What Does Your To-Do List Say About You?

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

From grocery lists to New Year's resolutions, personal lists are snapshots of current activity, future planning and past accomplishment. Sasha Cagen talks about her new book, To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Here's a list of possible signs you suffer from glazomania, an obsession with list-making. You begin the list with make a list; then, you add things you've already done. You use different colors to denote priorities; crossing things off your list gives you a slight boost in self-esteem; your brain goes blank the minute you, heaven forbid, misplace your list.

It is possible, though, that glazomaniacs comprise a large part of the nation. This time of the year, we're saturated with top 10 lists, best and worst lists, holiday shopping lists, and lists of New Year's resolutions.

Sasha Cagen's glazomania spawned a to-do list empire, from a blog to a book to a magazine, where she celebrates these scribbled bullet points to ourselves. She joins us in a moment.

We want you to send us your lists. What notes to your self did you scribble down today? Is it a grocery list, a last-minute shopping list, a bucket list? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And you can send your list to our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later in the program, "Charlie Wilson's War" from the perspective of another former congressman from Texas. Martin Frost will join us.

But first: Introduce Sasha Cagen - check.

Sasha Cagen compiled the new book, "To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us." She's also the founding editor and publisher of To-Do List magazine and its corresponding blog. She joins us today from Hippo Studios in Providence, Rhode Island.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. SASHA CAGEN (Author, "To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us"): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And what's on your list today, right this minute?

Ms. CAGEN: Well, you know, first of all, just to get through this program will be the major item on today's list, and then later on I'll be opening presents with my family, and going to church.

CONAN: Do you ever have more than one list going at a time?

Ms. CAGEN: I usually do have multiple lists. You know, I have a few on the computer, though I mostly prize my handwritten list because I feel like my brain just registers things better when I actually write them down. And then, of course I have the much greater satisfaction of crossing something off.

CONAN: And how did you get started as the doyenne of list-keeping?

Ms. CAGEN: Well, so I call myself a to-do list-ologist(ph), and that's kind of just giving myself a title and almost like a post-doc degree for something that I've spent eight years doing.

It began eight years ago. In 2000, I started publishing a magazine called To-Do List, and originally the idea was to use to-do list as a metaphor for all the things that we have to do to feel like we're grownups. So, whether that's get a job, find a boyfriend, you know, feel like you have some purpose in life. And it started off with me publishing an ad in another magazine, asking people to send their to-do lists to me.

And I didn't even really necessarily expect that people would. But in fact, I was wrong, and they did, and they sent them in droves - people of all ages. And I just quickly found that it was so incredibly fascinating to open an envelope and read someone else's to-do list that it wasn't just a list, it was almost like reading someone's autobiography, but the very spare bullet-point version because you start to construct a story in your mind about that person and what's going on in their lives.

And so it got to the point where I had about 5,000 lists, list of all kinds, to-do lists - things to do before I die, things to do before I get pregnant. And they were collecting in my apartment in boxes. And I was like, oh, my God. I have an obligation to share them with people. And so that's where the book came from.

CONAN: You mentioned things to do before I die. One of your contributors compiled a list of - she was just turning 30, and compiled a list of things that she'd wanted - that she had done in that part in her life because she'd spent so much time as a student, a resident physician in radiation oncology. As it turns out, Cru Powlie(ph) has called in to the program. Cru Powlie, toujours. And nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. CRU POWLIE (Contributor): Great to be back, Neal. It's good to be back on with you again. Hope all is well and happy holidays to you both.

CONAN: And happy holidays to you. But some of the things on your list are truly remarkable, things that you'd done by the age of 30 to sort of justify your existence at that point - got my M.D., learnt fluent Spanish, met Nelson Mandela. But the one that both Sasha Cagen and I jumped to our front of our minds was in a burning airplane and survived.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POWLIE: Correct.

Ms. CAGEN: I love that one, Cru Powlie.

Ms. POWLIE: That was the ride of my life. I was flying back from London, England, for - on a direct flight back to Atlanta. And unfortunately, the cockpit caught on fire and they announced it when we were flying over the Atlantic Ocean, so we thought we were all going to die. Fortunately, we landed up in Yukon, in Canada for 18 hours, where they fixed the plane and we survived.

CONAN: Also, danced on a table in Vegas - that was pretty good too.

Ms. POWLIE: Oh, that was a fantastic accomplishment. One of my goals was to dance on a table in Vegas. And my friends and I went down one weekend and I got up and danced in the happiest time of my life.

CONAN: So writing down this list of things you'd done - remarkable things, some of them - did it make you feel better?

Ms. POWLIE: It did. It did. I think, you know, I just finished my residency training. And while you're a resident, you have to study a lot, especially in my field. And so most of my weekends, a lot of my time was sacrificed spending time in the library. And I just had to put down on paper what I have done in order to sort of see my life in paper and, you know, think that, you know, I have done things outside of studying and trying to pursue the dream of becoming a physician.

CONAN: Well, Cru Powlie, thanks very much for calling in to share that with us. And you do note in your list that you had your heart broken. And we assume you - I hope you've gotten over that.

Ms. POWLIE: I did. Thanks so much, Neal.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

Ms. POWLIE: Take care, Sasha. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And…

Ms. CAGEN: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And Sasha, as you look at lists like this, what do you think they tell us about ourselves?

Ms. CAGEN: Well, I mean, each one says so much about the person who wrote it. In the book, I was - I really wanted to use the actual handwritten list because you can tell a lot about the person from their handwriting. So it's not only the content of what they write but how they write it too. You know, and then it's just - they can just be so intriguing. Some of them, you would just never write, like, here's a list to start a new church, you know, and it begins - the first item is pray and the last item is pray. And, you know, in between, it's find worship leader, find building, advertise, you know, that you wonder, like, who wrote that? Was it someone trying to start a church or a cult or what was going on?

And, I mean, I think that they can be fascinating for the person who's reading them as an outsider just because there's such an inside look into people's minds. It's the conversation that you're having with yourself that you didn't necessarily expect other people read. I mean, but at the same time, they can be really fascinating to hold on to and to look at 20, 30, even 50 years later, there's a list in the book that was written in 1957, a New Year's resolution less than.

It's just amazing to see what a young girl in Brooklyn was resolving 11-56-1956: I will gossip a little less maliciously with Ruth. I will not fall into bed without brushing my hair and teeth no matter what time it is. I will always walk with my head up and not wiggle so much. And I will not pay for dates with kisses.

CONAN: Some lists in the books were collected by other people. Meishi Bernstein(ph) collected the list of his father, Rabbi Solomon Bernstein, a year after his death and found an intimate memorial of his father in these handwritten notes. Meishi Bernstein is on the line with us today from his home in Santa Barbara. Good of you to be with us today.

Mr. MEISHI BERSTEIN (Contributor): Hi.

CONAN: And how did you come to find these lists?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Well, they were given to me - well, two things. One, I've seen my father all his life, doing these notes, but I never looked at them. They were his personal items. But after he died, he had been - the doctor, and gone to the hospital and died a few days later. So the nurse gave them back to me, and then I was able to see them and go through them. And they were really fascinating because they covered all aspects of his life, not only of the rabbi but family issues and his own little list of things to do for himself. My mother had died three years earlier, so he was alone.

CONAN: There's a - one of the notes in the book is called packing. It includes shoes, tie, chocolates, suit, raincoat, tablets, new hat, two vests, cardigan, six handkerchiefs, sandwich, three socks, three underpants - it goes on…

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Yeah.

CONAN: And in one sense, it's the most mundane thing in the world. On the other hand, it's got to be a treasured recollection of your dad.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Oh, it certainly is. And he was like that. You know, I think he left that like a false teeth, I think, or…

CONAN: Well, I was - yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERNSTEIN: So every - he noted everything. And I - my thought was that, really, it was a way of him to control his life, because without those lists, he wouldn't know where he was or what he was doing.

CONAN: Doctor, haircut, tear papers, fix - something I can't read, income tax, flat papers, wedding Ross(ph), registers, registers. As you look at this, it's the record of a man's life.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: It is, indeed. He was, and you can see how in a way he was punctilios. You know, I think he always note, like, tear papers, write new papers, register new registers. So he was really, you know, very, very, careful about his job and how - in a way, he's - I accept him, where I think he's like "Bartleby, the Scrivener" in a way, you know, pedantic about things.

But also caring, very caring. He was well known in the synagogue where we grow up for the way he remember things. So he was that kind of person. Really, it showed me his life.

CONAN: Well, he was a scrivener, but he clearly preferred to do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Yeah.

Ms. CAGEN: One thing that I love…

Mr. BERNSTEIN: There is also - sorry.

Ms. CAGEN: …about Solomon's lists are the way he writes done next to all of these things. Like, some of us like to, you know, we love to cross things off, but we also like to write things down after we've already done them so we can give ourselves a feeling of an accomplishment to keep going. And he has write cash paper done, write one more that's in Hebrew done, done, done. And it's just amazing to see, like, the way that he's sort of given himself that little check mark, that boost right there.

CONAN: Do you keep lists?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: I do. It's interesting you mentioned that. First of all, I got to hear about this, driving home one day and listening to NPR and Sasha was on. And I had this list. I'm like, what will I do with it? And then I heard about her magazine, and that's how I sent her the materials. And not only do I keep my list, but my nephew called, when he read the book, in tears, saying I've been keeping lists for years and never knew where I got this from.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: So it's almost genetic.

CONAN: Well. Meishi Bernstein, thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. CAGEN: Thanks, Meishi.

CONAN: And what's on your list for tomorrow?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: For tomorrow? Actually, I'm going to the movies tomorrow. Old custom go to movies on Christmas Day.

CONAN: Absolutely. What are you planning to see?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: "Sweeney Todd" and "Juno."

CONAN: Ah-hah. So chuckle fest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERNSTEIN: In a way, I suppose.

CONAN: Thanks very much. We got this…

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: …e-mail from Dave(ph) in Moab, Utah. My wife made a list today: Possible Christmas gifts for 2008. Aside from Santa, who's been making a list all year, she's pretty far ahead of the game. So, one of the things that people who make lists tend to be, Sasha Cagen, is either very organized or making up for lack of organization.

Ms. CAGEN: Yeah. I think that's true that there's this stereotype that if you make lists you must be very obsessive-compulsive and almost anal. But I find that the opposite can be true too, that, you know, people's personalities and that the way their brain is organized almost comes out on the page of the list, you know, so there's just as many list that I get from people that are written at every crazy angle and a million different colors. And they can be just very artistic too.

CONAN: There's more than one person making a list and checking it twice today. Village Voice columnist Michael Musto will be with us to talk about his list. And tell us what is on your list today: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about list-making this hour. It's a love. It's an obsession. And it's the day before Christmas. And I'll bet you're working on the last details of your list today. Let us know what's on it: 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. You can also check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Sasha Cagen is our guest. She's the author of "To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us." You could see some of the to-do lists from her book at our Web site. That's at npr.org/talk.

And let's get another caller on the line. And this is Gus(ph), Gus with us from Berkeley, California.

GUS (Caller): Very good. Thank you so much. I have been using 3-by-5s to make my lists for quite some many years now, since about 1976 or so. And basically, all I do is every time I think of something to do or to buy, I write it down. I have a system, a format and so on - don't worry of the details. But then, all I do is whenever I do my planning, I just shuffle the cards until get down to the top 10, then I start with the A-1. That's it. That's how I do it. Works great.

CONAN: And does it - by writing it down, does it, as Sasha Cagen suggest in her book, make it about 5,000 times more likely that you'll actually do it?

GUS: Well, that's the whole point. I mean, I must have read about 20 books on time management because I've started my own business. And I soon discovered that, you know, I needed help and I needed to be excruciatingly much better organized than I had been going in at the age of 26. So - but I had seen a manager once, spread on his whole desk, a huge desk, covered the entire thing with 3-by-5s. And I asked him, what are you doing? And he said, I'm just doing my planning. And I never forgot that. And I've been using it, as I say, since 1976.

So this is like the 30th year anniversary of my using these techniques, and they're very, very powerful.

CONAN: Hmm. Okay. Well, good luck to you.

GUS: Thank you so much. Happy holidays.

CONAN: And Sasha Cagen, I guess people do it that way to organize their lives, though some of the lists in your book prove people do it - their lists are pretty unorganized and it may not be, in fact, a more efficient use of their time.

Ms. CAGEN: Yeah. I mean, there's the question of are you spending more time getting things done on your list, or are you, you know, just shuffling things around on it. And I took a survey of people on my blog, todolistblog.com, about their to-do list habits.

And most people sayid that their lists actually do make them more productive. Of course, if you fall in the category of a true, true, true glazomaniac and you're really a list-obsessive, then you may find yourself recopying your list to make it look perfect, not just because you have items that haven't been done but because you have a need to make it look, you know, absolutely right.

And, you know, it's fun. As the caller suggested, we all have our own style…

CONAN: And our own system.

Ms. CAGEN: …for making to-do lists. Yeah. We all have our own systems. And there are certain cults. You know, there's the getting-things-done system, from David Allen. And, you know, there's a lot of people who are really enthusiastic about certain systems. But each of us has our own unique brain and our own unique style for processing information. And I just find it so fascinating to look at people's list, because you can just see their brains played out on a page, you know, and…

CONAN: I was fascinated by one of your contributors who had invented her own code.

Ms. CAGEN: Yeah. I mean, that's one of the really interesting things is that these lists can be so intimate so that a lot of people, especially women - what I found in my research - are apt to make their list in codes, so that when their coworkers walk by they don't see what it is that their writing.

And I had no idea, but the most common code that came up was for feminine hygiene products like tampons and birth control, BTP or BC, because they wouldn't want their boss or coworkers to walk by and see that that was on their list.

So, you know, people definitely develop their own language and way of doing things.

CONAN: Let's talk with David(ph), David, calling us from Menlo Park in California.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

DAVID: Thanks so much for taking the call.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVID: Well, I tell you, you know, I'm a physician. And my list skills started, of course, was when I was medical school when you had such an incredible amount of information that I try to assimilate and articulate especially when you're on the wards and you've got 50 patients to take care of. I mean, you'll be checking all their details.

But then, of course, it becomes kind of an art over time. And like today, my list includes things that are much more normal, like I have got to fix my greenhouse, and I got to look for a fish in my pond and then make sure it's still alive, and definitely I'll buy some more presents.

But the thing that I think is very fascinating about the list-taking personality is that is you do develop a kind of a hieroglyphic, a kind of a language that's not simply just dots and dashes and squares and boxes to check off, but in actual geography. And the way you write the lettering, it helps me to remember it, if I visually see it, in my mind. And by reseeing it again and again, sooner, though, I don't need a list because I've reminded myself of something. And…

CONAN: Just by the fact of writing it down and then reading it?

DAVID: Right. Exactly. And then looking at it again, just one or two more times. Every time I see it a second time or third time, it helps to cue to my memory so I have to try to remember it and by actually looking at the list.

I mean, I keep a 3-by-5 set of cards with me at all times, I mean, pretty much 24 hours a day. And people think, you know (unintelligible). I'm like, well, it suddenly didn't even compare in terms of versatility.

I mean, it's great to be without a 3-by-5 stack of cards that I can, you know, shuffle around, move around, I could sit in my back pocket and not to worry about breaking it or batteries. It's - colors do kind of come into play. The premise is like you don't always have colored pins all around. And so it becomes a balance of the act of organizing and the doing of the things you're trying to organize for.

So if I'm spending too much time organizing, I'm not getting anything done. So, it appears to be kind of a chaotic existence. But really, in reality, it's very productive if you find that right balance.

CONAN: And you said you're a doctor?

DAVID: Yes, I am.

CONAN: And does your list include remove scalpel from patient's intestine and that sort of thing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID: Well, I'm actually an anesthesiologist, so I don't have that problem. But, yeah, it does - I mean, the list, I have three kinds of lists. I have my professional list, I have my home list, I have a long-term list, short-term list, the today list. And - so, yeah, there's a kind of a mix of it all. It's kind of - you can't help but mix together. But…

CONAN: Some of these lists, Sasha Cagen, include find your soul mate. And I think we just have for you.

Ms. CAGEN: Well, yeah. I think he lives close by. So…

CONAN: And a doctor.

Ms. CAGEN: …all set.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID: Well, I have to…

Ms. CAGEN: But I'm - he may already be engaged. But I think that one thing that entered David - sort of called to mind, for me, that was interesting is that they can seem very banal and mundane. But as one - a couple of the contributors in the book put it this way that the list can be like magic, that there's something a little bit magical about these lists. Because when you write it down, it somehow - it manifests it first on paper and then it is so much more likely that it will happen.

There's one New Year's list in the book from a husband and father who's on his late 30s who's in Indiana. And he has just this incredible array of goals for the year. I mean that they're just out of control. They're so many.

You know, date Jan weekly, his wife; individual buddy time with each child weekly; health, body-for-life exercise; he, too, has this little shorthand for himself. And, you know, it spans the whole page and it's very (unintelligible) and artistic. And he says that he calls them magic goals because it seems like the mere act of writing down 10 to 20 specific goals has the most amazing results when he looks back at them. And then if he keeps gazing at the list more and more throughout the year that it's more likely that they'll happen.

And there is just almost something that happens with our brains, which is actually writing things down. And that's why I have the save-the-to-do-list campaign on my blog, on To-Do List blog. So, you know, some people want to save the whales - they have great goals like that - but I want to save the handwritten to-do list. You know, it's great to keep things in Excel or, you know, in different electronic organizing programs, but there's just something so special about handwriting. And when we write our to-do list, it's often the only time that we're handwriting at all these days.

CONAN: David, thanks for…

DAVID: In listening, I find that - to add to that is to say that the actual act of crossing it off is an emotional catharsis. I mean, something that are, you know, very difficult, very hard, very emotional thing to do when you finally write it, scratch it off, it's - it has a meaningful kind of a closure. You know, I know it's sounds kind of weird, but…

CONAN: Well, you can check off talk live on national radio.

DAVID: Yes. Exactly. The first time I talked with you guys. Thank you very much for…

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call, David.

There are good lists and bad lists and some good lists about bad things. Michael Musto, longtime columnist at the Village Voice, has kept a list that is definitely the latter. It's called "The Bad Movie Club." And Michael Musto joins us from his home in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. MICHAEL MUSTO (Author, "The Bad Movie Club"): Oh, thanks. This is on my list of things to do today.

CONAN: Oh, good. I'm glad to hear that. So your list consists of, well, not to put too fine a point of it, bad movies.

Mr. MUSTO: Yeah. I have a club of four friends and myself who meet in my apartment every two weeks or so to watch movies that should've been good but turned out really rotten. And we have a certain fascination in watching movies like "Lost Horizon" the musical with Liv Ullmann and George Kennedy.

CONAN: Oh, stinker.

Mr. MUSTO: Or, "Hieronymous Merkin" with Anthony Newley. I mean, you have to be of a certain age to even know who some of this people are. But it's just like perversal occult, and I have to keep a list partly because they actually had a head injury some (unintelligible) ago. So that's the real reason why my whole life sometimes seems unmanageable if I don't have list of things to do, but also because there was so many bad movies out there that I need to catalog the ones that are available. And I write down on the list how they're available, which video store has them, which friend of mine might be able to supply a DVD, and then I cross them off as we watch them.

CONAN: And how far along have you gotten?

Mr. MUSTO: We've - we had the club for over 10 years. This list was only five years in the making, but we've watched over 200 films together.

CONAN: I see you've crossed off "Bunny Lake is Missing," for example.

Mr. MUSTO: Yeah. And that's really not a bad movie, so I feel embarrassed to even include that. That's an Otto Preminger film with Carol Lynley, in London, and her daughter is missing and some people claim she never existed. The ending is a little shocking. It's a little ripped off of the movie "Psycho." But it's not that bad a movie. It doesn't even belong in that list, so I'm glad I crossed it out.

CONAN: I also see that on your list is "Shock Carter," a Samuel Fuller movie.

Mr. MUSTO: Well, his movies are borderline, good/bad. "Naked Kiss" is actually our favorite one. That was…

CONAN: "Naked Kiss" is awfully - "Run of the Arrow" is one of my favorites, too.

Mr. MUSTO: Oh, yeah, and "40 Guns" (unintelligible).

CONAN: Oh, yeah.

Mr. MUSTO: But "Naked Kiss" has constant powers of the bold prostitute who's hiding out of the nurse, leads a bunch of disabled children in a production number. It's really not even describable.

CONAN: And this is a project that I assume you could not even attempt without a list.

Mr. MUSTO: Well, this is something that just organically grew out of my life. A bunch of friends and I had the same interest, and it became something that was so big, we're actually thinking of doing our own book, just call it the movie club guide to life or something, where we recommend good bad movies.

And there were so many. Just when we think we have run out, we've used up every Liz Taylor and Kim Novak film, we find about some other little Lana Turner gem, like "The Big Cube," where she's given acid to remember some crime from her past, or any number of films.

CONAN: And do you keep lists in your regular life, too?

Mr. MUSTO: Everything in my life is a list, partly because like I said, I had a head injury. So when I wake up every morning, it's like I'm starting oppressed. I feel like I'm newborn child. I have no idea who I even am or what my assignment is for the day.

And also, as a Village Voice columnist, I have so many responsibilities because I have to see every major film that comes out. I'm a Tony Award voter, so I have to see every Broadway show.

CONAN: That's just brutal. I mean, there's so many people cringing at the amount of work you have to do.

Mr. MUSTO: Going to see movies and plays, right?

CONAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MUSTO: And I have to go to free dinners and I have to meet celebrities. It's really rough.

CONAN: It's just terrible, just terrible.

Mr. MUSTO: But I still do need to catalog it or I'm going to miss out on certain things and I don't want to do that as a professional.

CONAN: Well, Michael Musto, you - as you said, you can now cross us off your list. And thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today.

Mr. MUSTO: Thank you.

CONAN: One more thing - anything left on your list for today?

Mr. MUSTO: Well, the gifts that I want. I have a list for Santa, which are a light-up watch, so I can see at screenings how much time is left; a DVD of "Mister Magoo's Christmas", and the Backstreet Boys "Greatest Hits."

CONAN: Boy, you just never stop, do you?

Mr. MUSTO: No. I'm invicble.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much. And have a great holiday.

Mr. MUSTO: You too.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Michael Musto was a columnist at the Village Voice. He joined us by phone from his home in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get some more callers on with their lists. This is Andrew(ph), Andrew with us from Cleveland.

ANDREW (Caller): Yes. Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

ANDREW: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

ANDREW: Against given the day and the topic you're discussing, the first thing that looped to my mind - in 2006, my mother unfortunately passed away. And we were going through - she kept everything. And we were going through all the different things, and I came across a shirt box and I opened it up and inside were all the Christmas lists I had ever given her since I was, like, 9.

CONAN: Was the Red Rider air rifle in there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANDREW: No. But I think the entire Masters of the Universe collection and a good number of Star Wars pieces were in there. And it was just a wonderful combination of emotions. It was the sadness of, you know, of just having to go through this, this sorting of things because of her passing. It was the laughter of just, you know, like going back and seeing what was on there. And it was also a kind of a feeling of shame because I was greedy little child. There was a lot…

CONAN: Weren't we all?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANDREW: These things - but these lists were - there was a star-rating system, they were color coded by catalogs with the catalog numbers and the product numbers and the pricing. It was, you know, it was just - I was going for efficiency and quantity narrowly.

CONAN: So just didn't write down Skeletor figurine. It was…

ANDREW: No. It was a Snake Mountain play set with the price, the catalog number - the page number, and the actual catalog number for the product. And then usually, there were some stars to indicate, you know, the importance of attaining this thing for Christmas. And probably, through (unintelligible) catalog versus the J.C. Penney's catalog. It was written in blue instead of green.

CONAN: And…

ANDREW: And the ironic thing is as an adult, I'm horrifically unorganized. I am - and that's probably the one - I probably wasted it all when I was 9…

CONAN: You're a burned-out case.

ANDREW: Yes. Yes.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for that. We hope you get everything on your list this Christmas.

ANDREW: I hope I get everything done today. So…

CONAN: Hah.

ANDREW: I will talk to you later.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Here's an e-mail from Melinda(ph) in Little Rock, Arkansas. I feel I found my people. Thank you. I once lost my list in a store at Christmastime. And due to my reaction, women there thought I'd lost my child. Thanks to the caller who makes a list of her accomplishments too. I feel this exercise will do wonders for my psyche as opposed to the constant to-dos only.

And indeed, Sasha Cagen, there are all kinds of categories you have for different kinds of lists.

Ms. CAGEN: Yeah. I mean, that's one of the reason that I love Michael Musto's list, "The Bad Movie Club." And why I wanted to include it in the book is that it, you know, it obviously gives the reader the idea of, like, oh, I could - I can make this list, too, of the bad movies that I want to get together and watch with my friends.

And, you know, most of the list in the book are not just straight-ahead to-do lists. There are really creative lists that people make that are inspiring. Because, I mean, basically if you're a list maker, you just want infinite ideas for your list. So there's, you know, one here was written by this 23-year-old girl. She wrote her list to her father: 10 Things I Like About Me, Happy Birthday Dad, to show her, you know, the things that she liked about herself as a birthday present to him.

CONAN: And a lot…

Ms. CAGEN: And she - and I interviewed each person about their list and it's so interesting because she's like, this is a really hard list to write because you feel sort of embarrassed to write it, like these are the things that I like about myself, but it's actually very valuable.

She writes: I am independent and mostly responsible. I have a university degree. I have always tried to be nice to everyone regardless of race, class et cetera. Because of this, people from high school come up to me to say hi even if I don't recognize them. I have a good sense of humor. I have some vision and direction for my life. And my favorite one is, let's see, I don't - I'm getting old enough now that I don't care if I don't look cool because I'm wearing a ski suit in winter in public. She's unafraid to wear a ski suit in public.

You know, there just a lot of different ideas in here for making lists. And, you know, it's more than just getting organized. It's also a way to sort of take a mental pulse. And they become such a mental snapshot of what's on our minds. And like the caller just said, it's so fascinating to look at 20 or 30 years later.

CONAN: On her life list, Sasha Cagen can include the book "To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us." She also has a blog of the same name and a magazine. She joined us from Hippo Studios in Providence, Rhode Island. And she's still collecting lists. You can find a link to her to-do list blog at our blog npr.org/blogofthenation.

Thanks very much.

Ms. CAGEN: Thank you.

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Excerpt: 'To-Do List' Introduction

To-Do List Book Cover

We all know the guilty pleasure of looking in someone's medicine cabinet, refrigerator, or iPod. But what about looking at someone else's to-do list? In a sense, our to-do lists are like diaries, only they're the bullet-point version.

Lists can be about anything—from flossing to finding a soul mate, from buying carrots to becoming whole. When we read other people's lists, we uncover the range of meaningful and mundane things that are on their minds. Lifelong hopes and daily tasks mix together, and "organize sock drawer" is on par with "get teaching credential," which is sometimes exactly how life feels.

This book is a collection of one hundred real, handwritten to-do lists and the stories behind them. It's everyday voyeurism, or to put it another way, low-budget reality culture. Unlike what passes for reality on TV, these lists are real. The people who sent them removed them from their diaries, planners, purses, jean pockets, and junk drawers so we could get a peek. Their lists offer a rare window into their everyday lives. They also provide an opportunity for self-examination. Each list is accompanied by a DIY list idea to trigger your imagination and set you down the path of creating your own.

In to-do lists, there are no narratives or artifice, just the essential truth at that one moment—things to do, done, loved, wanted, known. They represent the brain on the page, in its most raw form. They are not only reflections of our mind states, they're also often tools for action and decision making. They represent the conversations that we have with ourselves but don't often voice to others. When we read our own lists ten years later, they can evoke the same emotional states we were in when we wrote them—anxiety, contentment, wistfulness, or hope.

The pleasure of reading other people's lists is certainly voyeuristic, but it's also therapeutic, because there's so much humanity in them. We all wonder, Am I normal? Am I the only one who doesn't have it all figured out? When we only see other people's polished exteriors, it feels like they have some secret that we don't. When we look at other people's lists, we see that functional adulthood doesn't come naturally to everyone else either.

Reading people's lists gives us a unique view into how others motivate themselves to look for love, get to the gym, or quit drinking. We see how they too vow to deal with tasks that are supposed to be natural and elementary, like "pay bills" or "breathe." We see how "get passport" recurs in someone's organizer over several weeks, or that it's not so uncommon to list tasks after we have already accomplished them, simply for the thrill of crossing them off.

Our lists reveal our secret selves. They show us as the hilariously imperfect works-in-progress that we are every single day. We're all figuring it out as we go along, and we're all much funnier, more neurotic, and idiosyncratic than our finished-product versions of ourselves suggest. The evidence is in our lists.

Where did these lists come from?

Where did this idea come from? The answer, appropriately enough, can be found on another list. Back in 1999, when I was twenty-six and sick of my first job, I decided to start a print magazine about tormented twentysomethings (and thirty-, forty-, and fifty-somethings who still felt like tormented twenty-somethings) and how they pulled themselves together to become adults—getting a job, a mate, a sense of purpose, a clue. I chose to call it To-Do List to express the range of tasks we all need to accomplish to feel like "grown-ups."

I placed an ad in another independent magazine asking people to send me their to-do lists in the mail. I really had no idea why or how I would use them. But as soon as lists started to arrive (and from people of all ages) I had a hunch I might be on to something. In those first few months, I would leave work and jog to the post office to get there by closing time. After retrieving the envelopes, I would sit down on the sidewalk to rip them open. The thrill of reading their to-do lists was too great to wait until getting home, or even to a café. At the time, it was hard to pinpoint why reading other people's to-do lists was something I couldn't get enough of. But it felt like I was getting insider information on how other people managed their lives.

Over the last seven years, through To-Do List magazine and todolistblog.com, I collected thousands of lists. My apartment could easily be wallpapered with them: daily to-do lists, "Baby Names," "Santa List," "To Do Before I Die," "My Vision of the Perfect Mate," "Places to See, Books to Read," "Things I Like and Hate About My Lover."

I had unwittingly tapped into an unnamed, unexamined community—the listmakers of America (and the world). According to an American Demographics phone survey of one thousand Americans, 42 percent of us make to-do lists. But there are scant studies about us, and obviously still a lot to learn. Who are we and why do we do it? Do we check off or cross off accomplished tasks? Do our to-do lists make us more productive or are they a procrastination tool? Are they part of a belief system that if we are more productive, we're better people?

As you flip through the book, you'll see that many of the lists are relics. Twelve are more than ten years old, and two were written in the 1950s. The degree to which people hold on to lists speaks to their power. It's almost as if they were written on magical, impossible-to-throw-away paper. Some contributors sent me lists that they said they hadn't been able to get rid of for years. They said sending them was cathartic. But then I couldn't get rid of them, out of guilt or a strange sense that the lists had power.

A few of them floated around in my backpack until one fell out one day in line at the grocery store, and a shopper behind me said, "Here's your list." I squinted at it. Who's Nick, and why would I need to bring him sheets? Oh yeah, that's someone else's list. Now it's somehow mine.

In editing this collection, I was often stunned by the rawness of the confessions. There might be an element of exhibitionism in publishing a real to-do list, a sense that our lives aren't real unless they have a witness, but there's a generosity in their contributions, too. The lists may be desperate or joyful, but either way they are completely genuine tools that people used in their lives. As Dustin Kidd, whose list "Places Where I Am Stuck Right Now" put it, "I see my list as a little window into my life. I'm proud of the way that I live my life and the way that I make decisions. I hope that sharing the list means sharing a little insight with others who may find some wisdom there."

The lists in this book teach by example. They show us how people use lists to make themselves happier, feel more in control, make decisions, and imagine new mates, jobs, and travel plans. They will also teach you how to be a more creative list-maker. Being exposed to other people's lists definitely increased my repertoire. They also transformed me from a compulsive list-maker addicted to crossing every single thing off to a more imaginative lister who could see the value of throwing wild, even implausible dreams on the page, because who knows?

Lists have always been my natural response to passing depressions and confusion, a reliable way to bring inspiration and order to my life. Just sitting down with a blank page and pen made me feel more in control. But I began to see making lists as a way of life, a way of taking my pulse at any given moment. Lists also became something of an adventure, a mystery, with a feeling of magic attached to them. Items thrown on a list randomly could lead me to unexpected journeys, just like my possible-magazine-names list from 1999 on page 3 led to this book.

I hope this book will take your lists in new directions. The Middle English root of the verb "to list" is "to want" or "to crave"; among other connotations, including our sense of cataloging or grouping, to list once meant to lust, desire, like, or wish to do something. Using the lists in this book as your point of departure, you might articulate desires and dreams you haven't yet voiced.

Writing a list can be a secular version of prayer. It's a way of letting the universe know what you want, whether it's a new belt or a new husband. As most list-makers know, writing things down can have a magical way of making them happen.

Excerpted from To-Do List by Sasha Cagen © Sasha Cagen. Excerpted by permission of Fireside, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Excerpt: 'To-Do List'

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