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The enduring comforts of list-making

Charles Kane (played by Orson Welles) writes a list of principles for his newspaper in the 1941 film Citizen Kane. Photo/Getty.

The enduring comforts of list-making.

Last month, I wrote about how my local supermarket had changed where it put everything, and also changed the location of the signage, so you could no longer stand at the end of the aisle and see where everything was. I can’t prove it, but I’m sure the supermarket did this deliberately, so their customers will get lost in the aisles and buy more of what they don’t need.

My somewhat obvious recommendation was to take a shopping list and stick to it, but since writing that – galvanised by an ongoing mobility issue and fury at the supermarket – I’ve starting making a complete meal of my shopping list. I write them on fancy cards, so I’m less likely to lose them. I list what I need and then write another list in the order of the location of the items, so that I can move from one end of the supermarket to the other, without needing to double back.

This is ridiculous, but it’s one of the things I do to make life a little bit easier. It has also got me thinking about lists, why we make them, why we need them, and what our lists reveal about us.

Most of us make lists of one kind or another: shopping lists, to-do lists, bucket lists, wish lists, lists of 10 books you must read, etc. Arianna Huffington, in her best-selling The Sleep Revolution, recommends listing everything we’re grateful for before getting into bed “to make sure our blessings get the closing scene of the night”. Maybe this works for some.

Joan Didion said we need stories in order to live, but you could also say that about lists. This is the premise of Elisabeth’s Lists: A Family Story, the story of Elisabeth Young as told by her granddaughter, Lulah Ellender. Ellender never knew her grandmother, but when her mother passed on her grandmother’s journal, she found pages and pages of lists, or as Ellender says, “a glimpse of her life in fragments and scraps”. Piecing together information from the lists, she constructed a biography of her grandmother’s short and mostly privileged life, one in which list-making provided a kind of emotional buttress during unsettling and unhappy periods.

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That included her register of eggs, began in 1942, in which Elisabeth recorded the date, number and colour of the eggs laid by her 12 hens, a list that eventually included 897 eggs. Elisabeth was, while recording her egg log, recovering from post-natal depression, pregnant with her second child, and living with her sister-in-law in Surrey to escape the bombs being dropped in London. Evidently counting her chickens after they hatched was a solace. The list can provide “purpose and structure”, Ellender writes. “It can be a guide to how we should use our time; at its most profound, a means to lasso our grief, madness and dreams within neat lines.”

In his The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay, the philosopher and writer Umberto Eco argues that an obsession with list-making is a recurring theme in Western culture, in everything from music to literature to art. Interviewed by Der Spiegel, he even claimed list-making was the origin of culture. “Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.” He suggests we write lists because we don’t want to die. “How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogues, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.”

The list is an organisational tool that has featured throughout history; God, after all, gave Moses the code for Christian living in 10 bullet points. The internet seems to have given the list particular prominence in recent years, notably with the rise and rise of list-format articles, commonly known as the listicle.

If you Google “the rise of the listicle” you’ll be directed to myriad listicles, such as “Five tips for excellent listicles” or “Seven examples of great listicle headings” or, an article in Wired, “Five reasons listicles are here to stay, and why that’s okay”, which mounts a compelling argument for the listicle as a sensible human response to information overload.

Writing in The Guardian, in a listicle entitled “Top nine things you need to know about ‘listicles’”, Stephen Poole was more sceptical. “Is the very fabric of written culture coming apart? Is global prose dissolving into a choppy sea of bite-sized jokey paragraphs? Is it because the listicle taps into some deep pleasure centre of the mind? Are lists a form of literary crack?”

Lists clearly have their place, but we don’t want to get carried away. The to-do list of course, is a time-honoured way to manage our lives, and no doubt there are studies that show list-makers are more productive than people who don’t make lists. But there are also studies that point to the damaging effect of over-reaching in our to-do lists. This has been highlighted by New York Times writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, authors of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, in a chapter titled “A brief history of the to-do list, from God to Drew Carey”.

As they point out, the to-do list can be more a tool of frustration and distraction rather than fulfilment. They recount an experiment in which a psychologist was invited to give a talk at the Pentagon on managing time and resources, where they warmed up the elite group of generals by asking them to write a summary of their strategic approach in no more than 25 words. The exercise stumped most of them, but the only woman in the room wrote: “First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three down.”

As Baumeister notes, one of the drawbacks of to-do lists is they can lock people into a list of tasks; life rarely proceeds according to plan and those unfinished tasks on the to-do lists can really muck with your mind.

Blame it on what’s known as the Zeigarnik effect, which describes the way we remember things we need to do better than things we’ve done. Think of what happens when you play a song, and shut it down before it’s through. If you listen to a song through to the end, you have a sense of completion and are likely to forget it, but if you turn it off before the song is finished, it’ll keep running through your mind at unexpected moments – the ear-worm worrying you about unfinished business.

As I understand it, this suggests we should keep the to-do list simple, realistic, not too long. A friend of a friend puts things on her to-do list that she’s already done, for the pleasure that comes with crossing things out, to remind herself of what she has managed to do. Which strikes me as an excellent strategy, so to cheer myself up I’m going to do what she does, starting now.

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This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of North & South.

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