Your New Life Beyond the To-Do List

As one who lives by a list, I have come to appreciate the satisfaction of a neat column of check marks at the end of a day, the faithful reminder to pray or to do or to go, and the convenience of a resource close at hand:
“Didn’t we buy slippers for her last Christmas?”
“Yes, I think so, but let me check the list . . . “

List making is a utilitarian practice that keeps me (mostly) on the rails. However, in Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hearts, Marilyn McEntyre has elevated list writing to a creative endeavor, a writing exercise that is partly spiritual formation, partly imaginative play, and partly a recording of the music of one’s own soul. Putting the pen to paper or the fingers to the keyboard, the list maker asks questions, poses possibilities, and frames her desires.

In Word by Word, McEntyre chose fifteen words and challenged readers to discover them anew as “little fountains of grace.” In Make a List, she argues for the life-changing benefits of gathering our words into lists that inspire and challenge.

A List Is a Beginning

When McEntyre began making a list entitled “What Love Looks Like,” she found that the practice opened  her understanding of the monumental definition of love found in I Corinthians 13:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”

She remembered her grandfather reading to her and her husband brewing coffee.
She pictured a volunteer chopping carrots in a soup kitchen.
Making a list is the beginning of a wider understanding of an idea that may have become tired or hackneyed, so obvious that you have stopped “seeing” it.

A Mental Exercise Turned Outward

Throughout the book, there are “Lists to Try,” a concept I appreciate, for perhaps every list would not be meaningful to every list maker, but it’s okay to try–in the same way we might try the New York Times crossword puzzle or try juggling three tennis balls in the living room.

A list can solidify a nagging sense of unrest into a concrete “diagnosis.”

  • What are my concerns in this season?
  • What can I let go of?
  • What am I afraid of?

A list of possibilities is the first step toward meaningful change.

Disturbing the Smooth Surface of the Obvious

For six years I have been maintaining a gratitude list, pondering and then scribbling three gifts each day into a small journal. I’m pleased to note that the practice has changed the way I look at the world, but later this year, after I have recorded my 7,000th gift, I want to let that practice rest for a time so I can “try” some new lists. Maybe I will argue with myself in list form or begin compiling a collection of reasons why my faith matters to me. It may be that I will make a case for continuing some of the things I am already doing while at the same time listing some things I want to try.

When a do-list becomes a collection of intentions and hopes, the world becomes larger and the heart opens wider. In a busy life in which action so often precedes thought, the practice of making a list rearranges what we think we know and invites us into a life beyond the obvious. 

Many thanks to William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to If you should decide to purchase Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hearts or Word by Word: A Daily Spiritual Practice, simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Trusting for Grace to Live Beyond the To-Do List,

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