Tools of the Trade: Where did I Put That List?



I don’t know anyone who doesn’t keep some kind of list, whether it’s grocery, ToDo, or “bucket” style. Entrepreneurs have become millionaires by creating methods to not just help us generate lists, but to get us addicted to the high of “checking the box” and feeling a sense of accomplishment.

What’s So Special About Lists?

I’m a slow writer. It takes me a while to figure out what I want to say and what I think. In my search for anything to help me writer faster, I am considering the tools I use and how I can use them better.

I decided to write about lists first because I sat down to my desk this week and was greeted by 9 pieces of paper; each a different size, torn from a different pad or notebook, written in different pen colors, and each requiring me to turn the paper 45 or 90 degrees to read all of the coded messages I scrawled there.

These lists, old-fashioned torn pieces of paper with messy writing, words crossed out, and left for dead at the bottom of the grocery bag, sustain me. I make them and forget them. I pile them up or leave them scattered throughout the house. I have several downstairs; two grocery lists are always going in the kitchen (organized by which store I buy what at), and one general Don’t Forget list I keep forgetting about.

Lists are like old friends reminding me of past times and they never complain when I unceremoniously toss them into the trash.

Then I have digital ToDo lists. Reminders pop up several times a day telling to take care of personal tasks. My Obsidian notetaking app blares work-related todos at me every time I open it. Still, I don’t trust myself to remember to look at the app so I have a notebook where I write the same todos. Of course, I sometimes forget to look at the notebook too.

And that, my friends, is why we make lists. Because we are forgetful creatures with so much going on in our lives and our brains that writing down a thought to remember or an action needed to be taken helps us to not only to capture the idea, but to also clear some brain space for another use.

How Our Brain Uses Lists

I learned about an older study of listmaking from a Guardian article where the researchers determined that while tasks we haven’t completed distract us, simply making a plan to get them done can free us from a great amount of anxiety. As in, “Oh phew, I wrote it in the list so now I can forget about it.”

The Zero Inbox guru, David Allen, insists that to be useful, each list item has to have enough information so we know what it means when the scrap of paper shows up in two weeks. Although, who among us isn’t confident that we won’t remember exactly what, “the green piece” means?

If you’ve been blogging for a while, you’ve probably been taught about the SEO power of “listicles” and countdowns. These are numbers-focused posts that aren’t story based and yet, they have staying power.  Beth always says that it’s the data points that stick with us and a 2013 New Yorker article makes a great argument for why this is so. The author explains that data sticks because numbers have the power to make us pay attention and remember. A list using numbers and data can make strong connections in our thoughts and imaginations.

Lists as Creative Tools?

Creative and business writers have relied on lists forever. Project managers write up goals and objectives; marketers use outlines to sketch out messages; fiction writers tinker with novel chapters and casts of characters; cooks use recipes as ordered lists of how much to put in and at what point, and many religious folks have always considered the 10 Commandments as the List of all Lists.

Lists are an organizing principle I can’t live without.

What do lists have to do with Story Mode and our missives on storytelling and creativity?

Maybe nothing. Except that like all good stories, good lists need details to be useful. You need to know exactly how many lemons are required or by what date that proposal needs to be sent.

If you know us, you know how much we like to drill into the heads of our Story Mode clients that it’s the details that make it real.

Here’s a list of why I like lists:

  1. They are easy to generate.
  2. They are easy to lose.
  3. Checking off a list item as completed fells almost as good as eating Moose Tracks ice cream.
  4. Lists are the best friend a procrastinator ever had.
  5. A list is a great thinking tool.
  6. Lists are basically outlines we create for work writing or creative writing.
  7. Good/Bad or Pros/Cons lists put it all out there when a decision needs to be made.
  8. They make handy scrap pieces of paper on which to write more lists.
  9. Lists remind you of what you were thinking about yesterday.
  10. The Top Ten List made David Letterman famous.
  11. Everyone can make a list, even a child who uses their fingers to count off items.
  12. Lists are a collection of wishes.
  13. They are like a pile of Legos just waiting to be attached together to make a windmill or a unicorn.
  14. A list can be a great surprise gift I find weeks later because I forgot I had written down those brilliant ideas.

What lists do you depend on?

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