by: mathurah

to dream lists, not to do lists

I'm the girl who's been using to-do lists, and schedules since I was like 6 years old (I know, I'm crazy). It wasn't because I thought I had to, but I thought it was fun.

I remember when my mom bought a pack of 3 mini notebooks and gel pens from the dollar store. After seeing someone do it on TV, it became a habit of mine to take out that mini notebook, a sparkly purple gel pen, and write out arbitrary times and tasks I wanted to do that day. 7:10 - 7:15: set bed. 7:15 - 7:30: brush hair. 7:30 - 8:00: eat breakfast. 8:00 - 10:00: play club penguin. 10:00 - 12:00: make art. And obviously, as a 6-year-old, I literally had no idea how to estimate time for things, so I never stuck to the schedule exactly.

As I got older, the sparkly gel pens and mini spiral notebooks turned into my school agenda, then a bullet journal. I religiously watched tutorials and bought sets of washi tape from Michaels. I then transitioned to digital. I watched a ton of Thomas Frank's infamous College Info Geek videos, where I tried to lean into Habitica and Todoist. I later transitioned to Evernote, OneNote, and then Notion. I even tried experimenting with Figjam as a personal planning tool. I tried my best to build systems that worked for me (I even wrote a few blogs about it here and here). But nothing ever really stuck. Every school semester I'd revert to something else. I'd go from digital to notebook and then back to digital again.

Google Calendar and Todoist are great for anything that's day-to-day. If I need to do something today, I can slot it right in my calendar and check it off. Notion worked well when I had a clear school syllabus - I could just add all of the deliverables in, and even keep track of how many assignments were weighed.

But none of these systems really worked for those "dream goals". I'm not even sure what the right word for this is. But for example, if I wanted to learn how to hip-hop dance, that's not something I can just slot into my calendar one or two times, and be ready to check off. Or, if I wanted to explore a research interest - that's not for school marks or a work project - where I'm the only person keeping myself accountable, I have no idea where to start. There's no clear way how to break up the sub-tasks or a right deadline you can give yourself. It's algorithmically ambiguous and cannot be confined by the boundaries of pre-existing systems.

I was feeling this sentiment of constantly delaying trying to achieve these dream goals - like writing the book I've always said I wanted to write, or building out that project I keep telling myself that should exist in the world - to only find myself productively procrastinating doing other small tasks. The thing is, the tasks I'm doing instead aren't things I even want to be doing. It's because they're easy - easy to justify why I'm doing them, and easy to measure success.

These dream goals don't exist in isolation, as another line or block in your task board. These dream goals need to be in your face. They need to be research papers printed and held on by magnets on your fridge door. They need to be yellow-blaring sticky notes scattered across your desk reminding you to think about the thing. They need to be snippets of hip-hop music that seep in through the Spotify playlist you listen to every day inspiring your feet to dance. They're the coffee stains on the chapter of your favourite book, reminding you of the words that keep you up at night.

And I guess, the counterargument could be - if these were really your dream goals, you wouldn't need reminders and neon yellow sticky notes to do it, you just would.

But as they say, it's only the fools who dream, and in today's day and age, some of us are too scared to become fools. Because sometimes those explorations fail. Maybe you'll realize dancing isn't for you. You don't get an instant dopamine hit from starting those ambiguous long-winded tasks if you can't even see what the end would look like. But not only that, as we've gotten older, our appetite for risk has waned. Our dream goals have retreated to only being realized to "what ifs" when we sleep, while our waking hours are consumed by the weight of reality.

So today, I'm searching for a new system that can blend both the essence of my chaotic mind and the structure I value from those digital systems I've grown up with. I want to find an equivalent of printing out posters and plastering them all over my bedroom walls when my physical sense of place is impermanent. I value infinite canvases, chicken scratches on paper I need to tell myself to revisit, and a system that I can program instead of it attempting to program me.

Systems that don't confine us to the boundaries of pre-existing tools, but systems that allow us to be creative and flexible. I like the tiny spiral notebook and the purple gel pen, because I know it's okay to scribble things off - at least there's still a sparkle.


  1. https://jzhao.xyz/posts/the-fools-who-dream/
  2. https://coda.io/@spencer/bulletin-extension

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