Why “List” is a Dirty Word

When I have shared my own personal system in my presentations, someone always says, “You’ve got so many LISTS!’ with a tone of voice that really translates into “How silly and stupid! There’s no way that could work for me.”

What’s wrong with lists? I understand their negative reactions. Most people haven’t had a lot of success with lists, especially the ones they’ve tried to use to “get organized.”

You are either attracted or repelled by your lists and everything on them. There is no neutral territory. When you look at any one item you will either be thinking to yourself, “Hey, when can I mark THAT off?” or “Yuck! Back away!” My educated guess is that 98 per cent of people’s responses are some version of the latter.

Why? Because 1) they’re hard work and/or 2) they’re scary and/or 3) they’re disappointing.

1) Hard work. If you know a list of calls to make is not every single call you have to make on every open loop in your life, you will feel that you still have to be remembering things that aren’t on the list. That’s low-level and hard work for your psyche, so it’s not really getting the relief from the list it is seeking. If you don’t have everything out of your head, it hardly feels worth trying to keep ANYthing out of your head. Also, most big to-do lists have things grouped together on them that cannot be done in the context you are in at the time, and a lot of repetitive re-thinking (unconstructive mental effort) is required to figure out what could be moved on in the moment vs. what can’t.

2) Scary. If a to-do on your list is not the very next physical visible action to be done, there is a gap between current reality and what you are looking at, and it can trigger a subtle but very real sense of being out of control with what to do about it every time you glance at it.

3) Disappointing. Ever had to rewrite a list of things you didn’t get done when you thought you should? People who try to work daily to-do lists usually have undone things at the end of the day that created guilt and the trouble of having to transfer them to the next day.

So, to change your relationship with “lists” to a more positive one:

1) Make them complete, so your brain gets to graduate from the job of remembering; and organize your action reminders by context (phone, computer, errands, at home, etc.) so you only need to review what you actually can do at the time.

2) Make sure every actionable item has the very next visible physical action identified along with it, so you don’t freak out about unknown territory between here and there.

3) Only put items that cannot be done any other day on your calendar, and everything else hold in “as soon as I can get to them” lists.

I suppose “love your lists” would be a little too much to ask. But how about at least good friends?

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