Living by Lists

Do you like lists? Everybody seems to. There's the top ten list, the best dressed list, the list of tourist attractions. If you live by a to-do list, you are organized. You look at the top item, do it, cross it out. The advantage of a list is that you can easily pick items of interest, and ignore others. You don't have to deal with things in combination.

In fact, that's the point of a list. You write things down so you can refer to the list instead of trying to remember. You make a list of chores instead of trying some overall plan. You list all the causes of what went wrong instead of trying to find a fundamental cause.

Here's a sample shopping list:

In the market, you start at the top of the list, so you go to the produce section for the lettuce, then to the paper products section for towels, then to the canned goods section for mushrooms, then back to produce for carrots, back to paper for napkins, back to produce for onions, and back to canned goods for peas.

If all this back and forth bothers you, there is an obvious way to avoid it: turn the list into an outline.

If you study this arrangement, you might make a discovery: it is easy to remember. Things are not harder to deal with in combination, but easier.

A list is the conceptual mind's effort to deal with things non-conceptually—one by one in sequence. To turn the list into an outline, you sort it out. You group items together by an objective method. You conceptualize the list.

In fact, you might decide to go all the way and turn the outline into a plan: "In the market, I'll go to the produce section for lettuce, carrots and onions; then to canned vegetables for peas and mushrooms; then to paper products for towels and napkins."

Once you have a plan in mind, then the list becomes useful as a reminder. You live by the plan and use the list for checking up. That is the conceptual way to use a to-do list: to make sure your plan for the day leaves nothing out.

People like lists because they imply choice. Someone chose these things to list. You can choose what you like from the list, or just start at the top. The trouble is that a vital list is missing: the methods for choosing wisely. Living by lists is living by whim, without sorting things out for yourself.

When you learn to see essentials and make plans, then lists are fun and useful as reminders. But lists never provide understanding. They cannot substitute for thought.

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