Lists. They make sense.

Have you ever noticed the amount of information coming out in recent years – in books, articles, blogs, Facebook posts – that is organized as lists, or that encourages you to think or set goals through the lens of a list?  I first began to notice them when perusing the bookstore a couple of years ago for my next Moleskine notebook.  (This has become a Numad favorite for keeping track of our personal notes on work.) 

There were book titles like:

  • Listography Journal:  Your Life in Lists
  • Listful Thinking:  Using Lists to Be More Productive, Successful and Less Stressed
  • The 52 Lists Project:  A Year of Weekly Journaling Inspiration

And then the last few books I’ve read have been organized somewhat similarly.  I recently picked up The Happiness Project:  Or, Why I spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, by Gretchen Rubin.  She starts the book right off with a number of lists, like her “Twelve Commandments” for the principles of her project, and her “Secrets of Adulthood.” In fact, the entire book is organized around developing monthly resolutions from her list of “Twelve Commandments.”  (Just for fun, we’ve included her “Twelve Commandments” below.)

<I have to say, as an avid list keeper myself, I felt an immediate affinity to someone who went about tackling something as emotive and light as happiness by making a series of lists.  List-makers unite!>

Just before that I had finished The Road to Character by David Brooks, who organized his book similarly according to a list of events, contexts, or processes that have been crucial for the development of “character” in the historical figures he’s identified as possessing special traits of significance.  His organizing list includes things like self-mastery, struggle, dignity, love, self-examination, and “the big me.”

As it turns out, list-making is not just a character quirk or about the good feeling some of us get from crossing something off a list (not that this isn’t important!).  The process of making a list is also a super effective way to keep ourselves most productive and efficient through the lens of how our brains work.  David Rock explains in Your Brain at Work why this is so.

For example, did you know that your brain can really only effectively concentrate on one thing at a time?  If you’re trying to hold a number of things to be done in any given day (or year, in Gretchen Rubin’s case) in your memory, this actually reduces your brain’s ability to concentrate most effectively on any other task you are working on.  By actually making your list, you’re able to move the list from the stage of your mind (in which your brain has to expend energy to simply hold each item) to a piece of paper (or, in our case, our Moleskine notebooks or Basecamp, the handy dandy project management tool we use), which means your brain can then focus on the less taxing task of comparing the items on your list and connecting them with their relevant contexts.

Additionally, Rock explains that the list helps you simplify the concepts or projects you’re working on into more manageable components, each of which requires less mental energy to operationalize than the big picture.  This is something we rely heavily on at The Numad Group.  The way we approach project planning is really about making a big list – simplifying an overall project goal that likely has multiple priority areas and action points into a handful of categories or task areas that help our brains organize information, find contextual comparison points, and keep moving forward as efficiently as possible, especially when we so often move from one project to another multiple times a day.

So what about you?  How are you using lists to accomplish your big ideas?  We’d love to hear from you - send us a comment below to let us know.

And now for Gretchen Rubin’s organizing list of principles for her “Happiness Project:”

Twelve Commandments

Be Gretchen.

Let it go.

Act the way I feel.

Do it now.

Be polite and be fair.

Enjoy the process.

Spend out.

Identify the problem.

Lighten up.

Do what ought to be done.

No calculation.

There is only love.