Umberto Eco was the guy who nailed it: We like lists because we don’t want to die. There’s a bevy of psychological reasons that go more in depth, but he really nailed it, I think, though I suspect that he left off a bit. I think it should read “…because we don’t want to die irrelevant.” A list gives us a concrete handle on our small part of the chaos of infinity, giving the illusion of manageability to the never-ending stream of inputs and changes in the world around us.
If I make a list of what is on my shelf:
- Araki book
- Glass tray
- Everyday glasses
- Cleaning cloth
- iPhone tripod
…you think you probably have an idea of what it is. But really, it’s just a series of compromises, a decision to group things in a particular way. Notice I said glasses, and you knew what I meant, rather than frame and two lenses. It’s Araki book instead of 560 pages of photos between two cardboard covers inside a cardboard box. But you could go even deeper, talking about measurements, chemical compounds, placement…or I could just say I have some stuff on my shelf. That’s a list with one component – stuff – and it probably would do the job, depending on what I wanted to care about.
Lists Mean You Care
That’s the real meaning of lists – separating the things that are relevant from the things that are not. A to-do list is telling you the things that are relevant to your day; a packing list is telling you the things that are relevant to your trip; a budget is a list of things that are relevant to your finances. Do you include bathroom trips in your daily schedule? Your watch on your packing list? That candy bar you bought from the girl scout in your budget? The answer to any of those may be yes or no, and it’s entirely dependent on whether it’s relevant. For me, writing down that candy bar in my budget is relevant, because I have a tendency to spend a lot on trivialities – call it “death of thousand candy bars”. But for a wealthy friend of mine buying a case of candy bars is not remotely relevant. It would not be on his list.
Some people – notably bloggers on Medium and other places – claim that the popularity of “listicles” is the death of philosophy, culture, and good writing in general. While I agree that I am tired of 5 Totally Amazing Things You Aren’t Doing But Should to Optimize Your Best Self-type articles, I also think it’s a little selectively amnesiac. Lists aren’t new things – there’s the Eightfold Path, the Holy Trinity, the Ten Commandments, the Four Seasons, the Twelve Days of Christmas, the Three Wise Men, Twelve Angry Men, The Nine Circles of Hell, the Nine Billion Names of God, One Ring to Rule them All…we like lists, and we always have. Like many things, the internet just makes it easier to create, share, and become inundated with lists.
Like art, anyone can make a list – but that doesn’t mean it’s a good list (Senator McCarthy, I’m looking at you). What are some of the best practices for lists that can help you?
A List of Three Useful Lists
- Ubiquitous Capture: This is from David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. There’s more to it than just this, but this is where it starts: that thing you’re thinking of now? Write it down. Idea, task, whatever, get it on the One List to Rule Them All. Why? Because then you don’t sit there wasting energy either trying to remember it or castigating yourself for forgetting it.
- Most Important Things: This is a productivity tool that helps productivity. Write down, either the day before or in the morning, the three MIT’s that need to get done. Then just do them. Let nothing stand in your way, get those three things done first. Then do whatever you want – at the end of the day, even if you’ve gotten nothing else accomplished, the Most Important Things were done.
- To-Done List: This is for those of you, like me, who get to the end of the day and feel like you didn’t do anything, even though you’re also exhausted from working all day. Keeping a log of the things you did – including little things like “networked with my friend in Chicago” or “ate a healthy lunch” – helps keep workaholism at bay. Or maybe that’s just me.
The tools I’ve used for these lists vary, but include: Moleskine/Fieldnote/Baron Fig notebooks, Evernote and Any.do app, and the 5-Minute Journal habit. I’ve also tried other lists, of course, from “5-Year Planning” to my Amazon Wish List, but these three are the most useful that I’ve found.
How about you? What lists – and list-making tools – have worked, or not, for you?