Monday, 2 July 2012

How to write a list that works

For someone who is completely and utterly disorganised, I have an unexpected love of lists. I make lists about everything. The house is littered with them. When I get my winter or summer coats out each autumn and spring, lists flutter from their pockets. I even find other people's lists fascinating.

A list can be many things. It can be a quick memory aid or a complex project plan. It can be tomorrow's shopping list, or your life mapped out on paper. It can be a throwaway moment or a back of a fag packet start of something exciting.

A list can be a godsend, but it can also be a millstone.

Am I losing you in my list love? Not sure how a list can actually matter in any way beyond it's immediate purpose?

A bad list can drag you down, make you feel guilty, stare at you reproachfully with each drop of self-righteous ink. It can give you sleepless nights as you focus on what wasn't done, what's still to do.

A good list can make you smile with satisfaction. It is littered with confident crossings off and annotations of things to go on other lists.

So here's a few tips for writing fantastic productive lists you will love!


Choose a list style specifically for each individual occasion. If it's a supermarket shopping list, group the different food groups together, and in order of how you find them in the supermarket you use. If it's an ideas list use a brainstorming chart (sorry, I don't do thought showers) preferably with coloured pens!  

Never, ever write a rolling list. These suckers will drag you down. As you work your way down, other tasks occur to you so you just pop them on the bottom. Eventually you get to the bottom of the piece of paper, so you transfer all leftover tasks onto a new sheet and just keep on going. You'll never finish it, never get to congratulate yourself on a job well done and never get to freshly appraise what tasks you'd like to go onto next. Don't. Just don't.

Break tasks down properly. It is common to list tasks that are actually a number of tasks rolled into one. This creates a false list that is much bigger than it initially looks, which makes it harder to get to the bottom, finish and sit back with a celebratory cup of tea and a biscuit. Don't put 'decorate the bathroom', when that realistically involves at a minimum 'clean bathroom walls' and 'remove any lose paint and rub down walls' and 'paint bathroom walls'. Smaller tasks means smaller blocks of time are needed at any one time (a godsend if you have small children for example) and tasks ticked off more quickly!


Make sure your list items really belong there. It is actually very easy to put tasks on your list that should not be there. Take admin tasks as a good example. You've gotten a bit behind on admin and need to tackle it. You write a list. It's huge. Enormous. You look at it and your heart sinks. Well, look again. Look for any 'tasks' that are actually regular activities rather than one-offs. Paying monthly bills, doing the weekly check of the bank account, anything that happens every week or month. Take those off the list straight away. If you can't remember your regular tasks design a memo sheet you don't hate looking at and stick it on the wall. 


Use image lists for creative or big ideas. Lists don't have to be words. One of my all time favourite non-word lists that I use is a montage. Needing to do a bit of major life rearranging a few years back, I spent a happy hour flicking through magazines, cutting out images that represented to me how I saw wanted my life to be. I then stuck the images onto a piece of A3 paper, and voila! A list of life aims in a powerful and motivating presentation. I did that list over 6 years ago and I still remember it clearly. It also really, really helped figure out some difficult stuff. This type of list is also great for creative planning - lifestyle magazines and interior designers use it for decor planning, but they call them mood boards. Personally, I hear mood boards and I think of Grumpy the blue Care Bear. No idea why, I just do.

Use multiple linked lists if you have a stupid amount to organise. If you are careful, this can turn you into a superhuman list maker, but care is needed not to create an overwhelming pile of lists that just makes you want to cry. This kind of list making should be reserved for the experienced or the desperate. I probably qualify for both...

Whatever task areas your lists need to cover, this option would definitely have a 'mother of all lists' central list that detailed what the other lists were, and a 'urgent do first list' to focus your mind. This urgent list should have no more than the most important tasks that need doing as soon as possible (preferably this list would be done within a few hours, never more than one day).

Whatever your list needs, there is a list out there for you. Just open yourself up to the power of lists and feel the love!



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