Domestic Disturbances: What to do about those to-do lists?

If the stickum’s gone, say ‘So long.’

Illustration by Kate Feiffer.

One of those extra-long yellow Post-it notes sits on the desk next to my keyboard. It’s been there for years. It’s curling up. The ink has faded. The stickum isn’t sticky anymore. Nothing on its list of stuff I need to get done has been crossed off. Officially, it’s become the big-trouble list.

Nothing to be proud of, for sure, but I suspect — no, I hope, in the spirit of comradeship — that there is a to-do list like mine on your desk, or your fridge, or maybe it’s fresh and freshly stapled by some exasperated someone to the pants you were going to wear today.

And I’m not talking about a honey-do list, the tyrannical cousin of the standard to-do reminder. Emotional and relationship cross-currents animating the creation of honey-do lists are too deep a dive for a brief investigation like this one, which is intended to offer merely a tip or two for managing that lengthening list of yours.

Oh, on my list, there’s one item, “replace rotted trim around the shower stall and repaint,” that earned a partial strike-through. That’s because I’ve replaced the trim, but haven’t painted it. None of the jobs on the list includes a date when it made the list for the first time. Thank goodness for that, because I replaced the trim probably four years ago, but didn’t finish the job. A record dereliction.

And there’s another: “Trim out the shelving for the photo album storage shelves and paint” also records a half-done strike-through. Same lack of follow-through.

There are seven other entries on this list, only one marked sort of complete. In fairness, there are other to-do lists strewn around the house by beloved family members, generally proximate to the site of the necessary repair or improvement. Some of these reflect more partial diligence, though all of them have open items. I sometimes imagine they are meant to be decorative, like occasional bowls of sea glass or odd paperweights, on tables here and there.

In all this, admittedly, there is a current of personal disappointment. Perhaps you would tell a similar story. There is without question an inescapable psychic price to pay when you have things to get done, set by others, but also by you, but not accomplished. The good news is that help is available for our sort.

Here are a couple of ways you might heave yourself out of the slough of self-loathing. I may be a lost cause, but I’m guessing there’s hope for you.

The web, in the form of targeted apps, can help. In very practical terms, there are a small multitude of these that will do the job you haven’t been able to do. Scratch that, I don’t mean these digital helpers will do the actual work. No one can help you with that. They will help you keep track of the things on the list, the newcomers, the longtimers, the lifers. They will lead you to break down the tasks involved: the wood you need, the fastenings, the paint, the expensive new tools you saw on “This Old House” that you ought to buy so you could do a proper job, the anticipated costs, the permits you need from your town, from the MVC, from the EPA, from OSHA, and even the phone numbers of contractors you might call in to do the actual work one week when your wife is off-Island visiting her mother. You figure when she gets back, she’ll be happy just to be home.

Some are free, others cost as much as $50. A quick search unearthed 65 of them. There are broad approaches, such as Wunderlist, which will help you grocery-shop, or plan a dinner party, a vacation, or a construction project. And there are less ambitious apps, such as Small Tasks, that are project-focused — really like calendars — useful for small business operators or do-it-yourselfers, and they include coordination features so that a work job and a home project don’t conflict.

But Small Tasks is thick with notification features that will remind you automatically of stuff you have to do, stuff you don’t want to do, and stuff you started but haven’t finished. Notifications seem valuable, but can be annoying.

In evaluating these apps, you will need to allow sufficient time to think about and populate the fields that demand information about your improvement project or repair. Some of these apps will even help you assess your plumbing, electrical, carpentry, and decorating skills.

You can calculate and compare the probable cost of the work if done by a hired professional versus your own do-it-yourself attempt, for which the advice is to add 10 to 20 percent for costs that result from DIY errors, or adding to your homeowner’s insurance to indemnify you for plumbing and electrical disasters.

You can also revise the app’s projected completion date to allow for intervening distractions, such as your real job; illness; football, baseball, and basketball seasons; the kids’ soccer, hockey, and tennis practices; and school vacation trips. As is always the case with these things, what you put in determines what the app will put out. It can be a soul-wrenching experience.

On the other hand, there is a school of thought, championed by time management guru Elizabeth Grace Saunders, the founder of Real Time E Time Coaching and Training. Her fundamental view is, “Life is too short to do things you don’t like.” Take this inspirational message with a grain of salt. It may not be for everyone. It may not meet the requirements of your current relationship. It may not suit your personal circumstances — say, your elderly mother-in-law is coming to live with you, and she needs a room of her own and a bath with a walk-in tub. Saunders is not distributing get-out-of-jail-free cards for everyone, but the idea has a certain allure.

“Check your to-do list,” Saunders says. “See that one item? The one that’s been there for weeks? Before you beat yourself up about how, yet again, you haven’t done something you’ve been dreading, ask yourself the question: Do I really need to do this?

“If the answer is ‘no,’ drop it from your list. Most productivity advice focuses on managing your energy to tackle the tough stuff. However, some things we make ‘tough’ when they don’t need to be. Sure, there are some activities in life that you must do — if you don’t get your tax documents in on time, bad things could happen. But there are many, many other parts of your life where you have a great deal more control than you think.”

Finally, she gets to what you really want to hear: “Instead of continually trying to force yourself to do things you don’t want to do, let them go. Without the emotional weight and mental clutter of keeping things on your agenda that don’t absolutely need to be there, you’re much freer to rapidly move forward on what you really do want and need to get done.”

Saunders may be right. But my guess is that those lists, even the pesky ones that perpetually declare the shattering news of your negligence, have found a place in your mind’s eye. The “emotional weight and mental clutter” are not losing their stickum.