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I recently read somewhere that the human brain can actively retain only four items at one time. It seems that more than four causes debilitating crowding as brain cells jockey for space. Inevitably, some thoughts are simply pushed out and away.

This means that if we want the important things to stay with us and receive the proper attention, we must limit our thoughts and prioritize. I found that comforting… a satisfactory explanation of why I forget so many things so often. Obviously, I simply have too many things to remember at any given time.


Unfortunately, four memory spaces are not sufficient. On any given day there are countless things to remember in the morning, plus items that can only be attended to in the afternoon, plus evening errands and chores. And on special occasions, the number of Things to Do increases exponentially. I have, however, a fool-proof method of dealing with the problem. It’s called Lists.

A list can contain not four, not fourteen, but even forty or more items all at one time (although, I’d suggest you try and limit yourself if you want to keep your sanity). Furthermore, lists are quiet. They don’t beep, click or blink. They just sit and wait patiently for you to notice them. They are pliable. If you ignore an item or change the order of things, they won’t make a peep, even if you neglected to do something vital. (Just remember… you will be held responsible for all damage and unsatisfactory results.)

Most gratifying, I’ve found that when items sit on my list long enough, they tend to shrivel up and fall off, proving that they weren’t all that important in the first place. Anything that’s really relevant stays put. As time goes on, as-yet-undone items are copied from list to list, sometimes advancing to the top, sometimes slipping down a bit, until they are either attended to or slide off completely and disappear.

At the moment of this writing, I am engrossed in the making of several lists: Laundry, Deadlines, Babysitting, Dentist & Other Medical Miscellanea and appointments while my husband is eagerly awaiting supper and three grandkids just called to say they are coming for a snack. It’s enough to overwhelm and paralyze even the greatest and most active of minds. But not mine. I remain calm.

Four sheets of paper are spread out before me as I neatly inscribe each item on the proper sheet, confident that nothing will get lost. I am filled with a feeling of great power and control. (Warning: Unfortunately, this often turns out to be a delusion.)

Male readers will probably think I am making a big deal out of nothing, but any female will immediately recognize a universal phenomenon. People wake up in the morning with great hopes and plans for the New Day. They expect everything to fall into place. But if they have not done their homework beforehand, if they have not thought, listed, worried and arranged, they are in line for a mighty disappointment. A neat list is as good as an hour of professional advice for keeping life on firm footing. It’s cheaper too. A lack of organization usually comes with a price – anger, frustration, pressure and other unwholesome things.

Sometimes my lists are so weighty that I divide them up by category. By Time – Today, Immediately, Sometime This Week, Next Week, Next Month, or, as we so often say in Israel, acharei hachagim… after the holidays are over. By Subject Matter – Iron, Shop, Phone Calls, Bills, E-Mail). There are Urgency Lists – Funerals, Doctors, Bank. And often, a topic will contain subtopics – Iron: Only the blouses for the girls’ school play this afternoon. Some topics may even appear on several lists at once.

The most important thing you need for lists is a proper notebook. Some like a spiral, where you can rip off lists as they are no longer relevant. Some prefer a permanent notebook where you can find a phone number from last week or last month which you happen to need again now. I also like a good pen which writes clearly and doesn’t smudge.

Lots of people walk around with smartphones and everything they’ll ever need or want to know is neatly tucked away in digital bytes. Heaven help them if the phone stops working or is lost. Besides, all that flickering on the screen gives me a headache. I stick with clean, old fashioned, paper.

I once tried using one of those erasable white black-boards instead of a notebook, but the lists were rubbed out by mistake once too often and vital items were lost. My grandchildren also tended to pick them up and scribble on them, totally oblivious to the fact that they were already in use.

I keep my notebook right next to the phone so I can always (usually) find it. Correction: next to the wall phone – which is my favorite kind. It doesn’t move around so I needn’t go around looking for it or for the list. I think that people who are always running around looking for their cordless or cellphones are hopelessly disorganized. And the ones who misplace their lists may be in need of emergency medical attention!

Once in a while, I flip the pages in my notebook back and look at older, expired lists and am left feeling overwhelmed at the unending amount of Things To Do. Most seem to return shortly after having been disposed of. Things like ironing, shopping, doctors, phone calls, and repair jobs get done, undone, and need to be redone in short order. Sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth it. What would happen if I just tore up my lists, did whatever was urgently vital at any given moment and then sat back and relaxed until the next emergency?

But I’m not brave enough to try it. Giving up my lists just wouldn’t work for me. Just thinking about it makes me shudder. I have finally realized that even though I may not be able to control the world, the country or the weather (not even my finances), I have not yet given up hope that I can control my day. That too is often highly doubtful but I do try. Now if you’ll excuse me, I just thought of something I have to take care of that I almost forgot. Hmm… where the heck did I leave that list?

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Yaffa Ganz is the award-winning author of over forty titles for Jewish kids, three books on contemporary Jewish living, and “Wheat, Wine & Honey – Poetry by Yaffa Ganz” (available on Amazon).