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The Case Against Wish Lists

Organized people keep lists: to-do lists, shopping lists, lists of books they want to read, movies they want to watch, restaurants they want to try. Sometimes, the lists become a way of taking care of the people in our lives, like gift ideas or reminders for a spouse or co-worker. I keep lots of lists, and depending on what I’m working on at the time, I might have a dozen or so sitting around to keep track of things.

On the whole, lists are a good thing. I certainly feel better when I write things down. But a certain kind of list, that long-running, chock-full wish list of stuff you want to try or buy, can do more psychic harm than good. They’re a great way to keep track of all the cool stuff you hear about, but there’s the rub. How often do you actually pick something off your wish list? And how often do you look at your wish list and feel bad because you’ll probably never get to any of it?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept a list of books I want to read. Any time I read a good review, any time someone recommends a book or an author, any time a book makes news, I put it on my list. I’ve carried it from computer to computer in various forms, always adding to it and never deleting anything. But I’ve noticed that when I decide to buy a new book, I never refer to my list. Usually, I go to Borders or poke around on Amazon for something completely new, something I had heard about in the past few days or some classic I suddenly got the itch to read. I still look at this list when I add something to it, but none of the titles intrigue me anymore. They’re old news, an impulse that passed me by five minutes after I recorded it. Instead, the list just makes me feel shitty, staring at a pile of 300+ books that I know I’ll never read.

Whether it’s a book list, an endless Netflix queue, or a daunting itinerary of community puppet theater productions, do we need to have constant reminders of unfulfilled promises to ourselves? One could make the argument that keeping these lists ensures that you’ll only expend time and money pursuing the good stuff, the stuff worthy of being short-listed. I’d counter that if it were important enough, you already would have made a point to try it out, instead of putting it into some undefined “someday” pile. Otherwise, that list is just a constant, taunting reminder that you will never have enough time.

I suppose this is an argument for trusting your instincts too. If you’re comfortable with your tastes, you’ll be able to find the good stuff when the need arises, lists or not. If, say, a book review made a sufficient enough impression on you, even if you don’t run to the library that moment, chances are you’ll remember it later if it pops up when you’re looking for something to read. And if you don’t, so it goes. You’ll find something else.

If you have the stamina to comb through them on a regular basis to weed out all the weird stuff you put on there when you were drunk or distracted or depressed about losing your undefeated season, then maybe, just maybe, wish lists can be a good thing. Maybe you need a "Crap I just don’t need” file like Merlin’s, to save yourself from your worst impulses. And maybe you (and I) just need to change your attitude about what kind of obligation a wish list creates. If you’re comfortable chucking stuff on there and forgetting about it, then you’re no worse for the wear. But if your wish lists are making you feel crappy, it’s time to toss them and start looking for something new.

About wood.tang

wood.tang's picture


Matt Wood is a writer, former IT drone, sometime realtor, and full-time stay-at-home dad. He and his family live in Chicago.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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