Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A TYRANNY OF LISTS: 6 Good Reasons to Avoid Making Lists

A short list of required attributes of the ideal man.
Good luck with that.
My wife and her sisters like to make lists. They make lists for everything. The purpose of the lists is to prevent them from forgetting anything important. While lists are indeed good for just this thing, there are some important side effects of lists that ought to be considered before one embarks on a list-keeping adventure of one's own. Lists are not the nostrum against forgetfulness one might hope for. Here then is a list of 6 things that are wrong with lists.
  1. The more one relies on lists, the more one needs them. Memory is not unlike a muscle. The adage, “use it or lose it” applies. The less you challenge your capacity to remember stuff, the weaker your memory will become. Lists are a crutch that you will not be able to chuck away when you are healed—the reason being that you are not going to be healed so long as you use the crutch. Instead you will become increasingly dependent. This is not unlike the ubiquitous use of sanitizing hand cleaners. My wife washes her hands 40 or 50 times a day to keep from getting sick. Her immune system has pretty much shut down from lack of use. The result: when she is exposed to the puniest of bugs, she gets knocked down for days. Better to challenge your memory by not writing anything down. That way, when you forget something of consequence, the fear of the consequence will motivate you to remember better next time. Consequences are true memory aids. Lists are not.
  2. Lists expand to fill the space allotted, whether this space be the size of the piece of paper or the time that elapses between beginning the list and having to execute the items on it. The bigger the paper or the more time available, the bigger your list is going to grow. Lists are self-perpetuating. Our Thanksgiving menu now contains 127 dishes. New ones get added every time a new family member comes of age or someone gets married, but nothing ever comes off the list. We have to cook them all every year, even the ones nobody eats. Items on a list have a way of suggesting new items that are not yet on the list. The bigger the list grows, the easier it becomes to add new items. Before you know it, you will have so much stuff to do that you won't be able to complete your list, either making it or performing it. You will then need to make a list of personal and social obligations that are going to suffer as a direct result of your having too much stuff to do on your lists. Eventually you will be crushed under the weight of your unfinished lists.
  3. Lists are tyrannical. Once you put an item on a list, you have to do it. There is no escaping the stuff on the list. To cross off an uncompleted item is to admit your fundamental inadequacy. Bucket lists are the worst. Now they've been popularized by a pretty good movie, though, so every poor slob who passes on with an uncompleted bucket list dies unfulfilled and depressed. It's much better to forget an item that is only logged in your memory. If you just don't remember that you're supposed to do something, there is no guilt or self-loathing associated with not doing it. What you don't remember can't hurt you. Not the same for an item on a list. It's there on the list until you do it, mocking your inability to get it done, reaffirming your low self-esteem.
  4. Lists get lost. This is not the same as forgetting something you have only recorded in your memory. If you forget something, it is gone from your consciousness and no longer has any power over you. This is not the same as forgetting where you put your list. Forgetting where you put your list means you have to stop everything and find the list before you can get on with the items on the list. The list and the items on it still have power over your life. They will define your agenda (find the damn list) and your mood (foul) until you find the damn list. Nothing else will get done. Forgetting an item that is not on a list is nature's way of clearing your decks for peace and contentment. Forgetting where you put your list is a hell of your own devising.
  5. Lists are indiscriminate. If you rely on your memory, your natural tendency is to hold on to the important things and let the unimportant ones slide. Your memory is a great judge of the relative importance of the things you have to do. Memory perfoms an organic triage on the chaos of your life. Lists on the other hand just record the chaos. Lists admit every stray thought you are able to write down. Lists do not make judgments. Every item on a list has the same permanence. Sure you can rank items on a list by their relative importance. You can color code them and arrange them into some sort or order. None of this carries any real weight though when it comes to performing the list. The insignificant items nag with the same persistence as the significant ones. You will perform three unimportant tasks to avoid having to do an important one, but by the time you get around to the important one a whole host of new trivia will have been added to the list. There is a reason for this. It's easier to write stuff down than it is to do it. Making lists is easier than striking stuff off of them.
  6. Lists give us a false sense of security. When you've reduced your life to lists you are convinced that you have gained some measure of control over it. The opposite is true. You have lost control. You are now at the mercy of your lists. Your lists are in charge of everything you think, say and do, and they are feeding on your energy. No wonder you can't get anything done. There is only one thing worse than being at the mercy of your lists, and that is being at the mercy of someone else's.


  1. I love that your anti-list post is in list form. It's just perfect and very funny.

  2. Just for the record, I do NOT wash my hands 50 times a day - I will admit to 49 at most! And I haven't been sick in years and years but now, of course, I'm asking for illness by bragging about my good health. (I must remember to add "do not brag" to my list.)

    My mother always said a good husband makes you laugh - I have a very good husband. :o)

  3. Dr. Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto, makes me look like an idiot on Steven Colbert. Video at http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/369994/january-05-2011/atul-gawande


Comments are always welcome. Tell me what you like and what you don't. Information, encouragement, criticism--I don't care. A day where I don't learn something new is a day lost to me.