I know I have mentioned many times before that I am an inveterate list-maker. You might, then, be able to imagine my surprise, shock, and offended “that can’t be right!” when I clicked on a Boing Boing feed article on the science of to-do lists that declares research proves they don’t work.

I find to-do lists work great for me, maybe because I generally only make them for what I need to do that day, sometimes that weekend, rarely for the whole week. At work I don’t use to-do lists, I set tasks in my calendar with due dates and work the tasks accordingly.

But I don’t want to talk about to-do lists per se. I want to talk about TBR piles and lists. Because a TBR list is, essentially, a to-do list of books. And a TBR pile is a TBR to-do list incarnate. While I am so good at my other lists, my TBRs utterly fail me. Let me rephrase that, I utterly fail at working my TBRs. I think a good many of us do. Am I right? We are great at adding to them — the books we had to have pile up unread around us and the list(s) we keep just get longer and longer. One or two books from the pile get read and four more appear. One or two books from the list get scratched off and a dozen are added. Stop the insanity!

The Boing Boing article has a link to a Harvard Business blog article about why to-do lists don’t work so I had to click through. Even though it is not meant for TBR lists, it still struck me as having some useful information.

There are five problems with to-do lists, not all of them can be transferred to TBR lists, at least not for me, but four out of the five hit all too close to home. You know what the number one problem is? Too many things on the list. The paradox of choice comes into play and suddenly the brain short circuits from having too many things to choose from. Oh yes, I can totally relate. My eyes glaze over, I ignore the TBR pile and hide my list away and borrow a book from the library instead. I get TBR paralysis. It is too much work to choose from the abundance in front of me so I get something that I saw mentioned on a blog post recently or in a book I am reading or that just popped into my head from the deeps of memory. You see, I have discovered the only way out of TBR paralysis is to completely ignore the TBRs. But the piles and lists keep growing anyway.

Then there is the “heterogeneous priority” problem. Except in the case of my TBRs it is more like a homogeneous priority problem. Instead of having too many books with varying priority I have too many books with the same priority: I want to read them all now. Because all my books have the same priority — read now — none of them get any priority. Therefore my habit of reading at whim, picking up whatever I feel like instead of deliberately choosing something from the pile or list. I have tried various methods to create priority, you can see one of them over on my sidebar right now in the form of a “2013 Reading Plan.” See how many are crossed off? (3) Aren’t I doing great? (nope) My reading plan is just a smaller TBR to-do list fail.

It could be, in part because of a lack of context. In other words, it is just a list of titles that doesn’t help me determine priority. Why did I want to read that book in the first place? Where or from whom did I hear about it? How long has it been on the list? What is the book about? These questions are easier to answer when the list is a pile, but if the pile is large I don’t want to spend the time going through it. Sure, I love browsing my own books but when I want to start reading a new book right now I don’t want to spend a lot of time figuring out which one, I want to be reading.

All of this combined with “lack of commitment devices” means I am doomed from the start. Commitment devices lock you in to a course of action. Some books come with built in commitment like a book group read, a challenge like RIP, and group readalong, or a class assignment. Those books in my TBR piles and on my lists though, no commitment devices. There is no course of action attached to them, no plan, no read by date that prompts me to you know, actually read them. I don’t have to read them, so I don’t. I read everything else instead.

The solution to all these to-do list problems apparently is to not make a list at all. But since I am going to make a list anyway, the thing to do is to make a schedule. Eek! I know right? Schedule my reading. But you know what, years ago I had a calendar that featured a different woman writer each month and I decided at the beginning of the year that during each month I would read at least one book, two if I could, by the featured writer. The calendar usually mentioned the writer’s most well-known book so I would choose that and then, if it was short and I had time, I would get a free choice of another book by that author. And you know what? It was a great reading year. I stuck to the plan and read a bunch of new to me authors and authors I had meant to try for ages as well as a few favorites. And there was still room for plenty of other books.

No doubt my reading goal list would work a lot better if I had committed to when I would read each of the books on it. Can you tell I am about to hatch a plan? It’s too late to resurrect that list, or at least the whole list. We are in October now after all. But I am going to figure out what books I really want to read by the end of the year and then put them on my calendar. See how it goes. I am not going to figure out every book for the rest of the year, just a few priority choices like Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood and my NYRB subscription books. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for at whim choices, but there is a little bit. And if it works, then next year’s reading goals will be a new and improved list.

If it doesn’t work, then it just goes into the “it was worth a try” pile and I go back to my old profligate TBR list-making ways.

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