Other people's to-do lists can be endlessly fascinating – but pinpointing exactly why isn't always easy, admits Sasha Cagen, an American writer who has spent the past nine years collecting hand-written "notes to self" from hundreds of strangers.
Yet, just a few minutes browsing through those lists on the blog Cagen has dedicated to her pursuit goes some way to providing the answer. "Get car headlamp fixed, mop hall, call cat psychic," reads one. In another, a trainee psychotherapist bullet-points some fears about her impending career that, intriguingly, include "I hate having to think about my clients in relation to my clothes and hair," while the classic "Girls I've kissed" list (complete with names, descriptions, nationalities and the year the kissing took place) is reassuring in its familiarity – who hasn't done the same?
The to-do list, says Cagen, is as tantalising as "the guilty pleasure of looking in someone's medicine cabinet, refrigerator, or iPod. It's everyday voyeurism, but it's also therapeutic. We all wonder, 'Am I normal? Am I the only one who doesn't have it all figured out?' When we see other people's polished exteriors, it feels as though they have some secret we don't. When we look at other people's lists, we see that functional adulthood doesn't come naturally to everyone else either."
Cagen, a San Franciscan and also the creator of cult singles' "manifesto" Quirkyalone, a book and online community, began her voyeuristic voyage in 1999, when she was 26 and sick of her first job. "I decided to start a magazine about tormented twentysomethings – and thirty-, forty- and fiftysomethings who still felt like tormented twentysomethings – and how they pulled themselves together to become adults and get a job, a mate, a sense of purpose, a clue." The lists were her starting point, and after placing a local ad asking for people to post their lists to her, she "had a hunch" she was on to something.
"I collected thousands, from 'Baby names' to the 'Santa list', 'To do before I die', 'My perfect mate', 'Places to see', 'Books to read', 'Things I like and hate about my lover'. It felt as though I was getting insider information on how other people managed their lives. Lifelong hopes and daily tasks mix together, and 'Organise sock drawer' is on a par with 'Get teaching credential', which is sometimes how life feels."
Cagen has now published a book of these lists, picking the best from her blog. Published here are some of her favourites.
'To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate', by Sasha Cagen (£8.42, Simon & Schuster Export) is out now. To see more lists, visit todolistblog.blogspot.com