illustration by meric canatan
We’ve all, at least at one point in our lives, made a to-do list. According to The New York Times, they can be ‘the origin of both our highest happiness and our dreariest dissatisfaction’. Done well, a to-do list makes work and life admin feel manageable; but done badly, it’s a glaring list of all the tasks we’ve failed to make a start on.
‘Compiling a to-do list is essentially a way to manage our stress levels and create some kind of order in a jumbled mind,’ says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. ‘When we feel like we’re not on top of things, it can cause a free-floating anxiety that can easily lead to procrastination. Listings things on a to-do list provides us with a sense of relief – it’s almost as though it’s “step one” of tackling the problem.’
To Dr Touroni, to-do lists operate as both a way of making tasks ‘manageable and achievable’ and as an ‘anxiety management strategy’ to allow us to feel more in control.
And that’s why we’re giving to-do lists the attention they deserve. For this series, Buro. will be asking our favourite women to share theirs. Whether that’s a beautifully handwritten note, or an iPhone screenshot, we’ll be bringing them to you in their most organic form.
The 38-year-old ex-barrister has carved out a multi-hyphenated career for herself as a writer, broadcaster and political commentator. She also has a diffusion collection with Sika, an ethical clothing company, and, after releasing her debut book last year, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, Afua is currently a judge for this year’s Man Booker Prize.
From reading books to meeting with her mentee, this is Afua’s deconstructed to-do list:
1. Pack for Ghana
2. Write How To Be Anti-Racist book review for The Guardian
3. Go over for filming series opener of Enslaved
4. Collect Sika outfits for shoot
5. Development meeting for Jamaica documentary
6. Phone meeting for Westminster documentary
7. Email Mentee about her next steps
8. Marking for masters students
9. Re-read Booker shortlist books
10. Comm ideas for Tuesday
‘My to-do list is an organised plan of tasks I have created,’ she says. ‘It gives me the lovely illusion that I still have some power over how to spend the time ahead. I find scrolling through devices gradually adds to my cumulative stress. There is something so satisfying about putting a piece of paper next to your laptop, going through it and crossing things off with pen.’
‘I think my love of writing came from actually writing. There is something creative about putting pen to paper and there are ever fewer opportunities to actually do that, so I make the most of the ones I have. People often give me gifts of beautiful notebooks in ankara (traditional African print) or bright leather. I guess I just have “notebook and pen lover” written all over me. I try to use those when I'm organised and, in an ideal world, my to-do list takes shape in a beautiful, blank notebook in fountain pen ink. In reality, though, it often ends up on a scrappy piece of lined paper in Biro, like this one. Needs must!’
‘Working in so many different fields – writing, academia, journalism, arts and current affairs documentaries – is a lot of work in itself, as well as the extra effort of getting into the headspace of different worlds. I couldn't do it if I wasn't genuinely enthusiastic about each of the things I'm doing. The converse is that I don't have to do anything I'm not enthusiastic about, and that is a massive bonus.’
‘I've never been happier that I am now, having freed myself from the restriction of formal careers and disciplines – I am completely open to anything where I feel I have something to offer. I've totally abandoned a 9-5 mentality. I love the fact that I don't have to commute during rush hour, I can take time off in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week; but the reverse is that when I travel, I'm usually working non-stop and at home I rarely have work-free evenings or weekends. But a lot of my work is reading or writing, which is what I enjoy doing, so I wouldn't change it.’
‘Am I organised? It depends who you ask. My mother still seems to think I have the organisational skills of an 11 year-old (I know there are some organised 11 year-olds out there, I just was not one of them). Stepping away from being employed has made me up my game – there is no one to hide behind. I do have help: I have three agents and work with so many different organisations and companies, but even managing those relationships and the tasks that come with them requires a lot of organisation. I think the biggest challenge for me is being a creative person who often needs to be off email for hours at a time to write and work on ideas, or because I have three books I need to get through that day, or because I'm travelling and filming and yet working with people who expect immediate responses and lots of desk-based communication. It's not easy, but I know it's a good problem to have.’