The Beauty of To-Do Lists

One Friday afternoon in the summer holidays a friend asked me if I was free to meet for a coffee and a catch up. This worked out very well for me, as I was heading into town to take Freddie for his swimming lesson.

My friend, like all my close friends, understands that wherever I go Freddie usually has to come along too; she left the choice of venue to me for that reason.

My friend also understands me very well, too.

We were already sitting at a table in the coffee shop when I realised that, in my flustered preoccupation with getting us out of the door on time complete with swimming kit, money and change for the locker, I had forgotten to pick up Freddie’s magazine and pens.

My friend reached into her bag. ‘I got these for him, is that ok?’ she said, pulling out a little notebook and a packet of small pencils. See what I mean – she obviously knows me very well!

Freddie doodled happily while we chatted, then, after a while he said: ‘Mummy, write now and next.’ A few questions revealed that what he apparently wanted me to do was write down all the things we had to do that afternoon, in the order that we had to do them.

So I broke the required sequence of events down into small steps and wrote each step on a separate line.

It went something like this:

Finish our drinks

Leave the coffee shop

Walk to the swimming pool

Get changed

Swim with Sam (his swimming instructor)

Get changed

Walk home

He seemed quite happy with the list, and when we finished our drinks and started to pack up our things, he put a tick on that line.

We said goodbye to our friend, put another tick on the list and headed off to the pool, keeping the notebook and one pencil handy so we could tick each thing off as we did it.

Freddie struggles with the transition from one activity to another, and with routines that require him to complete a series of different tasks one after another in quick succession. At the same time, though, he loves routines because they are predictable and help him make sense of things.

He is a lot less anxious, and therefore less likely to be difficult or uncooperative, if he knows what will happen ‘now and next’. For this reason we do have a number of nicely printed and laminated visual schedules around the house.

A lot of parents, I know, produce fantastic visual resources of their own; but as a family we do not seem capable of owning a printer for more than a couple of weeks without breaking it beyond repair (or without someone becoming apoplectic at the cost of ink cartridges every time we use it), so most of our schedules were made for us by the LD nurse from CAMHS.

They are fine as far as they go, but they do not cover every eventuality, just the basics like the morning and evening routines. Because they are aimed at encouraging predictability and consistency, pre-made schedules can be inflexible

Sometimes in life changes have to happen, however much we try to keep things the same.

For the time being our ad-hoc, slightly Heath Robinson handwritten ‘To Do’ lists are suiting us very well.

They allow Freddie to ‘see’ what will happen ‘now and next’, but they are flexible enough to allow for change – both day-to-day (say, if we have an appointment) or even hour-to-hour (I suddenly find I have no choice but to run an errand on the way home from school).

The tick box on each line makes it as interactive as the pre-made ones, which have Velcro-backed pictures that are moved from one part of the chart to another as the task is completed.

I only list a few things at a time, so that Freddie doesn’t get overwhelmed.

We write the list together, talking about what needs to go on it. I have to be very precise in what I write, though, and it all has to fit on one line – Freddie is a stickler about things being ‘just so’.

This particular notebook has a picture of a spaceship in the bottom corner of each page, so we drew an alien in the ship and a speech bubble all around the page, so it’s almost like a game of ‘Simon Says’, only Simon is an alien who just happens to speak English …

No doubt there is an app that will do all this, but my phone is so outdated that it’s unlikely to be able to run it – and being a one-income family, new phones are pretty low on the priority list. This little notebook will fit in a bag or pocket, though, and it never runs out of battery. It also doesn’t break if Freddie throws it on the floor.

Come to think of it, compiling lists like this is something Freddie’s dad has done all his life – certainly for as long as I’ve known him, anyway.

Perhaps it’s a family tradition; one that I, a much more chaotic, spur-of-the-moment person, is only just discovering the beauty of.

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