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Do You Make Lists?

Paul M. Muchinsky
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Why do people make lists? I can‘t recall ever reading a single study on it, let alone a comprehensive meta-analysis. There has got to be some theory lurking beneath the surface of list making.

The first time I can remember giving any serious thought to list making was in graduate school. I was talking to a fellow student who just received his master’s degree in history. I had recently completed my thesis in psychology. So I showed him mine and he showed me his. Perusing the front matter I saw we both used the compositional structure of “List of Tables” and “List of Figures.” But his had an extra feature mine didn’t. Historians apparently present lots of lists in their research, so they have another page called “List of Lists.” But here was the kicker. The guy’s thesis contained only one list. Therefore, the title of this page was “List of List.” The List of List listed his particular list along with listing the page number where the list was listed. List of List. I’m not kidding.

People make three types of lists. What is most fascinating about these lists is what we do with them. Therein lies a clue to unraveling the deep psychological meaning behind list making.

First, there is the grocery list. You check out your refrigerator and cupboards to figure out what you need. Then you write the items, creating a list. As you push the cart up and down the aisles, the list in one hand serves as cognitive sonar and your other hand operates like a heat-seeking missile. Some people eyeball the list and eyeball the cart, and mentally keep track of picking the items off the list, one by one. The more compulsive grocery list maker puts a little check mark next to each item. But the grocery list is not exhaustive because you end up buying stuff not on your list. And what becomes of the grocery list at the end of your shopping spree? It gets tossed with casual disdain, the ultimate in disposability. Grocery lists are never titled.

Next, there is the to-do list. This list consists of items indexed with action verbs as “go to” and “pick up” and “clean out.” Pursuit of these items requires more energy than finding a jar of mayonnaise. There is a certain sense of duty, perhaps even dread, associated with drafting this list because you know you shouldn’t have waited so long to do them in the first place. At the end of your to-do day, you are often weary from your pursuit of these items. In the afterglow of their attainment you don’t merely check them off. No, they deserve a more passionate response: You cross them off. Be it with a pen or pencil, it feels so good to strike a firm line through each item. Finally, your to do list is not just thrown away. It is crumpled by the raw strength of your dominant hand. Crumpling the list feels even better than crossing out items on the list. It is a demonstrative display of power and mastery over your environment. To-do lists are often titled, and in severe cases, both titled and dated.

Because the to-do list provides gratification through both crossing-out behavior and crumpling behavior, you are attracted to a perverse derivative of it. Let’s say your to-do list has six items. At the end of the day, you made eight stops but succeeded in doing only two of the items on your list. You stare at the list in disbelief. How could you have done so much but accomplished so little? What comes next is only explainable by theories of abnormal human behavior. To assuage your frustration, retroactively you then add to the list the items you already accomplished, and then you sequentially cross them out with crisp efficiency. You know you’re cheating, but it’s a way to justify your day (if only to yourself). You then create another to-do list consisting of the unfulfilled items (plus perhaps a few more you just thought of), and then emphatically crumple the old list. The feeling from crumpling a completed to-do list is almost orgasmic.

Finally, there is the list of major life goals (at least major to you). It may be a list of states or countries you have visited, but your list is not yet complete. The list might be of desired personal or professional achievements. It is a wish list. The wish list is stored in a secure place, like the top drawer of your desk. Such a location makes it readily accessible, yet it is not an in-your-face reminder of goals yet unattained. Most importantly, this list is neither tossed nor crumpled. Quite the contrary, it is revered and becomes yellowed with age. Wish lists are always titled and with capital letters.

Admittedly there are other types of lists, but they are metaphoric in nature. I read that members of organized crime have a hit list of people designated for past tense. There is another type of list, rhyming with hit list, of people you really don’t like. Chances are good that if they are on your list, you are on theirs. I can’t believe anyone would actually commit this list of names to paper. Can you imagine the look on your face if you actually spied someone’s list, titled as such? The unwitting exhibitionist meets the unintended voyeur.

As for me, I’m not into making grocery lists. I stalk the aisles with a keen eye of an intuitive hunter. I’m also not big into wish lists. I have my goals, but I don’t write them down. If I ever make it to Idaho or Lichtenstein, I’ll know. There is no need to record it for posterity. I also have a good memory, and unlike Moses, I don’t need a physical record of things really important. But I copiously make to do lists. While they keep me focused, their primary purpose is to provide a sense of primal pleasure when I get to cross off items. And I already told you what it feels like to crumple a completed to do list.

I once had a colleague who was a consummate list maker. She made all three types of lists. She would write multiple grocery lists, one for each store she would frequent. She had several to-do lists, categorized by short term and long term. She also kept a few wish lists, reflecting both individual and career goals. I once asked her how she kept track of all her lists. She sheepishly replied, “I have a list of lists.” I smiled at her response, as it brought back a memory from graduate school. She didn’t know what I was smiling about, but you do.