The Power of Lists: Part 1


You should know, I have a somewhat complex “to do” system. Perhaps you should also know that I used to write lists only on post-its (I still do, but I used to too). Perhaps you should finally know that I am a comedic improvisor, a community organizer, a permaculture designer/builder, a composer and singer, but boiled down, these things mean I am an artist.

For years every xmas or summer break I would make this awesome list of all the things I was going to do and learn, and I might get half…of one item…started…

About February of 2011 I ran out of whatever the stuff is that swishes around in your brain and allows you to make decisions; apart from the basics, breath, blink, bathroom and such. I had hit a wall. I couldn’t choose what to eat, where I would go that day, I had a hard time in conversations, my head was so clouded with the things I needed to do that I couldn’t even decide if it was the right time to pick up my trash can and empty it into the larger bin outside. (This was a decision that literally took me 15 minutes of, let’s call it “thought”, to make, and as I recall, I chose not to do it.)

At the time I was writing a musical so I could graduate. This took precedent over everything, but was so overwhelming it was difficult to make progress. I would separate myself from others to have time to write, get overwhelmed, and not write, and not have people. It was sort of a lose-lose for a while.

I needed serious help

I found the first and biggest step in the book Getting Things Done by David Allen.

As I mentioned before, I am an artist. Books on business had not been a part of my reading meal plan. How will this be relevant to me? Well, I believe most all things have some value, so what’s the harm, let’s dig in and see what I can keep.

Turns out I kept a lot and how I interact and manage this system has been evolving ever since.

Here are a few insights taken from Derek Siver’s notes on the book.
(His notes are a fantastic resources, check em out! ) –

GTD by David Allen:

  • Get in the habit of keeping nothing on your mind.
  • There is no reason to ever have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought.
  • If you put reference materials in the same pile as things you still want to read, you’ll go numb to the stack!
  • Review the lists of all the actions you could possible do in your current context.
  • The weekly review is whatever you need to do to get your head empty again. Until you can honestly say, “I absolutely know right now everything I’m not doing but could be doing if I decided to.”

Basically, the system looks like collecting every thought I deem valuable enough to write down, usually on my phone, which takes a few seconds in an App called Wunderlist, that syncs to my computer. This allows me to stay present in the moment, knowing that storage system is holding the thought. Later, I provide times to process those ideas into other files until they are simple enough to do when I am in the appropriate space (at home or the office), and have the proper energy for that magnitude of a task. The result should leave you feeling at peace, if you are not, then find the leak, fix it, and feel good.

Or one could say:

  • Collect all things
  • Process what they mean and what to do about them
  • Organize the results
  • Review every so often to improve the system…
  • … Do

This is not the only way to hold a list, but for me it is the bedrock. This kind of list creation is perfect for one thing: BULLETPROOF COMMITMENTS. When you promise to do something with or for someone, it goes in. When you feel some urgency but don’t have time to deal with that thing, it goes in. This system has saved me more times than I can count from embarrassment, looking inconsiderate, and even from major meltdowns with home renovations, group projects, and personal finances.

However, there are big flaws in the system, which we will discuss in Part 2.

Your Turn

If you feel cloudy, overwhelmed, tired of half starting a dozen things, then ditch the post-it list of complex tasks that cannot be done in a day which pile up on your desk, fridge, car dash, mind, or any other place, and learn how to make a proper list. Learn how to work with your mind and not give it more to do than it can handle in a moment. Be a bit more humble about your own power and let a powerful list help you.

This “list creation” work, by the way, is not an action, it is a project, it takes multiple steps, but the next time you are talking with a friend you will be able to stay present and play in the conversation without having to remind yourself to pick up the milk, send that important email later, or set a time to pick up driftwood for an art project; your list has got it in the right place, it will take care of you. At the end of the day you can have peace of mind, and milk.

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