Do you use checkmarks to keep track of what you’ve done? Do you use them as motivation? I realize that I do, and I hadn’t given it much thought until I read an article this morning in the New York Times from Amitava Kumar, who talks about how checkmarks helped him achieve his goals. I’ll link it at the bottom. As I read the article, I glanced to my side, and spotted the class readings with large, glorious checkmarks at the top of the front pages, to remind myself that I have completed that particular reading. Just below the stack of readings is a print out of the class syllabus, with checks down the page (a checkmark each time I complete a week of work), reminding me that I am indeed getting through this class and thus it will end one day.

My desk this morning. All our readings for class are available in .pdf format online, but I print out every single one (Sorry, trees). It reinforces learning for me if I read on actual paper, and write my thoughts in the margins, and underline stuff I think is important. When I am done with a chapter, I place a fat checkmark at the front, so I know I finished reading it.

I’m here to reclaim the check mark in its basic form, etched by a human hand using ink or graphite.

Amitava Kumar

When I’m overwhelmed with things to do, one of my favourite tricks is to make a list, then check them off. I will even line out an item on the list, because crossing it out feels so emotionally restorative.

The idea of the checkmarks as motivation struck me this morning because I was just realizing I’m beginning to feel the seasonal anxiety that comes when my regular tasks continue but the out of doors tasks have exploded because it’s Spring. How can I do it all? This is my sixth year here, so I know that no matter the catastrophe, all will be well in the end. And yet, here I am worrying.

I read the article and thought: I need to make a list! I may not reduce the size of the list, but at the very least I will be able to check things off, and that will feel good, and remind me that I am getting things accomplished, even though I am not catching up. Nor will I, till the grasses stop growing in June, when the rain stops. Or maybe I’ll be so far behind at that point I won’t catch up till July. The point is, that’s too long to be in a state of anxiety, so I need to relax.

Maps class syllabus, and inspiring checkmarks that show me how far through the course I am.

What should go onto my list:

  • Finish Lab #6 by Friday
  • Interview Monika in time to finish the Great Spirit newsletter by Sunday
  • Weed the front garden and the bird feeder garden
  • Meet with financial advisor to figure out how much to contribute to my IRA before IRS deadline
  • Mow the entire property
  • Trim weeds of entire property where I can’t mow
  • Paint my bedroom before the new carpet is installed
  • Remember to buy cat food, and litter
  • Remember to buy salt for water softener at the well
  • Try to eradicate the mole before its tunneling causes the chicken house to fall into the Earth
  • Clean the house. Always clean the house
  • Go grocery shopping
  • Get Zoom Cherokee meeting recording and write law article for June Cherokee newsletter
  • Remove the new plants from their plastic pots and place them into the ground
  • Install something for the pea plants to climb
  • Call United Airlines and figure out why I’ve been charged three times for seat upgrades
  • Message Kim for her address so I can mail her a gift
  • Rebuild my stack of firewood on the porch from the wood at the wood shed
  • Get the pump back into the creek and power it for the summer so my pond has water
  • Either buy a chainsaw and learn how to use it, or find someone who will cut up the gigantic fallen tree
  • Spray weed killer on the driveway

There are always so many things to do. I’m glad I made this list just now, because it will help me organize and prioritize. I’m heading to central Oregon Saturday to have lunch with cousins because we are all vaccinated now. How fun! So I need to decide which things must be finished before my trip. Two weeks after that, I’ll be gone for four days in Southern Oregon/Northern California, and I need to plan.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with Spring chores on top of all the other chores (or Autumn chores on top of everything else, depending on where you live), consider using checkmarks. It might not help, but it’s worth a try.

Here’s the link to Kumar’s article, that talks about how his writing production improved with the use of the humble checkmark. The Oldest Productivity Trick Around – The New York Times (

24 thoughts on “Checkmark

  1. I’ve always used check lists, Crystal. Another trick is to label them in terms of how important they are to you. There are a lot of other tricks I used in my work. I even taught a few classes in time management.Life’s easier now that I didn’t have so many balls up in the air. 🙂 Mainly I schedule my time. –Curt

    1. You taught time management? That is awesome. You know, I learned a trick from a workplace time management course once, that I used in school when I was taking a huge load at Brandeis. It is just what you are saying: arrange the list in order of priority, due date, amount of time expected to put into it, etc. I could reduce my number of balls in the air, but so far I’m having fun, so I guess it’s alright for now. 🙂

  2. I’m organizationally challenged, and would never have made it through grad school without check marks on lists. These days I still can be scattershot. When I really need to keep it together I go back to the tried and true.

    1. I can relate, Lou! I’m usually good with organizing, so I have that advantage over you. What can happen with me is when the mental list gets too long, I get so upset about the size of the list in my head that I get paralyzed just thinking about it. A written list helps me plot my way through it. The “tried and true” for me, is pen to paper, not on the computer. That may have been how you were thinking of it too. For some reason, writing on paper grounds me. Maybe its generational.

  3. How interesting how different we are. Your list puts me in an anxiety when I realise just how inactive I am. My mom always had several lists of tasks to do before holidays and items to pack and things to buy, so when I started to go places by myself I thought I had to do it too. It made me anxious. What if I forget to put something on the list? One time, before leaving for Crete with my own car, I said naaaaah, I stayed out with friends the night before and grabbed some stuff and threw it in a bag just before leaving. I wore my celestial bathing suit all month anyway. I drove in it and all, and we slept on beaches. Oh, life.

    So yes, I’m NOT envious. You are a really good girl and I’m a lazyass. I wish you much fun on your journeys!

    1. Ha ha ha!! I love your story. That was one time when you “grew up,” and became FREE! I can hear the release of tension in it. That is so awesome. I skimmed through the comments before I began replying, and I find that people are “yes!” or “nope!” on this topic. It is wonderful to get a variety of perspectives. Throwing a few things in a bag and running out the door would be very stressful for me, and I envy that ability to know that everything’s going to be ok. With all my travel, I have tried to train myself to think like that: no need to stress about it, because it’s all going to work out one way or another. I want a celestial bathing suit.

      I disapprove of calling yourself a lazy ass! ha ha. Stop it. You’ve got other priorities. You’ve got a strong inner drive in ways I am not interested in pursuing. Poetry every single day? I mean, sure, for four days it would be fun. Maybe a week for me. But then… squirrel! When you are determined, you ask a lot of yourself, just like I do.

      Keep in mind this list has no timeline. Some things do. Others are just things that need to get done eventually. So it’s not necessarily an indication of how busy I am. I put a rock through my kitchen window in September last year, and didn’t get around to replacing the window till April. So, you know, I have room for improvement, even WITH a list.

  4. I totally agree with you … when there’s lots to do, the best tool is a checklist. I even have reusable checklists for routine things, just so that I don’t have to think through them everytime.

    I remember my first exposure to checklists. It was when I worked with a super organized manager. Not only did she have lists , she also drew little boxes for the checkmarks. I was both mortified and awed.

    1. Sandy you made me laugh out loud! Oh my gosh. Boxes for the checkmarks? My reaction would be exactly the same as yours. Wow. Also…brilliant having reusable checklists! I think the only thing I do that with is my camping gear packing list. But to use them for routines is a great idea. I think in my last job that would have been a good tool.

  5. I think I use checkmarks as a just an identification of what is is done. I generally cross out the item. With a thick black marker. That gives me a sense of achievement! DONE!
    Quite a list you have. I’d forget about the chainsaw, if I may be so bold. Too dangerous. Better hire somebody.

    1. Yes!! A black marker would feel the best. I can’t explain it, but I can literally “feel” how it would be, just imagining putting a thick black line through a list item. It’s a wonderful little tiny high.

      I agree with you on the chainsaw. I’ve been telling myself since I arrived on this property that eventually I’m going to have to learn how to use a chainsaw. I need a chainsaw all the time, and rely on begging for help. I never give myself permission to opt out of a task because I’ve lived in cities or because I’m a woman. So…I push myself. But ugh. I’m not interested in chainsawing. I’ve asked three folks around where I live, who are all usually very reliable for random tasks, and all three have declined. I think it’s because the tree is gigantic, and it would take two days of long hard labor. It’s a maple tree, so there are two main trunks and a bazillion branches going every which way. I just wanted a little chainsaw to at least clean up all the little branches and make it easier for someone to get in there and cut up the trunk. Something will work out eventually.

      1. Chainsaws don’t appeal to me at all. I guess I’ve heard of too many accidents. Now if you want to clean the brtanches a regular wood saw will do the trick. A few at a time. I have used a lot of saws with my father. (And indeed cut myself bad once). So take a regular wood saw. Good exercise. Doesn’t have to be all at the same time. Can’t the county do it?

      2. I have a couple of woodsaws and use them often. I have thought about it. There are just so many branches, it would take me a month of sawing, every time I had a free day. No way I have the time. The tree is on my property, so I don’t think the County is even allowed to work here. This County is very poor and won’t have the resources to help anyway. In the past it was so easy to find a local person who was happy to cut up my downed trees for money, so I’ll just keep asking around.

      3. What happened to mowing the neighbour’s lawn for a few bucks? That gone too? 😉 I understand the amount of time involved if it’s the entire tree. Keep asking. Good luck.

  6. I’m averse to checking lists. You probably know I used to set cryptic crosswords. A pet annoyance was those people who ticked off clues once they had solved them. Why bother if they have filled in the grid 🙂

    1. Ha ha ha!!! Derrick this is the best! I am delighted that both you and Manja responded with a perspective that I can’t relate to at all. How can we be so different and yet I adore you so much? Yes, now that you remind me I recall your work with crosswords. Oh, those puzzles are so intensely hard for me that I rarely attempt them, and when I get any of the clues finished, you can bet your booty I check that clue off the list as fast as I can! Otherwise, I’d have no inspiration to keep going. Yes, I admit that your rationale is based in flawless logic, so I can’t explain why that isn’t good enough for me. 🙂 Clearly you have your own system worked out though, because you do so much every day. You and Jackie blow my mind sometimes with your stamina and persistence, and you maintain joy through it all. I can see the payoff for a non-checklist system through you.

  7. I wrote a nice long comment and it disappeared. So I’ll just say I’m glad you are recognizing the much too long list is causing anxiety. I agree, check lists help immensely. It feels like a reward for a job well done. I even have them on my phone in a free program called color note. I can add to and draw a line through it until it’s in my journal then I check it off and delete it. I live by lists and I have 1/10th of what you have to do. Your list would give me a panic attack. We need to find some help. Hugs kiddo.

    1. Oh dang it. It is so frustrating when the computer eats what we have written, especially when it’s a nice long comment and you put thought into it. Arrgh. I was feeling anxiety without the list, but having the list makes me feel better, because then I don’t have to remember it all but also so I get to watch things get checked off. It’s funny because my friend Manja commented that lists themselves are stress-inducing for her! I have enjoyed watching the variety of responses to this post. Since I wrote this post, I’ve been thinking more about the amount of activity in my life. I’ve had this conversation with others since I was 25, and I always come to the same conclusion: I love it! I love being astoundingly busy, even though sometimes it causes me stress. I am pretty sure that if I did less I would have more anxiety – or suffer in some other way. My body and mind are compelled to just take things on. It’s partially an avoidance tool, to keep my brain from its destructive PTSD thoughts, so yeah, I can see the potential unhealthiness. But in general, I think this life is ok for me. Well, I hope so anyway. 🙂

  8. I love checkmarks. Like you say, there is a sense of accomplishment. Especially when the to do list is getting longer and not shorter. I had a laugh at some of the things on your list, like cleaning the house. Yip there is always cleaning the house. I love a clean house, but hate the task. And like you point out, with spring so many other tasks are vying for attention. I’m learning all about that, and no matter how hard one works, there will always be something else to take care of outside. Good luck. Enjoy your freedom now that you are vaccinated.

    1. You picked up on multiple important points, Jolandi. How does one stay motivated when the To Do list gets longer? (because sometimes it does) Checkmarks work for me. I love a clean house too. I try to keep my cleaning the house tasks reasonable, so I don’t defeat myself. Like, I must always wash dishes, but I don’t always have to dust the tops of the curtains, and things like that that no one but me will even notice. 🙂 I’m somewhat of an obsessive cleaner, ha ha. I did not expect the immediate feeling of relief when I received my first shot. Now that it’s been about a month since I got the second, I’m hearing that our Centers for Disease Control said vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks at all anymore. Wow. It will be hard to go fully maskless, especially around others. I have a new normal.

      1. I’m so glad to hear that there is an immediate benefit for you regarding your vaccination, Crystal. Michael for instance who had been vaccinated since the end of December hardly sees a difference in privileges. I’m sure it will feel strange for you not wearing a mask. Enjoy that freedom.

        You are so right about how lists grow, Crystal – mine sometimes grow out of proportion. At the moment I make very limited lists, as I otherwise feel overwhelmed, and just give up – even with using checkmarks.

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