The ridiculous power of list-making
Issue 75: From Jira backlogs to the MySpace Top 8, how a simple method can help boost creativity
I shared a small bedroom with my older brother in our childhood home. We started by sharing it with our aunt, who immigrated to the United States with my parents and brother. I couldn't imagine what it was for a high school-aged woman to share a room with two young boys. When she graduated and moved to Seattle, my parents purchased a bunk bed for my brother and me. My mind tells me, to this day, that the younger siblings slept on the bottom bunk in the instance the structure collapsed, ensuring safety for the eldest sibling.
Most nights I’d fall asleep as I talked to my brother. I’d ask questions like, "Who are your 10 favorite GI Joes?" We'd take turns listing our list of favorites, with the obvious choice of Snake Eyes being number one. As we'd finally get ready for bed after debate and curation, I'd ask one more thing: "Okay, who are your 10 favorite Transformers?" The lists would go on and on.
This sparked much of my childhood interest in making lists for everything: action figures, comic book characters, artists, foods, crushes at school...you name it. The act of list-making is a dead-simple method, yet it is powerful enough to build foundations of culture and creation. I'm not trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. In fact, lists are underrated. Umberto Eco, the philosopher, semiotician, and author of "The Name of the Rose" once said this about lists:
"The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible… And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists…"
The exercise of list-making provokes conversation and is a powerful critical thinking tool. Lists are powerful because they can be used for almost anything. You can use them to curate culture, construct specs on how to build something, and organize yourself or operate a company.
If I asked you what music you like, the chances are the answers will be sporadic and unorganized—whatever is top of mind. If I instead asked, "who are the top five musicians of all time?" The ordered list of 1-5 forces critical thinking and ranking value vs. an unordered list. Creating a list is one of the simplest ways to build taste, debate, and put your opinion out there. Creating and publishing lists makes you exert your point of view on what's important. Whether it's a Top 10 year in review or the Mount Rushmore of Los Angeles Lakers players, it's human nature to rank.
Publishing these lists and sharing them with people forces you to stand up for your point of view—something we don't do enough these days as individuals. One of the greatest social experiments of this were people in the 2000s curating their MySpace Top 8 friends.
Of course, not everything in life needs to be curated. You don't need to create an ordered list of your favorite children (though I bet there are times people feel like doing this). Creating an unordered list of things helps with critical things. For example, I have a Credo list where I curate my belief system. I will frequently revisit this and update it. The value of lists is they can be dynamic and change over time.
The list is foundational to the building. In Computer Science, the list is a data type and one of the core building blocks for creating software. In writing, it could be an outline, one of many types of lists. My writing tendencies are to create outlines visually with mind maps. Blueprints, wireframes, and artifacts that inform building are at the core visual lists of information.
A list provides a sequence of how to construct. There's perhaps a no better example of this than assembling IKEA furniture. The list as an order of operation creates a sequence of steps in which something is created. If you think about it to the core, a backlog in Jira or Asana is a complex list of what you're going to build next.
Lists help you plan and get things done. If I ever feel stressed or overwhelmed with tasks, I take a deep breath, pull out an index card, take the stress in my mind, and put it on paper. I write the next three things I need to do and start there. The list is a rallying device to central your mental balance.
I have neurodiverse tendencies and can't trust my memory. Devising standard operating procedures and checklists for my personal organization has been of great service to me.
A few list-making methods
Since lists can be finite or infinite, physical or digital, linear or non-linear, ordered or unordered, there is no shortage of ways to make lists. In the spirit of this article, let's make a list of ways you can make lists:
Index cards: Making lists on an index card makes them portable and easy to access
To-do apps: Tools like OmniFocus, Things, and a billion other apps out there can help you organize things like lists. (I firmly believe every designer's side project is either a to-do app or redesign of Good Reads)
Outliner apps: Apps like Dynalist are incredible tool to build lists that can be converted to outlines for larder projects
Good old bullet points: Whether physical or digital, create bullet points (this list are unordered bullet points)
My personal favorite is using index cards. I treat them as flashcards and discussion topics with friends. I can pass a list, scribble it up, and refine it.
A great list is curated, memorable, opinionated, and ever-evolving. The artifact and process of making them provide tremendous value. It's such a universal method easy to learn. Lists have are ridiculously simple, yet powerful. You can organize yourself, a project, or the universe. In the end, the actual list itself may not be as valuable as the creative process you go through making. Let's spend this Sunday building lists to unlock creative potential.
As Eco said, "The list doesn't destroy culture; it creates it."