I live according to lists. I keep lists of books I’ve read, books I want to read, films I want to watch, my home to-do list and my work to-do list (with “Do it now” and “Do it later” subcategories), recipes I want to make, the presents I gave people last year and the presents they gave me, potential future baby and pet names, restaurants to try, clothes I want, goals for the year and probably a few other ones that I’ve forgotten. Maybe I’ll start a list so that I can remember them all.
But the list I cherish most of all is my To-Done list. A To-Done list, as the name suggests, is a list of all the things you’ve done. How lenient I am with the criteria for inclusion depends entirely on how I’m feeling that day – sometimes I only include chores or work tasks; sometimes I’ll include things like “Took an Instagram photo I don’t hate”. Whereas my other lists are to stop me from forgetting things or to track progress on a goal, my To-Done lists are like little lifebuoys that keep me afloat.
I started making them when I first became depressed about four years ago. I was working from home in a job where most of what I did was researching and planning, rather than actually making anything tangible, and I quickly started feeling like I was completely useless, like I couldn’t accomplish anything and like I was wasting my life.
By the end of the day, I could look back on a list of things I had managed to do and feel a flicker of self-esteem
Enter the To-Done list. Initially, I was incredibly gentle on myself – they always started with “Created To-Done list” and included things like “Got out of bed”, “Got dressed” and “Washed my face” – but I was in such a fragile state that it felt like a mammoth task to get out of bed and it really was an achievement worth nothing down. As I went through the day, I’d add anything I did to the list. Literally anything. Sent an email to Jon, had a phonecall with Alice, read a webpage about the evolution of digital video, made an omelette, listened to the news, had a Twitter conversation with someone, anything. It’s amazing how quickly it adds up.
By the end of the day, I could look back on a list of things I had managed to do and feel a flicker of self-esteem. That tiny spark of confidence was enough to let me try new things so that I’d be able to put them on the list – I’d go for a walk, send a message to that woman I thought was cool, teach myself to hula-hoop, eventually even mention how unhappy I was at work to my manager. My To-Done lists weren’t the reason I stopped feeling so depressed, but they definitely helped me realise that I wasn’t at useless and pathetic as I thought I was. I can do things – look, here is the proof in my hand! That proof was all I needed to change how I felt about myself, and it was as easy as picking up a pen and writing on a piece of paper next to my laptop.
Nowadays, depression under control, I still make To-Done lists. I make them on the days when I feel a bit low and need a confidence boost, the times when I feel lost or overwhelmed at work, the weekends where I’m in danger of losing two days to the sofa and my iPhone. I start writing a list of all my tiny achievements and feel confident enough to have a go at some bigger ones, or I’m able to chase off those pervasive little voices that still whisper in my ear about how terrible I am when I haven’t achieved much at work that day. They’re a little reminder to myself that even if I haven’t changed the world, I’ve still supported my friend through an argument with her mother, read three difficult political articles and made an excellent cup of tea – and that those little things are achievements worth celebrating, too.