What Did Johnny Cash Write in His To-Do List?

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: Johnny Cash’s to-do list.

I love lists in every form, whether by me or by other people. I was crushed to realize that I’d missed the Morgan Library’s recent exhibition, Lists: To-dos, illustrated inventories, collected thought and other artists’ enumerations. I really wanted to see that.

I was enchanted to see Phil Patton’s piece in the New York Times on Our Longing for Lists. The piece was illustrated with the image of Johnny Cash’s to-do list (which, by the way, reportedly sold at auction in December 2010 for $6,250).

Here’s the list. On a sheet printed with the words, “Things To Do Today!” Johnny Cash wrote:

Not smoke

Kiss June

Not kiss anyone else




Not eat too much


Go see Mama

Practice piano

In the section marked NOTES at the bottom, he wrote

Not write notes

I was gratified to see that Johnny Cash follows one of my Secrets of Adulthood: Every to-do list should include a few items that can be accomplished in the next five minutes. Important for morale. And even Johnny Cash had to practice piano.

It was interesting to see that “Worry” was on the list. Most people try not to worry; I’d be very curious to learn why Johnny Cash wanted to worry, and what he intended to worry about. Or maybe he was thinking “Not eat too much” and “Not worry,” and just wrote it down that way.

How about you? Do you find to-do lists helpful? Do you keep them on paper or 0n a device? I still use paper.


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  • emd04

    To do lists are vital to my life! I live by myself, so if something’s going to get done, I have to do it, and with all the acitivities/committees I’m involved with, a list is absolutely essential. I keep a long term one on my iPhone–things I need to do over the long haul–but I always have pen and paper with me to write down reminders. I have a daily work “to do” list, as well as a home “to do” list. Scratching things off is one of my great pleasures in life!

    • Pam

      I agree scratching things off is great pleasure. I don’t use DAILY to do lists anymore, but changed to WEEKLY to do lists and prepare them every Sunday. It helped me to see the big picture and sturcture my week so I can get things done. I noticed that I had one thing as a carry over for three weeks and that made me just sit down and just DO IT to get it off my list. Of all things it was sewing a button on a blouse.

  • I love lists too!!! In fact, I’m much more likely to read something if the headline includes a reference to a certain number of tips. As to making my own “to do” lists, my new habit at work is to create action items on sticky notes, then as I accomplish the task, I get to put the sticky note in my planner. It’s like a sticker reward and is even more satisfying than crossing out a “to do” item.

  • Carrie

    I think it’s hilarious that numbers 6 & 7 pre-date Michael Pollen’s mantra!

  • kim dalmaijer

    I use lists to attempt to go about completing tasks in an organized way, but sometimes lists turn into an ugly monster of things I have failed to get done! This usually only happens when I’m stressed out to begin with. However, I try not to write lists when I’m stressed since they can turn into highly detailed and garbled messages rather than be helpful. A friend of mine was once making a huge transition and she showed me her calendar that was so crammed full of things to do that she could not fit in one more little thing on it. When I am not motivated to complete tasks and I’m not so stressed, I write a list on a lined piece of paper in big writing and tape it to the wall. As I get things done, I cross them off. This is so satisfying to see the list dwindle and disappear! Today’s list: do laundry, read, play with daughter.

  • Amy Putkonen

    Hmmm. I think that he said “worry” because he could cross it off after he had done it. That’s what I would do. Makes it easier to banish.

    • gretchenrubin


  • Jan Dietz

    I also love lists. I have an app on my iPod Touch where I keep a bunch of lists. I have short term To Do lists, long term To Do lists, gift ideas for myself and others, a grocery list, a list of the scrapbooks I want to complete, etc. The best part about documenting my lists is that it gets them out of my head so I can relax. It also helps me prioritize. My favorite list right now is books to read. Next up is Happier at Home, of course!

  • Seriously Sassy Mama

    I love this. I love how he wrote to kiss his wife. I love Johnny Cash!

  • Courtney

    Yes, I agree with Amy – I think he perhaps gave himself permission to worry about something for a set period of time – and if he started to worry while doing something else, he could say “I’ve already done that today” and stop!

  • I love lists! I make lists for lists, but I also don’t stress over not getting things done. Some lists are meant to be ongoing but it’s still gratifying to get something you’ve been wanting to do for awhile. I do enjoy Johnny Cash’s list!

  • EvelynKrieger

    So hold on to your lists, Gretchen. You never know what they might fetch years down the road! Got your book in the mail today. Feeling happier already.

    • gretchenrubin

      Happy reading!

  • I love how he slipped “practice piano” into the bottom of a list of easy stuff. I do that with my writing to make it seem less intimidating. Well, I just won at peeing and drinking coffee. This writing stuff should be a piece of cake. It’s all about those tiny wins.

  • Ann

    First time I laughed in weeks, thank you :D!

  • I love lists! They absolutely have to be written down with pen and paper, though. Much more satisfying to cross off. The only time I use something electronic is if I have to add something up…
    I’ve been very happy this week because I’ve actually managed to cross off all the things on my work lists every day so far. It’s the art of only listing what you can actually achieve!

  • Though a bit tongue-in-cheek, Johnny’s list demonstrates a perfection in its simplicity. Most to-do lists fail when people overwhelm themselves with lists they’ll never realistically achieve. I think your list each day should set you up for success, with several major tasks crossed off.

  • Maybe he said “worry” because he felt like worrying was one way to stop him overeating. If he worried about his weight then that would be a great demotivator from eating too much.

    Demotivators are nowhere near as effective as motivators though as we know. He would have been better writing “keep visualising myself as slim and attractive, eating just the right amount of food” but that wouldn’t have fitted in with the style of his list!

  • peninith1

    Johnny Cash is one of my great heroes–certainly he succeeded well with something not written down on his list: “don’t get big-headed”. Anyone who has experienced hard times, suffering and loss, self-created disasters side by side with dazzling successes, and still emerged with faith and compassion intact, and a great love in life has lots to say to me. His list tells me to ‘show your love,’ ‘keep it simple’ and ‘watch out for temptation.’ Thanks for posting this!

  • Stephanie

    I adore to-do lists, although I often don’t refer back to them immediately! I tend to write lists before I go to bed – inclusive of both mundane, easy tasks I want to complete, and bigger life goals and directives. I often find the lists again a month or two later and am amazed at how many of the items I’ve done or set in motion to do, just after the simple act of getting them on paper (and then leaving the paper somewhere – my desk, the living room, etc. !). Yesterday I found a two-page such list that I made in July, and pretty much everything but two items I had done, and the two items were longer-term items that I’ve done something towards…I think the act of writing down is powerful. My desk at work is also littered with both short and long lists on sticky notes, foolscap – anything I can find when the inspiration strikes.

  • Kelrbd

    I love his list! About the worry on the list…. A well-proven strategy to reduce anxiety is for someone to schedule a daily “worry time.” If a worry comes up outside of this time, the idea is to put the worry aside until the 10-15 minutes that you have scheduled to worry (and you have to worry the whole time during your scheduled worry time!). Gaining more control over WHEN you worry can really help reduce the frequency of worries that aren’t helpful.

  • Wende Garrison

    Are you impressed that Johnny Cash was following your resolution to “kiss more, hug more, touch more”? 🙂

    • gretchenrubin


      Also especially love that “Practice piano” was there.