Do To-Do Lists Really Work?

This Friday I will venture to a small southern Missouri town (population 586) named Tecumseh, named after the great Shawnee chief and warrior. Almost every spring and fall, since April 2015, I have packed up my compact car and driven to Ozark County for a writing retreat in the woods near the North Fork of the White River. Usually, my good friend Mary drives or rides with me, though this year I am bringing my husband Brandon and our 18-month-old daughter Luci.

Mary is still coming, thank goodness, but this time she will caravan with her husband Brian, who has graciously let me steal his life-of-the-party wife away from him and their wedding-anniversary weekend for the past couple Octobers. Next year, I hope we can ditch our respective family members and reunite the all-girl band, but since I am still breastfeeding and have a hate-hate relationship with my breast pump, Luci and Brandon are coming.

My husband and I have differing philosophies about traveling with Luci. I believe travel with a toddler, while sometimes definitely challenging, is what family memories and a life well lived are made of. He thinks the idea of a tall toddler stretched out on our laps during an economy flight to Tampa is the stuff nightmares are made of. Both of us make compelling points.

However, because my parents and most of my siblings live in or around Kansas City and we live in St. Louis, I have traveled with Luci across the state of Missouri a lot, by myself, in her first 18 months of life. So, the idea of a four-hour road trip with Luci in tow does not phase me in the slightest. I have a baby-fied David Bowie soundtrack, José-Luis Orozco’s “!Come Bien!” CD, and Caspar Babypants’ “Sing Along!” album (Weird Al Yankovic makes an accordion solo appearance as does Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam, who plays bongos on three songs). Plus, once Luci is finished putting stickers all over her face and arms, she usually passes out and the car ride is over before you know it. Plus, I have no problems pulling over, stretching our legs, and taking a (diaper, snack, curiosity) break.

All of this is to say I have random Post-It notes with things I am bringing—for myself (composition notebook, pens, mandarins, Thai lime chili cashews, lemon elderflower soda); for Luci (baby gate, snacks galore, amusement/distraction bag from the dollar store); and for Brandon to purchase or do before we get on the road, bright and early Friday morning (bags of ice for the cooler, baby backpack carrier for hiking, whatever he wants to grill, coffee and half and half). Not to mention I need to get an oil change, organize the car, and finish packing.

Forbes bragged “millionaires don’t use to-do lists”, and Harvard Business Review recommends Allison Rimm’s three-lists-and-one-calendar solution that asks us to filter to-dos by:


  1. important but not time-sensitive tasks,
  2. actions that need to be completed today!, and
  3. not-to-do list items (things you do not need to do or could ask someone else to do).


What is brilliant about Rimm’s approach is that whatever is on List 1 is put on the calendar for a specific date and time later while you whiz through the items that have to be done right now. It is a “chunking” tactic I have used when teaching students how to handle multi-step projects or for reporting and writing longer stories, but not something I am always as intentional with as I would like to be in my personal life.

Regardless, our family trip will eventually get on the road. I like to think to-do lists help me more than hinder me, especially if I steer clear of writing impossibly long lists. We will remember most of what we need, and what is forgotten can likely be purchased on the road or done without. I know both in my gut and from research that traveling with our young daughter will hopefully contribute to her own desire to explore and play throughout her life. In the meantime, the scene that inspires me to complete my to-dos at a quicker pace is seeing our daughter twirling in the fall leaves, spending time with her dad hiking and playing as her mother writes at the retreat down the gravel road, and watching her taste her first S’more by her first campfire from the safety of her momma’s lap.