The Humble List

April 14, 2008 at 3:46 pm 1 comment

 A brief history of lists 

List-making has been suggested as one of the foundational activities of advanced human society.  The first written records are lists used to keep accounts in Mesopotamia around 4000 BCE.  Lists are a practical tool for coordinating activity distributed in time and space, for organizing work, and for the division of labor.  Empires are controlled at a distance with this simplest of tools.



Why do we use lists?

Lists are a basic way of ordering ideas.  They condense complex information into a simple and familiar (comforting?) form.  Lists help emphasize and clarify key points and make for easier reading than walls of words.  They help us get organized and save time.  They can be helpful, not only because they help us remember things, but because they allow us to forget them.  We use lists to make sense of things, and when we create a list, the act of writing and the mental effort of organization help us to think through the plans to be made.

A ‘how to make a better list’ list

  1. Use lists to get everything out of your head. 
  2. Organize your list.  The most basic forms of organization are by location, alphabet, time, category, and hierarchy.  Other complex forms of organization must be clear and consistent.   

  3. Don’t include ‘miscellaneous’ headings; items worthy of inclusion in the list can be sorted by some criteria.
  4. Use numbered lists.  People have a strong attraction to numbered lists. ‘Top ten’ lists are somewhat artificial, while lists shorter than five may not contain enough information.   Seven might be the magic number.   

  5.  For to-do lists, detail Next Actions using specific actions verbs.  Instead of ‘clean the garage,’ break projects down into smaller, bite size tasks like ‘sweep the floor.’   

  6.  Review your to-do list and keep it current to ensure that you are on task, and to squelch that anxiety-producing little voice in your head saying ‘did I remember to …?’   

  7.  Keep your list short so that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Resources and background reading

History of lists

  • Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star

Online list tools 

Online articles about lists 

Books that discuss lists 


Entry filed under: feed my pet brain, PIM, PKM.

Net Safety Lessons Some gristle from Print is Dead, Gomez

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