What I Learned About To-Do Lists from My Eight-Year-Old Son

This is a guest post by Barry Hill, Jr., a storyteller, blogger, speaker, and barista. You can read more on blog, The Ordained Barista and follow him on Facebook and Twitter. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

I love to-do lists. Are you a to-do list person? Not sure? Take this one question quiz to find out if you might be an official to-do list person.

To-Do List -Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/SparkleArt, Image #5092097

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/SparkleArt

Question: Have you ever completed a task that wasn’t on your to-do list, and then added it on to your to-do list, after you completed the task, just so you could enjoy the twisted satisfaction of crossing that task off of your to-do list?

If you have, then you, my friend, are officially a to-do list person. Welcome to the club.

The major challenge I have with my to-do lists, like many people, is that I have more tasks to do on them then any ten people could possibly finish in a week. Sound familiar? Because we live such frenetic lives, we can quickly become mired in the tyranny of the urgent, and prioritizing my tasks for the week becomes paramount if I am going to move closer to my goals.

One of the questions I like to ask myself, in order to determine what tasks get assigned a higher priority, is the following,

“What tasks on this to-do list should, or can only, be accomplished by me?”

We can all think of tasks in our area of responsibilities, for many reasons, that are best done personally, and asking the question, “What tasks can only be accomplished by me?” is an especially important question to consider when we are organizing the tasks and responsibilities of our professional and personal lives.

Last summer my wife, Rachel, found this to-do list that my then eight-year-old son, Harrison, had in his room, and it really made me re-think the types of tasks that are on my to-do lists. Take a look.

Harrison’s To-Do List

In case you can’t read my son’s writing let me go over the list:

  1. Bionicles (this is a toy made by Lego)
  2. Go to Joshua’s (his friend)
  3. Legos (Do you remember when Legos were on your to-do list?)
  4. Nap (I wish!)
  5. Go-Go’s (This is a toy not the 80s band)
  6. Computer (I was glad to see that #6 and #7 were left incomplete.)
  7. T.V.
  8. Play with Dad

Even though Harrison had a hectic summer schedule, which consisted of playing with friends, building Legos, and recreational-sleep he still put “play with Dad” as an important task to be completed.

Honestly, this to-do list got me more than a little choked up. At times I can be more focused about writing down work related tasks than I can be about the things that matter the most, like my family and important relationships. It made me think about the fact that I spend a crazy amount of time being strategic and intentional with my job, and I want to remember to apply that same intentionality to my relationships as well.

I am great about creating and tackling lists that need to happen to lead a productive work day, but I am less intentional about the fact that:

  • I am the only father my children have.
  • I am the only husband that my wife has, and I am called to be her partner, champion, and lover.
  • No one is going to run three miles for my heart or loose fifteen pounds on my behalf.
  • If I don’t spend regular time with God I will have a harder time recognizing his voice in my life. (John 10)

Like many people, I am much more comfortable asking the question what is there “to-do” and a lot less focused on what/who I am called “to-be.”

So, in order to be more intentional with developing habits that remind me that I am not simply a collection of my accomplishments and my to-do’s, I have started thinking about not only my to-do list but my to-be list.

What is a to-be list? It is simply a list of the time and tasks that I need to invest in, so that I can move towards being the person God has called me to be.

Here are a few examples of my “to-be” categories with one task on each list.

In order “to-be” a caring father I will:

  • Find time each week to spend with each of my children, one-on-one, doing something they love.

In order “to-be” a loving husband I will:

  • Make sure I tell Rachel every day how much I love her, and give her specific example of how much I appreciate what she does for our family.

In order “to-be” the Barry God has created me to be I will:

  • Exercise at least three times a week for thirty minutes.

In order “to be” a child of God I will:

  • Spend time listening to God’s voice, every morning, for at least twenty minutes through prayer and the reading of scripture.

You see, I get so focused about meetings and tasks that sometimes I forget to prioritize the things in life that most need to be accomplished, and that can ONLY can be done by me—like my relationships with my friends and family.

Let me encourage you that I am not writing this because I have all the answers figured out, but because I have been challenged by these things more than I would like to admit, and need helpful tools, and people, to keep me accountable. It took the to-do list of my eight-year-old son to remind me what is important in life.

As an exercise, I encourage you to take a few minutes today and write down a few “to-be” categories and add one task to each category.

Question: How could a to-be list help re-frame the list of things you feel compelled to do? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Dawn Wilson

    I was so glad to read this post. I have told people for years that life is not about “doing,” but rather about “being,” and you have captured the essence of that truth. I sometimes ask people to make a to-do list. After they complete that, I ask them to make a second list of the choices they can make that have nothing to do with their to-do list, but everything to do with their calling and priorities. (Sometimes those two lists don’t match up at all.)

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

      What a great exercise! In what capacity, if I might ask, do you ask people to do this exercise? It’s awesome!

    • Jim Martin

      Dawn, what a useful exercise!  Thanks for including in your comment.

  • http://talesofwork.com/ kimanzi constable

    Great post Barry. To do list lay things out more clearly, helps you see the big picture. They also help you be a little more organized.

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

      Thank you! There is no doubt that they can give us clarity and direction, but they can also give us so much of those things that they can blind us too!

      Kimanzi, Thanks for the great comment and taking the time to join in the conversation—I really appreciate it!

  • Jim Martin

    Barry, this is an outstanding post!  I love what you said regarding the t0-be list.  Very good!

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

       Thanks, Jim!

  • Bellamarshall

    Hey, when I read that first, I read it as “Pray with Dad.” Now that was impressive!

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

      I totally thought that too, when I first read it! We pray together every night and I really thought that’s what it was—But he insisted it was play. He’s more of a player than a prayer. But, I’m OK with either one!

  • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

    Yes, I DO add completed items to my to-do list at the end of the day. It’s crazy, but I love it! It gives me a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, and energizes me for the next day’s tasks. Your emphasis on to-be lists was inspiring, Barry. I can get so focused on immediate tasks that I forget the parts of daily life I really want to invest in. Thanks.

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

      Thanks for your kind words! Like I have told others, I thought I was the only one who did that for so many years! Thanks again for your great comments!

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  • Ejg Rea

    Barry, this is the best blog post I have read recently.  The me I want to be…um?  I have been thinking about this alot lately because of getting married soon.  I am also one to write down everything that needs to get done for work and to advance myself; but this post has made me reavaluate what my list should look like entirely. maybe my 1′s should be 10′s and my 10′s should be 1′s?  I am going to switch things up on Monday.  I’ll spend my weekend organizing my to-do-list.

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill


      First, congrats on your engagement and upcoming marriage. That is awesome! You are in-store for an amazing journey! I hope as you think through your to-do/to be that you live with intentionality, and continue seeking after the purpose you have been created with!
      Ejg—thanks for your great comments and kind words!

  • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

    Great post, Barry!  Asking ourselves who we want to be, before asking what we want to do, gives tremendous clarity and focus when it comes time to determine our to-do list.  You helped many people today.  The Ordained Barista is an awesome storyteller!  

    How’s your book coming?

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

      John—my friend!
      Thanks so much for the Kind words and the great feedback! The book is moving along nicely—thanks for asking! I need to get you on the books at VPC soon! I love how you used the word clarity in your comment! Clarity is/can be a tricky thing, isn’t it? sometimes when we think we have clarity we really don’t. I love that word! Clarity, i think, is something that doesn’t just come to you, but that you have to practice. Not work at—like forcing yourself to have clarity, but to practice clarity. Conditions change. Markets shift, nothing ever stays the same —aside from God, and clarity becomes something that you need to hone your ability—practice! I was going to write a post on clarity next week sometime! You just triggered a response—thanks, John. We need to get together soon!

      • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

        Hey Barry,
        Great thoughts on clarity! I’m looking forward to that post!

        Let’s do get together soon. We’ll be speaking at National Community Church’s Mother’s Day weekend services. We’re going to try to make it a long weekend in DC, so maybe we can work something out then. I’d love for you to meet the family!

  • Mary F. Allen

    Once when I worked full time and had  two babies at home I actually wrote down “brush my teeth” so that I could have one thing crossed off my list.   I love the to be list versus the to do list. That’s the way to live life purposefully.

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

       Hahahaha! Mary, I love that! I laughed out loud at “brush my teeth.”

      You got what I was saying 100% Intentionality is the key, right! I just want to make sure I am not walking through life with blinders on, and look back 30 years from now and think of what could have been! We all make mistakes, I know, but that doesn’t mean that we have to make all of them. :)

      Mary, Thanks for your great feedback and great sense of humor! Blessings on your weekend!

  • Deepak jain

    Really nice.. i keep my to-be list.. under my Dream List :)

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

      Thanks for your comment and encouragement—it really means a lot to me! I love that you have a dream list—so many of us have let our dream lists gather dust and become stale!

      Deepak—blessings to you, and I hope you have a great weekend.

  • http://www.gladstonepublishing.com/bookshelf.htm Deborah Wilson Smart

    Great article Barry!  Your insight into your son’s innocent way of living on purpose has been a blessing to me.  I will be asking that question today.  We do I have to-do to become the person God has purposed me to me.  How has He been molding and how has He been shaping me to be? I am definitely sharing this article with my family, friends and acquaintance.  And I took got a little choked up while reading your son’s list. 

    Thank you again, and God bless.

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill


      Thanks for your truly kind words and “learning” spirit. What great questions that you have written here, and I love how you are really being open to the Spirit of God. Deborah, I hope you have a blessed Easter and enjoy your time with your family!

  • Jessica Zirbes

    Wow! You’ve got me thinking…

    I’m going to read the Bible to my husband more often when he’s on the road.

    I’m going to call my loved ones more even though I don’t like talking on the phone.

    Thank you!

    • http://jeremystatton.com/ Jeremy Statton

      Great thoughts, Jessica.

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill


      These are FANTASTIC priorities! Can I ask what you mean by reading to your husband when he is on the road? Whatever it is—it sounds inspiring! Please elaborate if you are willing.

      Jessica, Thanks for your heart and great comments!

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  • http://pastorweenie.wordpress.com/ Jean

    First I am one of those who gets excited about adding the thing I just got completed to the list, so I can cross it off, and feel as though I got something done.  Check!!!  Ah that feels good.
    This post is a great reminder of what we find to be important and sometimes exhausting.  We need to have our family and God commitments listed right up there with get the report completed and make the calls and why not some play and quiet time, hey it worked in Kindergarten and that is where we learned about life (accord to Robert Folgrum anyway) .

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

      Well said! I love Folgrum, and I am glad I am not the only one who will admit to adding/crossing things off thing after they are done! I love what you said about things that are important can also be exhausting, too! Very true. 
      Jean, thanks again for taking the time to leave a thoughtful comment!

  • http://www.volunteerfringe.com/ Marney Mcnall

    I absolutely love this post. And yes….I have to admit; I do write things down on my list after I’ve completed them. Glad there are others like me out there.

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

      Thank you so much for your kind words and becoming a proud member of the club! I hope you have a great weekend!

  • http://melissaaoconnor.wordpress.com/ Melissa O’Connor

    First, that list is too cute! Secondly, I think this post is a good lesson. No matter how many things we have to do in our lives, it is important to remember ourselves and those around us. I often include such things in my to-do lists and it really is an effective way to make sure that you make time for the important things. 

  • Jonvh

    Great post.  I’ve been working on figuring out what is important in my life and this post is definitely along those lines.  I feel pretty convicted after reading this.  Thanks again.

  • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

    Good thoughts, Barry. I appreciate the “to-be” reminder and the practical application of that wisdom. Right now, on the Saturday night before Resurrection Day, I think I’d like to be rested and ready for worship in the morning so I better start unplugging from the virtual world and prepare for an early bed time. Best to you and yours.

  • http://www.theisleofman.net/ Kevin Haggerty

    This is very convicting. I make to-do lists all the time. Not one of those lists has involved spending time with my wife. I got so wrapped up in my writing and my dreams that I’m guilty of putting my family on the backburner. Thanks for the reminder, Michael!

  • Thetradesman2003

    Great post, very inspirational! Too often my kids ask if I will play with them, and I seem to busy at the moment. Time goes by so fast, I need to slow down before I miss it all.
    Thanks for sharing,

  • http://www.momentsofgracelotr.com/ Anne Marie

    I love the idea of a ‘to be’ list instead of a ‘to do’ one. That’s one smart kid to be focused on what is important to him and you are one smart dad to soak up his wisdom. I am going to have to start this type of list myself. Thank you – both of you! :)

    God bless, Anne Marie :)

  • http://colebradburn.com/ Cole Bradburn

    I just two weeks ago began a to-be list due to advice from a mentor.  It has been quite helpful in not only getting those crucial things I truly care about done (time with God and time with family), it also reframes my focus for the day (as one of my “to-be’s” is always to show up grateful).  

    I have also been doing what my mentor calls Qualitative Statistics, essentially a post-mortem on how well I am living congruently.  I have been tracking Physical Energy, Emotional Vitality, and Future Outlook.  

    Thanks for your work here Barry.

  • Josh

    Having a to-do list is a great way to determine tasks and improve productivity. I’ve been also using a to-do list especially at work. Before I start I list my entire tasks at work, I use it a long with a tool that helps me track time. Using this tool it helps me limit wasted time and finish tasks on time. The key that I can keep myself productive especially at work is discipline. At the end of the day I feel great that I was able to finish tasks on time. Here is a review of the tool that I use at work. http://reorg.co/timedoctor-review-2012-04/ 

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  • http://candelierious.blogspot.com Lis

    Had this is my “to read” folder and so glad I finally got to it.  This was one of the best written blog posts I have ever read.  I just shared it on Facebook and commented on that post that I, too, spent many years at a job where I was more intentional about the things I need to do for “it” than my personal relationships.  What an excellent concept about being more focused on what we are called “to be” as opposed to what we need “to do.”  Such a great reminder.

  • Professorjoe42

    I am even guilty of putting things on my to do list that I know I’m going to do anyway (i.e wake up, get dressed, eat) only to have the joy of checking them off the list.

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  • Retsel666

    Thanks for this great reminder, now I’d realized why i got off tracked from finishing all of the items on my list; I’d stopped reminding my self of my role for  those tasks.

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  • CoachSherrill

    I love this, in so many ways.  The wisdom of the 8 year old’s view of life, and what is important to accomplish (and probably before many “shoulds” get put on that list).  The reminder that I am the only one that can do those most important life-long “projects” like being the mom that my son most needs, yet where are the requisite tasks for each project on my list?  This is getting bookmarked as a favorite, for sure.

  • http://twitter.com/Nathan_Roten Nathan Roten

    What a great reminder to put God and family back at the top of the priority list.  Thanks for sharing!

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  • Ameena

    As I read your son’s list of stuff to do, I am reminded that the true value of a list is not just to cross of the items and base our worth on the activity. The lasting significance is to have our list based on the outcomes we want the the purpose of those wants. Looks like his list is based on a set of core principles rather than the “doing.” Reminds us to keep things a wee more simple, huh?

  • Chic Hottie

    I like the to-do-list cause it lets people know that it don’t hurt to keep track of things you want to accomplish.

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  • Igniteinspireimpact

    Love it!!!  I am a to-do list junkie lol and it helps me get so much accomplished and I have a life plan that shares the things i strive to be but MERGING them together was never a thought.  Thank you…  I am inspired!

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

      Glad you liked it!

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  • http://www.catheepoulsen.com/ Cathee Poulsen

    As an inveterate list maker I’ve read just about every book out there and practiced every style of list making. Never in all the years have I come across a suggestion of naming a category a “to be” list. I love it. I have a to be list, I just never called it that. It’s so much more focused a title. Thank you so much for this post.