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Notes from the overwhelmed leave us feeling listless

A beautiful, sensitive young woman, a crisp winter's day, light streaming in to bless her brow. There are beads of sweat on that brow. Her fingers clench a pen. She is wrapt in concentration, face intent: as in Yeats's words, "Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/Her mind moves upon silence". A last heavy sigh she puts down the pen, sits back. Then she makes a cup of tea and retires to bed, exhausted, her day's work done.

A beautiful, sensitive young woman, a crisp winter's day, light streaming in to bless her brow. There are beads of sweat on that brow. Her fingers clench a pen. She is wrapt in concentration, face intent: as in Yeats's words, "Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/Her mind moves upon silence". A last heavy sigh she puts down the pen, sits back. Then she makes a cup of tea and retires to bed, exhausted, her day's work done.

A beautiful, sensitive young woman, a crisp winter's day, light streaming in to bless her brow. There are beads of sweat on that brow. Her fingers clench a pen. She is wrapt in concentration, face intent: as in Yeats's words, "Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/Her mind moves upon silence". A last heavy sigh she puts down the pen, sits back. Then she makes a cup of tea and retires to bed, exhausted, her day's work done.

She has just made a to-do list. When do we start making these lists? I have some from my childhood: read Jill's Gymkhana, hide secret treasure, buy a photocopier, murder my sister. An eight-year-old these days probably writes: trumpet practice, Korean lessons, homework homework homework, murder my sister (Tuesday). Later in life, things become more ambitious. A corporate executive: oversee takeover, sort out superannuation, check fuel for private jet. A harried parent: innumerable and unlistable items repeat. A uni student: gallery opening, haircut, haircut, game of soccer, oh yeah, get three part-time jobs and do homework. Or a politician: morning briefing, bung up policy, practise internecine hatred, polish fangs.

You can buy special notebooks in which to write to-do lists, divided into categories: work, home, social. The insurance company gives away notepads headed TO DO.

There are several million apps and software programs to help you make to-do lists and remember tasks and alert you to duties and prioritise them and sort them and set off alarms with bells and whistles and what with the bustle and brimfulness of modern life it's fundamental that everyone in the world perpetually maintains a to-do list because otherwise it all overwhelms you, things won't get done, apocalypse impends and you'll never remember all the things you must do and the first of those is, usually, to make a to-do list.

You can divide them into long- and short-term 15-minute and one-hour items (do laundry, troll newspaper articles) one-off tasks (change superannuation password, organise coup) and ongoing drudge (try to be more tidy, sort out finances, address global poverty). They can be as minor (pluck eyebrows) or as gigantic (world domination) as you like. But once you start, there is no end.

Duty calls for everything from housekeeping to existence itself. Is there any app capable of entailing all the things one must do in life?

I myself make multiple lists on large pieces of paper. I write them clearly in my best handwriting. They go over the page. The next page. The next. How efficient I am! And then, worn out from my great efforts, it seems that the actual tasks are practically done, they're identified and planned: what more could be asked? And I dump files on top of the list and forget about it totally.

Sometimes I even put down things that shouldn't be a chore, such as catching up with friends. "Ring X, email Y, movie with Z?"

Once I never had to think about this: friends were the thing that made me forget my to-do lists and go play pool all afternoon instead.

Playing with children, jokes, sleeping. If you list these, you're in trouble.

I like to give myself credit for what has already been achieved. Why do we not count the accomplishments of yesterday, or even yesteryear? In fact, most of life is constituted of things that we never catalogue: making our friends laugh, eating a good dinner, admiring a winter sunset or pondering the plot for the fabulous novel we'll write when we get a chance. On what list might we put these occupations, these moments of humanness instead of activity?

The least I can do is make a list that credits the continuity of life: so each begins with several items already done, some practical, some fey, and a firm line crossed through, so I know I have begun. It's not cheating. It's encouragement.

What if you never made lists? Never fretted about priorities? Would the world actually go up in flames? I don't dare try.

It's a privilege to make a to-do list, it means you have an existence beyond: survive. Yet the lists seem never-ending. And, after all, the day you cross off the final item, the great ledger of your life will close.

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