If Johnny Cash had a to-do list, it would be something like this: 1. Not Smoke 2. Kiss June 3. Not Kiss Anyone Else 4. Cough 5. Pee 6. Eat 7. Not eat too much 8. Worry 9. Go see mama 10. Practice Piano.
Lists are part of everyone’s life. You cannot get away from lists. From the spelling word lists we all had in elementary school to the list of documents we are required to bring to the DMV to renew our license. There are top 10 lists and lists of the best places to visit across the world. Lists are a part of our life. Lists are one of the best ways we can plan by driving clarity and action.
I spend a lot of time thinking about all the things I need to get done. I am a list maker. I make a list in my mind. I write lists down. I cross things off my list. I use sticky notes when things come into my mind that I do not want to forget and then I compile them into my list when I have a minute. I use my iPhone alarm to remind me of things on my list that are time sensitive and that I do not want to miss. Whenever I drive to and from work, I remember things I need to write down and I use Siri to make a note. There was a time in my life where I rarely forgot anything. I will have to admit that since having children that is no longer the case. I forget a lot of things if I do not write them down. I am comfortable being wired this way. I enjoy making a list and completing the tasks on my list. I never keep the same list for more than a week. I learned that for me psychologically, that is defeating. Even if I do not complete everything on my list, I will transfer the remaining items over to a new list. There is just something renewing to me about a fresh list.
According to Jane O’Brian of the BBC, “Psychologists say that obsessive compulsive list makers (I guess that includes me) are trying to create an illusion of control in otherwise chaotic lives.” I am not sure about the obsessive compulsive or chaotic part, but I do know that for me there never seems to be enough hours in the day. Lists help me to have a plan. Lists help me clear my mind. They help me see the big picture. When I write things down, I can be more objective. The positive side of list making is that I can clearly see what I need to accomplish. However, making a list has limited value. Simply making a list (or many lists) is of little value if you never follow the list. Writing down all the things you think you need to get done and then marching through your day or week without consulting this list significantly devalues the purpose. A good list is meant to be followed. It is a living breathing map for me.
My wife and the people I work with know I make lists. They see me take down action items throughout the day. I often tell my staff, ‘let me write that down or I will forget.’ There is an assumption by those who see me add it to my list that this means I will follow up. My list is like an informal contract; an unspoken commitment to carry out the tasks. This is where the note takers are separated from the list makers. A list can help us feel like we are actually getting work done, but do not be fooled by this emotion. Making a list is just the start of the work that lies ahead to clear off the list.
There are two parts to a valuable list:
- Constructing the list
- Crossing off things on your list once they are completed
Do not confuse a note taker with a list maker. A person who takes notes is just writing down what they heard for historical purposes, perhaps to reference back to should a question arise. A list maker is taking down an action — people expect the list maker to see that action through. It is very damaging to our reputation as leaders if we say we are going to add that to our list and get back to someone, but we never follow up. The next time you are sitting with that person and they see you add something to your list, their confidence in you will be eroded. This is particularly true for us list makers. We are very conscious of other list makers and if we have an action on someone’s list, we are going to be watching (even if subconsciously) to see if they carry through. So remember these basic principles when it comes to lists:
- Make the list small and manageable to complete in a few days.
- Mark off every completed task. You will find this satisfying.
- Give yourself time to work on the list.
- Do not put anything on the list you do not plan to do. It is better to tell someone up front that you cannot commit to it than it is to write it down and leave them expecting you to take action on it.
- Keep your old list so that you can reflect on this at a later date and see what you accomplished; additionally, you will be able to see where you invested your time.
Like I said, lists are everywhere. Those of us who gain a sense of satisfaction from planning through list making can take comfort in the words of Dwight Eisenhower: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”