falalahood of the dominant culture, as well as that from all the sub-cultures that have directed our learning. We have to practice listening to our inner voices that actually have some idea of what floats our boat.

But, given the relentless propaganda we have been exposed to, how do we know if our desires are really ours?

Now we are at the hub of the existential distinction between having an authentic versus an inauthentic relationship with ourselves. Located at this hub is both very bad news and very good news.

Existential antidote

First the bad. In order to have an authentic relationship with yourself you have to develop some serious existential chops. Let me nutshell how that would look.

It would be difficult to overstate the extent to which this sentence is true: You cannot make an intentional to-do list for a life being led in bad faith. In addition to succumbing to the cultural misdirection described above, we can slip into a life of bad faith if we let fear back us away from attempting new life experiments. To put that concept into some of my favorite words: The existential antidote to bad faith is to enhance your participation in the will-to-power corridor. This robust metaphysical stance allows you to connect your willpower directly to the goals that best define your essence. Creating an essence means first discovering what you are designed to do, and then finding your own way to do it. You can achieve this when you realize that existence is the first-person starting-point on the difficult road toward an authentically lived life. And an authentically lived life is the route to embodying your essence. Smallest nutshell: existence precedes essence.

And here is the good news from the challenging world of existentialism: to be successful in life, we only have to genuinely attempt. All we have to do is take our day-to-day actions seriously as we attempt to more and more clearly find our truest essence by trying to follow our most righteous wants. An authentic to-do list can provide an excellent training exercise in doing that.

To do or not to do

It could be said, then, that writing every authentic to-do list reflects an existential crisis. You sit down with a lovely tablet in front of you, you hold a pretty turquoise pen and you think about the upcoming time allotment. The blank page stares back at you, daring you to be daring. Will your list reflect that carefully constructed guardrail designed to keep you moving toward a life worth living and reliving, or will it reflect a rote listing of tasks assigned for you by impersonal societal demand characteristics?

If compliance is subconsciously driving your behavior toward the inauthentic end of the to-do list continuum, you need to pay attention to the truth that your list needs to send you toward your essence. Please don’t be surprised if this is incredibly difficult to do. Remember that none of us have been trained to address our day from an existential perspective. It takes some practice before we can routinely use our will to power to guide our approach to life. Plus, to truly live authentically takes so much effort and so much luck that we rarely have the time to stop and think about high yield strategies to improve our lot. Taking the time to learn how to craft a highly intentional to-do list is one such strategy.

Let me clarify with a couple examples.

Picture a to-do list that contains the following items: boil chicken breasts, steam broccoli, walk 7 miles, do yoga, hem new jeans and mail sister’s birthday card. Do some alarms go off? What this list looks like to me is an effort to vise grip behaviors that can help you lose weight. If so, I would ask, why do you want to lose weight? If it is genuinely in the service of improving your physical health, that is one thing. If it is in response to cultural demands that you look a certain way, the list becomes problematic. Then again, if you love your job at XYZ Fitness Corporation, are giving a company-wide presentation in 3 months and want to take off a few pounds because of the demands of that work culture, is it then authentic?

Or, how about this familiar dilemma many of us faced in high school: If you are listing a sequence of tasks needed to complete a research paper for an AP History class that you very much don’t want to write, the list obviously will still be authentic if it helps you attain your long-range goal of getting into your top-choice university. If, on the other hand, you truly want to shoe horses for a living, you are likely making that list for the benefit of someone who is not you. But what if getting an “A” in AP History will make your parents happy, and you do want to make your parents happy? How authentic is the list then? Can you be true to yourself and still spend your next two days guided by someone else’s wants?

See? How we approach thinking about our sacred list-making process can get rather complicated rather fast.

As your list starts to move toward the authentic end of the continuum, you might notice your heartbeat speeds up when you preview your day, and your gut clenches a bit when you review your day. Let’s look at that process in a bit more detail.

Preview and review

Sincere practice with previewing and then reviewing your day will help build your skill with creating an authentic to-do list. The process involves a pas de deux between your emerging commitment to being intentional and your neurological structures that have been grooved to be compliant in terms of cultural demands. Here’s how it works:

You give your best efforts in the morning to craft the finest list you can. You make every effort to honor that list by allowing it to motivate you to complete most or all of it, crossing items off as you go. At the end of the day your list is an artifact representing who you decided to be today. The trick is then to develop some tolerance for chewing on the data available and – without shame – think about how those data can guide your list-writing tomorrow.

Some questions that might help are:

• Looking at the list now, does it appear to be reasonable? Too short? Too pious?

• Did I even pay attention to the list? If not, what strategies did I use to ignore it?

• If I did use the list, which items are crossed off? Which weren’t? Reasons?

• If I didn’t use the list, what did I do with my day?

• How will the crossed off items affect my day tomorrow? How about the uncrossed items?

• Are there items on the list that could have bravely been left off – that aren’t about me at all?

• Am I feeling shame that I bumbled this list?

• If I had to categorize the items on the list, which category got the most completions? The fewest?

• How would I feel if every item was checked off?

• How would I feel about showing this list to someone important to me?

• Would this list make sense to anyone but me?

What you are looking to understand as you review your day is your relationship with your future self as reflected in the choices made by your past self. Does your list appear to be taking you to a slightly better version of your life? Was your day existentially productive?

In the simplest of terms, what you want to preview is how future-oriented you are relative to how your list for the upcoming day fits with your dreams. What you want to review is how valiantly you interacted with that list. Please be patient with yourself as you develop the willingness to face these intense ontological questions.

What now?

What happens next is a matter of faith – a belief in the power that is forged using the basic design of the human brain. When we review and preview, we are laying down a new anatomical reality. We use the mechanics of tacit habituation created by the dangerous and powerful behavioral strategies of reward and punishment used by our caretakers, and employ those mechanics instead to produce intentional habituation – routine behaviors we choose that move us toward our original project.

Here’s how the new neurological structures get built:

The best part about being an existentialist is that it allows you to believe that humans are designed to move naturally toward their essence. What that means is, if you can learn to preview and review your day, your mind will automatically start to build internal shelving to organize your thinking along the will to power corridor. Your brain will literally change its structure to accommodate the demand characteristics that you are so thoughtfully providing it. As you sleep, your brain will be busy sorting the data collected in the review and putting it away in the new metaphysical cubbyholes. So, you don’t really have to do anything more than the thinking exercises involved in the preview/review steps. Your brain knows what to do with the information. Watch very carefully. If you pay close attention, one day you’ll notice that the answers to the bulleted question above are getting more consistently impressive. Your brain has moved the data fully into the new structure and is using the new structure to help you write well-founded to-do lists.

Having said that, however, let me note that if you find yourself unable to take these two thought-experiment steps (preview and review), see the section below describing existential speed bumps.


I find that, for me, the best way to make intentional to-do lists is to parse the list into three sections. Because I have an existential relationship with the headings I use, facing them when I to-do forces me into a philosophical mindset. I use these headings: chores, creations and bulbs. Ok. That might need some explaining.

The chores section is pretty obvious. It contains all the things that I want to get done. It also contains all the things I don’t want to do but I want to have done. And it contains all the things that I want to do either because someone I care about wants me to do them, or I will pay a price if I don’t do them.

The creations section is the most holy part of my list. In that category are the behaviors that I think will move me closer to realizing the dearest of my dreams.

The section I label “bulbs” doesn’t always have an entry, but it reflects an important preview and review category for me. This part of the list contains the tasks that my future self would very much like me to accomplish with dispatch even though there is absolutely no immediate payoff for doing so. If it stays blank for too long, my job is to give that reality a good, long think because I need to keep investing in good possible futures for myself. We could call this part of my list the “life enhancement” section. An obvious example is: Plant freesia bulbs. Other examples would be ordering books for a possible new research topic, tracking down a good recipe for tortilla soup or scouring the Internet for new sources of continuing education courses. You can see that these items don’t affect me if they are not done, but do affect me if they are.

You will want to make up your own categories for your list. Just try to make categories that will cocoon your mind into a deliberate, conscious and willful bearing before you begin to to-do.

Gnarly to-doing

There will be times when a to-do list can feel counterproductive. If your existential gears are gummed up by outside forces (e.g. cruelty or lack of opportunity) or inward sources (e.g. illness or depression), your relationship with your list may need to change. You may want to write down the same items, but your preview and review orientation will need to incorporate a much kinder and more patient point of view.

But what on earth do you do when you have neither stipulation nor fire in the belly? You have to crawl forward…scrounge whatever energy you have in the morning to collect the willpower to write out a to-do list and then, the next morning, try to prioritize the list, and then, the next morning, try to break down the first item into smaller pieces and then, the next morning, try to do the first small piece of the first item. And, the next morning, try again.

From the outside it may look like you are languishing. But from the inside, you will recognize that you are exerting a mighty effort to engage with your list. That internal recognition is both necessary and sufficient in terms of your nightly review. If you are as kind to yourself as I wish you to be, the acknowledgement of your intentional effort should be enough to allow you to get a good night’s sleep.

It may be, however, that your father voice has pulled rank on your mother voice. When this is the case, your review will be nothing but relentless expectations of success with little understanding of what support may be lacking in your life. This pitiless state can demotivate you pretty quickly. If, then, you are feeling that your inner dialogues are a bit harsh and unremitting, make sure you are giving equal time to the voice of support within that can provide you with supplies, gentle rewards and rest stops. For example, putting easy stuff or even already-done stuff on your to-do list may appear to be psychological slapstick, but it can actually be a kindness. Task magic gets triggered when we get to draw a bold line through a completed chore, and task magic is a sweet but subtle endogenous opiate that can move us along toward our next chore.

Existential speed bumps

If you still have trouble putting some items on your authentic list, you can assume that you’ve encountered an existential speed bump. These usually take the form of procrastination, petulance or low self-esteem.

Procrastination is an extremely normal and even desirable behavior. But, like so many human characteristics, our educators try to teach us to never procrastinate (a useless and impossible ideal) rather than to procrastinate effectively. I highly recommend reading the article on this behavior which will show you how to turn the sword of dithering into the plow of productivity.

We feel petulant when there is a part of us that understandably fears failure. One of the most misunderstood of human characteristics, petulance can and should be converted from a saboteur to an ally. Quite an involved process but well worth the effort.

Low self-esteem is like mononucleosis of the will. Everything is just so much harder and draining than it needs to be. If this feels like your reality, it would be very wise to read the article on how to build the foundations for a solid self-esteem.

Whatever the source of your hesitancy, your inability to write an authentic to-do list is not due to a character flaw. Be alert to any sense of shame that gets activated as you work your way toward using intentional to-do lists to direct your behavior toward your original project.

It’s ok

Please give yourself a lot of latitude when determining for yourself what type of authentic to-do list you want to write out. Any style of list that works for you in terms of connecting you to your intentions is fine. For example, it’s okay to have a running list rather than a discrete, daily list. One thing, though, that might be useful with this type of list – you might want to cross off items with a different colored pen each day so that your review process has clear data to use.

Some people respond well to meta-to-do lists – spanning a month, six months or that classic five-year plan. There’s a lot to be said for doing this as long as you remember to keep a longer-span list lightly in hand. If it becomes too rigid a thought exercise it can actually girdle your ambitions. The third section of this website (Creating A Meaningful Future) addresses the issues underlying writing out this type of list for yourself.

Also, there’s no sin in putting pump-priming items on your list. Rewarding tasks that come easily to you can absolutely go at the top of your list. Completing them will provide you with tiny bursts of energy that you can wisely use to overcome the initiation threshold of a harder task.

Conversely, if at the end of your day there is only one item crossed off your list but it is one of the harder items, this can reflect a great victory. It can also clear the deck for you to complete the remainder tomorrow. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to have all your chores done to feel good – just the worst one(s). So, since you’re the mayor of Me-ville, make an investment in your tomorrow’s happiness and do a PITA chore or two today!! And if that feels like too much, do the first step of a PITA chore. Your tomorrow self will appreciate it.

Finally, you may need to borrow a cup of oomph from someone in your life. If writing out the list is doable but doing anything on that list feels impossible, reach out to someone who can partner with you to get a task started. If you have been raised to privilege autonomy and self-reliance, and thus asking for help feels untenable, try picturing your request for help as just the first step in a reciprocating partnership. You ask Joe to help you get started organizing your receipts for your taxes, and then he will be free to ask you to help him start building his deck. If you need a further pep talk about the appropriateness of reciprocity, read this.

Collector’s item

Let’s look now at what to do with those lists once they’ve served their purpose.

There’s something to be said for accumulating these paper tributes to days spent seeking your essence. As your brain builds and fine-tunes those existential cubbyholes, reviewing your old lists from time to time can help refine that process. In addition to being a fine statistician, the human brain is also quite skilled at identifying trajectories. Harking back to the opening paragraph of this article, looking through past lists can remind you of progress made and perhaps forgotten or overlooked. The only thing harder to notice than furniture that has been freshly dusted off is furniture that is always dusted off!

So, if a list of tasks provides you with an opportunity to assess your daily coherence, mightn’t a collection of lists provide even more? Looking back on past lists can also help you catch threads that, while meaningful, have been dropped along the way. Again without invoking shame, a wise brain owner notices the broken connection and wonders about what caused it. Such a curious stance will most likely inspire insight as well as a commitment to putting that endeavor back on the list.

A call to glory

Is it hard to go to bed at night, left alone with your uninspired thoughts about the unimpressive actions of your day? Who does your alarm clock wake in the morning? A coherent you? An automaton? To what extent is your interpersonal world calling upon you to maintain your current, likely misfitting, design? If you review your day, can you acknowledge that something inauthentic may be true for you on a level you don’t really want to approach? By this I mean, is the fear that you’re not living up to your unique potential overwhelming enough to make it difficult to entertain this line of thinking?

Well, here are a few antidotal thoughts with which to counter the uncomfortable thinking you may now be having. First, just reading all the way through this article (or the website) reflects an honest and impressive effort on your part to increase your ability to live authentically. Second, it’s not your fault that your upbringing failed to teach you how to remember to remember to be proud of yourself. Nor is it your fault that your childhood was extremely lean in existential training. You were ready and eager to learn how to live your life in good faith, there was just no one there ready or eager to teach you how. And finally, I’m fairly sure you do more than you think you do on an average day or in an average week. Jotting down your tasks and then crossing them off will highlight that – perhaps surprising – truth for you. A scratched-through list can be self-created applause – recognition that you truly deserve.

To will is the verb form of identity. As powerful and stirring as that short sentence may be, it is rendered meaningless if you don’t know what to do with it. If, however, you understand that any effort you make toward intentionally previewing and reviewing your day is a concrete manifestation of that vague existential call to action, then when you engage in the preview/review process, you can proudly acknowledge that you are daily exerting your will.

Creating an essence is relentless, hard work. It gets just a little bit easier, a little bit more linear and a little more cumulative when you can routinely sit down with a cup of coffee and craft a bold and bulleted list that will guide you gently toward your most authentic self.


© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.