The first item on Alexandra Franzen’s to-do list for Thursday was drink two big glasses of water.
We overlook the easy wins when crafting our to-do lists, says the author of the newly released The Checklist Book, and we shouldn’t: when we accomplish something, even something small, that feeling of satisfaction stimulates the body to release dopamine and initiates a chain reaction of behaviors geared towards keeping the dopamine flowing. It’s an understanding of human physiology that Facebook has unashamedly exploited. Why not use it to our own advantage?
But first, it’s important to get the language right. Franzen doesn’t call the ultimate productivity and life happiness hack, a “to-do list.” It’s a checklist. The language (and exuberant use of check marks) makes a world of difference.
“Our tendency is to cram our list with task after task,” says Franzen. “We don’t leave much breathing room in the day for experiences. And yet, we all know that at the end of the day, it’s the experiences that matter.” Franzen’s checklist includes the key tasks she has prioritized for the day – that’s how the self-employed writer has written more than a half dozen books, developed websites and completed client projects. But it also includes random items, things she calls “moments” – the experiences she wants to create space for that have nothing to do with accomplishment – watching the sunset, taking a few moments in silence or prayer, walking barefoot on the sand.
“A daily checklist,” says Franzen, “is a beautiful and realistic plan for your day, where you’re setting an intention for both the personal and the professional sides of you.”
By putting it in writing, you’re signalling to yourself that life isn’t just a relentless hamster wheel of tasks, that you also want your life to have space for beautiful moments. “It’s a to do list and also a to be list,” she says.
Franzen is a writer and writing coach based in Hawaii with a long list of Whistler fans. She’s also a social media refusenik, a chronic Spotify playlist compiler (45 minute playlists are one of her secret weapons for sprinting through an unappetizing task), and the energy behind the Tiny Press imprint, an initiative to put more small good ideas out into the world. (A tiny book is one that is less than a 100 pages long… although her Checklist Book runs to 190, thanks in part to all the lovely templates and examples.)
Her methodology is simple and low-fi. Do your checklist for tomorrow as your work day is winding down, but while your brain is still in gear. Envision what your day will look like. Start with some ridiculously easy wins to get the dopamine flowing. (Get up! Give a big stretch! Put on a pot of coffee! Make my bed!) Keep it to one page, total. Remember that you’re a human, not an unstoppable machine. “Your checklist can be gentle and realistic,” says Franzen. “You are allowed to eat.” Schedule in the important tasks. Leave some blank lines for the unexpected. Schedule in the beauty and the breathing room, because if you don’t, there’s a 100% chance you won’t have time for it.
It has helped her be incredibly productive. She ticks pretty much everything off the list, every day – a batting average that puts me to shame. “I’ve gotten better at envisioning how my day will go, how I’m feeling and what’s realistic. I one-hundred-per-cent attribute my survival as an entrepreneur to lists. But more than that, checklists have helped me to make space for the parts of life that aren’t work-related. And during a painful challenging year of my life when a very long-term relationship was ending, I would make a self-care checklist, with really basic steps I could take to feel a little bit better, a little bit stronger. I consider checklists to be a crucial part of my mental and physical health plan, not just something I use in my professional life.”
There’s something profound, to me, about Franzen’s approach – she literally writes down the things that always get cut out my days, as I navigate from deadline to deadline, urgency to urgency: “take three deep breaths, open the curtains and admire the dawn sky” or “remember to call Mom and tell her the funny story about noodles.”
She’s not pushing being more organized on anyone – an approach I discover with relief. I have realized that I don’t actually care about being more organized. If I did, my pantry would be alphabetized, my photos would be backed up, my will would be written already, and my 72 hour emergency kit would have a fresh stash of chocolate bars in it. What Franzen does is ask: what do you actually want out of your life? Do you want to maximize sexual pleasure? To achieve incremental gains? To feel generous? To cultivate “sohwakhaeng”, the Korean term for “small but certain happiness”, generated by tiny moments that bring bursts of joy. Or to “die empty” – that is, having done your best work, not left it still swirling around inside you, waiting for expression.
If something is truly meaningful and significant to you, it deserves a place on your list… The act of making space for those things, signals to them, that they are welcome. The dopamine comes with each checked item, but also, generosity or progress or sexual vitality or small bursts of happiness come skittering out of the nooks and crannies of the cosmos in response to the sound of your voice.
“All a checklist is,” says Franzen, “is you setting an intention for your day and putting it in writing. Just like you set an intention before you practice yoga. But it’s really powerful to put it in writing. There’s something very mighty about that. You’re taking the words out of your head and putting them in the physical realm in the form of a simple list.”
Of course, as her mom said, there’s a whole other ninja level to aspire to. (Her mom just won a GRAMMY award, so she knows something about something.) “She said once you’ve reached the point in life where you no longer even need a checklist, that is true enlightenment. So maybe we’ll all reach a no checklist state of mind at one point.”
For now, I’m making a list, and checking it twice, to make sure it’s not just another to-do list, overwhelming me with all the things I should (but won’t) get done tomorrow, but conjures forth the way I want my days to be.