Podcast 82: Make a To-Do List (or a Could-Do List), Why Your Identity Matters for Your Habits–and Gift Bags.

It’s time for the next installment of  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Update: If you live near Seattle, please come to our live event! We’ll be recording an episode of the podcast live on stage at Seattle’s Town Hall on October 13, 7:30. Tickets are $25. More info and buy tickets here. Please come, bring your friends.

In episode 76, we talked about manifestos, and if you’re coming to the Seattle event, we’d love to highlight a few manifestos from listeners. So send us your manifesto for work, life, parenting, marriage, exercise, clutter-clearing — whatever! And maybe we’ll talk about it with you on stage.

Try This at Home: Make a to-do list, or a could-do list.  We talked about the Four Tendencies — whether you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel — and you want to take the Four Tendencies Quiz, it’s here.

Happiness Hack: Our listener Carolyn suggests that if you constantly run out of a certain item, just buy it whenever you have the chance. I mention the over-buyer and under-buyer distinction; you can read about it here.

Better Than Before Habit Strategy: The powerful, sometimes elusive Strategy of Identity.  I quote from Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, where novelist James Agee wrote, after he’d been told that he really needed to cut back on his drinking and smoking:

I am depressed because whether I am to live a very short time or relatively longer time depends…on whether or not I can learn to be the kind of person I am not and have always detested.

Listener Question: Kelly asks, “How do I handle my trove of gift bags?”

Gretchen’s Demerit: I didn’t check my print job until many, many pages had been printed.


Elizabeth’s Gold Star: Elizabeth gives a gold star to her long-desired breakfast nook.

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1pixHappier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #82

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  • Ann

    This week’s gift bag discussion reminded me of a favorite Happiness Hack from Peter Walsh – always buy solid color wrapping paper! I never have to worry about having the right pattern for the right occasion, and wrapped gifts can be embellished with ribbons, stickers, or Sharpies as needed. I pick up a roll every time I’m at a dollar store in either kraft, red, blue, or yellow. The same trick applies when buying gift bags!

    • gretchenrubin

      Excellent hack! Plus a way to use stickers, which is always so much fun. LOVE this.

    • LoriM

      A friend told me – always buy RED wrapping paper in non-holiday patterns. It works for every occasion!

      • gretchenrubin

        Or collect red gift bags!

    • Le Genou de Claire

      Ditto! I use butcher/brown paper (cheaper than gift wrap) and twine. Classic, classy, and I can tie various herbs/dried herbs/whatever grow in my garden for gifts to other grown ups (the endless compliments I’ve got from the receiver, truly, with minimal effort) or my son can use his crayon/stickers galore to decorate gifts for other children.

  • LoriM

    [Excited about your new app, Gretchen!!!]

    The talk of lists made me smile, as I love them. Working on starting a “bullet journal” now. A bit overwhelmed with the optional ways to do it.

    I used to freak out about remembering to write down all the things I wanted to Google. I’m a very CURIOUS person and I love looking up stuff – esp movie trivia, like what other movies did I see that actor in – etc. I’d start my to-Google list as a sub-list on my paper to-do list but often I wouldn’t get to it before the BIG list got tossed – and it was frustrating me. I finally realized – Googling trivia is NOT THAT IMPORTANT. I can “let it go.”

    If nothing else, it can be a good memory exercise for me – that has actually worked. I’ll remember I wanted to Google something, “Now what WAS it? Oh yeah!!…” If I CAN’T remember – it’s probably not that important.

    Conversely, if it IS important – it gets a prime place on the BIG to-do list, not just part of the sub-list of stuff that would be fun to know, but is NOT THAT IMPORTANT.

    • gretchenrubin


  • CC

    I culled my gift bag inventory down to just 5 of each category and donated the rest to a local charity shop who loved getting them!! With new bags always coming in I always have a bag that works. And my closet is much tidier now.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great idea. If you can’t use them, someone else surely can. I love the reusability of gift bags!

  • Cynthia

    Elizabeth doesn’t write any to-do lists!!??? What!? That is crazy! I live and die by to-do lists! I am not one who usually engages with anything online but I couldn’t resist when listening to the “Try This At Home” segment. I am constantly trying out new systems for to-do lists and note taking. As already mentioned by another commenter, bullet journaling is HUGE!! I started it about a year ago and I love it. You could seriously do an entire series about bullet journaling. (Also the creator, Ryder Carroll, would make a fantastic guest.) There are thousands of bullet journaling YouTube videos, hundreds of Instagram accounts that are dedicated to bullet journaling – it’s overwhelming and wonderful. Ryder’s system is so flexible and simple that anyone even Rebels could really benefit from it. I have changed my bullet journal style countless times but the structure/framework stays the same and it’s seriously life-changing (at least for me!). I will warn you though it’s easy to get caught up with how perfect some bullet journals online may seem but like most people, I use it as an actual tool and don’t have the wherewithal to make my bullet journal look beautiful but the people who do are amazing – they’re extremely inspiring.

    Even without bullet journaling, I have always been a serial to-do list maker and I find that it’s extremely important for me to list everything out. As a Questioner, I will often write out everything that’s in my head and then question right away what it’s important and decide on my own what to do next. It is so freeing because I often get inundated with requests and if I don’t have a prioritized to-do list, I often waste time doing things that aren’t that important to me which makes me extremely frustrated.

    I also use online tools/apps such as Evernote and Trello – actually I use both! I’m obsessed with making lists! It’s very calming and helps me feel like I’m in control. Talking about to-do lists makes me so happy and making them are easily my favorite daily happiness hack. Sometimes I only have 5 minutes to make them and some days when I’m really lucky, I could spend hours making them.

    Excuse the long comment but I LOVE to-do lists!

  • Kaitlin

    My husband and I work together and struggled for a while trying to figure out the best way to distribute work between us – for both home and the law firm. (He’s an obliger and I’m a questioner.) We started using the Asana app, which connects to both email and your phone, and it has been a game changer for us. It was initially just to keep track of work that needed to get done for the law firm, but I found it to be so helpful that I started using it for stuff around the house and even tasks related to our baby on the way. You can assign tasks to others, set deadlines, leave comments, attach documents, etc.

    As an obliger, my husband is more likely to complete a task when I add a deadline and give him all the relevant information. As a questioner, I like being able to follow up and ask for more information related to a task, and also to be able to see how work is being distributed. I still make paper to-do lists for myself, but I highly recommend the app if you are collaborating at work or have a spouse who is more likely to do a task that pops up on his phone (rather than getting reminded by you in person!).

    • gretchenrubin

      Great solutions.

  • Mimi Gregor

    I have a week-at-a-glance journal, and at the end of one week, I go over the following week, writing in chores I have to do, errands I must run, and appointments that I have. I also have a dry erase board in my kitchen, on which I write any chores that must be done the next day (chores I must do in blue, my husband has red). Items are erased as they are done. Then I write the next day’s chores on the board at the end of the day. I also have a blackboard in my mudroom for listing purchases: food, hardware, vitamins, etc. Once a week, when I’m ready to run errands, I get a piece of paper and check what stores I must visit, based on the purchases I need to make: food store, drug store, Home Depot… whatever. I list them in the order I will visit them, as I want to plot a route that takes the least amount of time and uses the least amount of fuel. Then under the stores, I list the items I need to buy in the order that I come to them in the store — backtracking takes time! All this sounds very OCD, I know, but a little planning before I leave saves A LOT of time later on. It also helps that I plan my menus for a week at a time, listing anything I must buy on the chalkboard. Going to the store for just one forgotten item uses fuel, as we don’t have any food stores close by.

    I also have a master list on my computer of all the grooming aids and cleaning products I always need to have on hand. At the beginning of each month, I do an inventory to see if I have enough to get me through the month. Anything I am low on goes onto the shopping list. This way, I only have to buy grooming aids or cleaning products from their respective stores once a month.

  • Le Genou de Claire

    I’m a bit of a Nipponophile and the concept of our belongings sacrifice themselves for our safety interests me! I don’t know if this is such thing but long ago (almost 10 years ago), before I decided to embark on moving to my-now city (Seattle — SO sad I can’t attend your live event!! I really wish I could and hope you’ll do it again in Seattle someday), I had a huge collection of Martha Stewart Living magazines that I diligently collected over the years (I love looking at the pictures, the recipes, the wishful-thinking of someday my home would look like one of those pictured). At that time, I didn’t know I was going to move, but something told me that I have to give up something in order to make a new room for something new in my life, and the magazine collection was it. So I told myself, “I’m freeing you up in order to make room for something new in my life. You’ll go to a good home and to someone who need you more” as if the magazines were a person. I gave the magazines away. Lo and behold, a few months later an opportunity showed up and I went on to a new adventure of moving to a city, and my penchant for collecting MSL magazines disappear, just like that (it does not mean I don’t desire a nice home, it just mean I don’t buy magazines as proxy of my dream).
    Not exactly animism, but I do experience how objects around us possess power, for good/bad, and more importantly, how we can wield the power onto the objects around us.

    Best of luck with the live taping in Seattle, I hope you will enjoy Seattle and can’t wait to hear the podcast!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks for the good wishes! In Happier at Home, I write a lot about possessions, and about how while they’re not alive, they definitely are a presence.

  • I love Wunderlist! Use it on my computer and my phone so I am never without my to-do list.

  • Analise Brower

    Hi Gretchen! I never used to be a list-maker — I always relied on my memory. And it worked! …for a while. I’d find myself missing an important deadline or failing to send in some kind of paperwork on time, and I’d kick myself for not writing it down.

    My husband is a huge list person, and over the 6 years we’ve been together, I’ve found myself loving a “listier” lifestyle! I’m also definitely more of a visual and kinesthetic learner, so the act of writing really works for me and helps me feel at peace with my to-dos and on top of things.

    My favorite list is our running grocery list. We keep a magnetized notepad on the fridge at all times with a pen tucked in the spiral at the top (and some post-it tabs attached to mark recipes in cookbooks, which are stored nearby). As something runs out, whoever finishes that item adds it to the list. Then, when we’re about to grocery shop, we grab the list and the flagged recipes, add those necessary ingredients, and are ready to roll. So awesome!

    • gretchenrubin


  • MaggieRose59

    I love lists. I never do a to-do list on dry erase though because I find it much more satisfying to cross things off and look at all that I accomplished during the day.
    For shopping, I made a list on my computer that is pretty much everything I normally buy. It is broken in segments like “produce” “meat” “dry goods” “baking supplies” “canned goods”. Each segment also has a couple lines under “other” for the odd ball items. It is more or less in order of my usual store but because it’s categorized it keeps it organized if I go somewhere different. I print a few at a time and one is posted on the refrigerator with a blue highlighter in a magnetic basket. When I think of something or use up something, we just highlight it on the list and it goes with me to the store. This avoids the random ordered list you get when you write things down as needed, or re-writing to get it into order. It took some time to create originally, but has saved me many hours in the ten years since. I go in and make alterations as my family needs change.

    • statmam

      Ooo – I like the idea of highlighting items on a standardized ordered grocery list. Will have to try that. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • Ellie R

    I’d like to comment as a Rebel who really couldn’t live without To-Do lists!

    I am a rebel through and through, and ever since I can remember, I have been using to-do lists for everything. I use them for one very specific reason: as a rebel, nothing boils my blood more than being reminded to do something. If I’m told to do something by someone – whether it was my mom (as a child) or my boss (in adulthood), as a rebel, I really dislike doing the task right away. I learned quickly that if I instead make a list of things I’m told I need to accomplish by a certain date or time of day, I can write them down, walk away, and (most importantly) not forget, and do it on my own time and in my own way.
    (I was probably the only kid on the planet who’d write down her “chores for the weekend” on a to-do list)
    The list provides me with a guarantee that I would get done what needed to get done without the need of the dreaded “friendly reminder”. It has been a real happiness hack my whole life.

  • Cara

    Wow! It’s like you read my mind. Having recently realised i am a rebel I’m constantly checking my behaviour and questioning if im doing things the best way. I have always kept loads of to do lists and love writing them… Following through on them has been the problem!! And so last week I have been pondering whether it would be better if I didn’t write them. And then you did a podcast on this point exactly. Thank you! I realise that as soon as I write it down … I don’t want to do it anymore. I like the two strategies you suggested and I may try a version of them but I guess it’s really about how I view the list or strategy to make it work. This stuff – it seems so simple but it’s totally blowing my mind. My doctor told me that I have to do exercise (previously I have done a lot but since I’ve been unwell I thought I should take it easy) of course since I was told to exercise I haven’t wanted to even more. But then I changed it – and realised I needed to set a big goal of my own (and not write it down!) and since then I have exercised happily every day. Amazing

  • Carlotta Bosso
  • I am rebel, who loves making To Do Lists. I like rebelling against my rebel personality!

    I think this very weird “hack” could work around the Strategy of Identity for rebels that are interested in implementing convenient habit like behaviours into their lives – doing something so very unlike themselves, that it feels like rebellion again.

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific idea!

  • Marcia

    I love lists. And today, after listening to you and reading a few posts, I created the Could Do list and moved the items I know I won’t be able to do (not urgent, not really important, although I want them to be done) from the To Do list to the new one. Just doing this has helped me to relax and create a new perspective. Let me keep this for a few days. I am a Questioner, so, I feel I have to try and see if it works before I declare this a new habit 🙂

    • Tricia Crockett

      What a great idea. That way you won’t forget, but you don’t keep seeing this sort of item on your list and potentially feeling bad about not getting to them.

  • Sarah Beaumont Hines

    I recently heard of a “Ta Da! List” of things that I’ve already done! I haven’t tried it yet, but maybe it could be similar motivation as adding an easy to cross off thing to your to do list. I think I just really like the idea of a Ta Da! List 😉

    • gretchenrubin

      Love this idea!

  • Angela Tortorici Mantero

    I have several methods of keeping track of my “to-do’s.” 1. I keep a small pad suctioned to the windshield of my car — these are things I can do when I’m out and about. 2. I leave myself messages on my home phone — these are things I can only do once I’m home. 3. I set alarms on my phone and label them with tasks — these are for things I need to do at certain times of the day, depending on where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing. This way, I can be sure things get done, but I don’t have to think about them until I know I can do them.

  • Liz Fox

    One app that I use on my iphone is called Carrot (an app with personality)

    When you do something good, it praises you (like your gold stars) but when you don’t check your list for a day or fail to complete tasks, then carrot scolds you (like your demerits). The best part is that Carrot talks to you!
    Love your podcast

  • Shannon D

    I love the to-do list topic and how Rebels handle to-do lists! I often can’t decide if I’m a rebel or an obligor because I feel I display characteristics of both. But, the jar of folded slips of to-do list items was a big clue for me that I’m a rebel. I have on multiple occasions numbered the items on my list and then rolled dice to see which item I had to do first. (I did have to come up with creative rules to make this work, like once the six was rolled I had to select and item that then had two numbers assigned to it, for example.) Seems like the rebel is the one that spends more time making the list, and then crafting how to get themselves to do the items on the list, than just doing the actual things on the list.

    • gretchenrubin

      I love hearing these unusual strategies!

  • Calista

    Wunderlist is my favorite list app by far – you can create a number of checklists and share them with others. It is most useful for packing (as you can check and uncheck items with each trip) and household errands. I got my fiance into it, and this has been immensely useful for grocery lists and other household errands. I can put something on the list, sync the app, and he has the item on his list as well. On a shared list, you can also see when someone checks off an item, so I already know what was picked up or done before we even discuss it – super helpful!

    For personal to-dos, I typically use pen and paper or the Reminders app on my phone.

  • Jessica Locke

    At Team KIT our manifesto is short and sweet – Its Be More, Do More, Give More!
    We use this as a guide in both our personal and professional lives.

  • cltb

    I often use gift bags for everyday things…books to go back to the library…family dinner leftovers I send home with my son…a stack of magazines I’ve collected for my sister…puzzles I’m donating to a nursing home. Everything is brighter with a gift bag (no tissue required).

  • Leanne Sowul

    I love making lists in all forms, but I have a suggestion for people who don’t love looking at all their tasks on one page. I read about this tactic in “The Organized Mind” by Daniel Levitin, and I use it for all my work tasks. I have 4 colored index cards that say “Today, tomorrow, this week, next week” and a stack of white index cards on my desk. Every time I add a task, I write it on an index card and slip it into the stack. Each morning I lay the cards out on my desk that I need to/can accomplish, and consciously put the rest into another category. When I’m done with a card, I just throw it out. It’s a great way of staying on top of things without feeling overwhelmed by a whole week’s worth of tasks.

  • Tracy L Hayes

    My to-do list hack for overwhelmed times (getting ready for a big trip, party, etc.). You know how sometimes it seems like Mom has ALL THE TASKS? Well, I finally realized that the only reason was that I was the only person thinking them up and no one could read my mind. DELEGATION, baby! I put each thing that needs to be done on a sticky note and post them all in the kitchen (with some kind of categorization usually). This way, Darling Husband can pick the ones he’s capable of doing, and any helpers like Grandma can figure out how to help without constantly pressuring me to make assignments (which is really hard for me).

  • Jennifer Burch

    I’m a little late to the podcast party but absolutely love it. I am savoring each episode and dread the day when I actually catch up and don’t have a stockpile of Happier in my feed! I have a tip about less than pristine gift bags. I use them instead of brown paper to wrap a parcel for mailing. They are sturdy enough paper and make it even more fun for the recipient to get something in the mail. I just print off the address in a fun (legible) font and tape it on with packing tape. Another way to get rid of those bags instead of throwing them away.

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific hack – and thanks for the kind words!

  • Nis

    I’m a Rebel, and I use to-do lists with some success. I usually keep them short; often I’ll write down 5-6 tasks I need doing and then cross off or bracket the ones that are least important/ have more time. Once I’m done with the other tasks I’ll copy the left-overs on another piece of paper.
    It works reasonably well, but I’m considering titling them “don’t do” lists from now on! That way, I’ll free myself from obligation, but also remind myself “wait, but if I don’t do X, then I’ll have to live with the consequence! which I like even less than doing it”. So I remind myself it’s a choice. It also makes it more fun XD
    My biggest problem is that I often either lose the lists or just don’t look at them after I’ve written them….
    Often, I’ll put items related to a task in conspicuous places (middle of the floor, on top of my shoes if it’s an errand) rather than writing them down. This works well for me.
    I’m so grateful for your framework, Gretchen. Long realising I have trouble meeting inner expectations, I’ve so far tried and tried using strategies helpful for Obligers — very counter productive! Now that I understand why, I hope I’ll find better strategies and be more satisfied.

  • Nis

    With the strategy of Identity, (and this might well be my Rebel tendency speaking!), once identified, I would always ask “is this true? who says I can’t be the life of the party without alcohol? who says I can’t be creative AND tidy?” Of course this wouldn’t work for all identities (say, Smoker), but probably most.
    And then I’d pair changing the habit in question with something positive that strengthens your identity. So the Italian might buy an accessory in the Italian flag colours, or start cooking/ eating more national dishes, listen to music she connects to that, etc. Of course nothing that feels forced or stereotypical, just something to feel good about and strengthen that part of yourself.