A Life in Lists

A Life in Lists by Nupu Press www.nupupress.com

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” — Gustave Flaubert

Thank you to all who came to my session at Hay Festival Dhaka last weekend on 10 lessons I learnt about storytelling from films. I probably have about 97 lessons I’ve learnt from films, but I had to stop somewhere.

I’m not keen to shoehorn items to fit a number that is often arbitrary. But I do live by lists. Not the robotic sort where a tourist thinks he’s “done” Spain by ticking off landmark names from a guidebook, but as a simple tool to organise my life.

What to do

There’s the to-do list, which is really a running “don’t forget” catalogue of chores. In the old days, I kept a small notebook expressly for this purpose, crossing things off and adding more at the end. Because I’m a tidy sort of person, I would periodically (that is, daily) feel the urge to gather the uncrossed items onto a fresh list.

Switching to a digital version (one that now syncs between various devices) streamlined this process. When it’s done, I delete the line.

The only fall-out of this method from the notebook version is not being able to turn back pages and see all the things that I did complete – tick marks and crossed lines showing me how much I have accomplished, instead of that never- (ever) shrinking list of what is left to be done.

Side note: The purpose of this type of list is to prompt action. If your chores list is overwhelmingly long and you’re on a deadline, try this:

  • Separate your home chores from outside errands. Focus on the list of home chores.
  • Set a timer to go off every five minutes.
  • Tackle the first five items (for example: wash dishes, pack for holiday, pay bills, grade homework, call parents), for five minutes at a time.
  • When the buzzer goes, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of washing a dish – put it down and move on to the packing.
  • Run through the cycle of the same five chores in five-minute chunks until all are completed.
  • Then move on to the next five on the list.

Extra tip: To get even more buzzy with it, set the timer to three minutes.
Extra, extra tip: This method can also be used to get moving on creative assignments, dissertations and more.

Foodie me

When I became vegetarian, I distilled the following from Joel Fuhrman’s book, Eat to Live:

  • 4 fruit servings a day
  • half raw, half cooked veggies (1lb each)
  • small handful of nuts/seeds – best with veggies to absorb nutrients
  • 1 cup beans/lentils per day (more, even every meal, is ok)
  • 1 cup starchy veg/whole grains per day
  • fruit & seeds/nuts for brekkie
  • don’t snack

Interestingly, it was making the list that served the purpose of understanding and absorbing the simple principles for this way of eating. I never actually found the need to refer to the list again, though I continue to eat mostly along these guidelines (+ chocolate, of course).

My new favourite

Despite travelling frequently all my life, I only put together a definitive packing list (typed and everything) six months ago. I did so reluctantly, convinced I had this business of packing down to a fine art. Ha! The checklist became a genuine eye-opener.

By having one proper list, I was able to make notes on it instead of relying on memory. At the end of each trip, I recorded what I didn’t use (lots) and what else I wished I’d brought with me (nothing). I modified it for every subsequent trip, and the list slimmed down each time.

I have now used this list for three trips to four continents. I travel with only a purse and one handbag that contain everything I need for weeks at a time, which really means indefinitely (secret: do laundry), unless I go to dramatically different climates.

The list is broken down by bag compartment and packing cube, indexing everything from laptop cable to lip balm. I’ve streamlined my toiletries and worked out how my wardrobe can be appropriated for a casual brunch as well as the theatre. It has liberated me from carrying things “just in case”. And I’ve learnt that the only item that is genuinely life-or-death important is my EpiPen.

Granted, it can sound rather OCD – until I, swinging one bag in hand, stroll past harassed-looking folks exploding out of cabs with huge suitcases who will inevitably pay for excess baggage and spend hours waiting at the conveyer belt.

Calling my muse

Not uncommonly, most creative ideas come to me when I’m relaxed in my pre-sleep mode, and just after waking up. I always immediately jot them down. When I’m ready to begin a new blog post or short story, I’m rarely looking at a blank page thanks to this list.

I’ve learnt to also note the stuff that get in the way of my work. I do this when I’m feeling overwhelmed but unable to put my finger on it. I write down all the things that are annoying me. The list grows for a day. Then I spend half a day throwing those things off my plate.

The most common irritants for me are tech-related interruptions that stop my flow. I stop notifications and remove myself from groups on social media. I don’t keep email on push on handheld devices. I take out five-minute chunks to clear the in-box (because not responding also weighs on me…).

Let me count the ways

My lists are essentially transitory, serving as reminders until I transform them into actions.

It’s instructive to also do the reverse by converting actions into a list for a gratitude journal (it sounds Oprah-ish, but she’s a billionaire for a reason). The idea is to write down, say, five to 10 things from our day for which we are grateful. It’s basically the New Agers’ version of “count your blessings”.

The goal is to focus on the accomplishments, good people and small kindnesses we are prone to otherwise forget. Writing them down longhand is meant to be especially good practice, perhaps for the same reason my old notebook to-do system worked a charm: the list of positives actually grows day by day in our hands.

I go through phases of doing a verbal version: at night, I say out loud what I’m grateful for from that day. The unexpected additional pleasure of making such a list is that I aim for five, but easily end up with 20. The process also perpetuates itself: knowing I’ll be making a list at bedtime spurs me into noting and appreciating little details throughout the day, making the hours more positive overall.

There are also visual gratitude lists I see artists creating on social media, using photographs, sketches and collages. A hard copy or digital Moleskine journal filled with illustrated gratitude lists sounds simply divine to me.

Decluttering our dreams

Productivity experts recommend breaking down big goals into a list of smaller tasks. A marathon, after all, starts with putting on trainers.

I have done this with countless projects – taking my grand idea and reducing it to its many mundane steps – only to discover that the practical stages are so dreary, I lose all desire for the big bang sexy dream.

Instead of getting dispirited by this, I see it as an excellent way to declutter the various fantasy lives I can conveniently dupe myself into imagining could be mine. This allows me to focus on those that I’m determined to conquer.

How else to end this post?

The benefits of keeping lists:

  • writing things down frees up the mind
  • puts chaos into order
  • discards unnecessary tasks
  • clarifies priorities
  • prompts action
  • organises time for the truly important things in life
  • life shifts dramatically as a result

“Chaos, control. Chaos, control. You like, you like?” — Ouisa Kettridge, Six Degrees of Separation

Related Recommendations:

podcast iconAdnan Syed has been in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee since 1999, when he was 17. He’s been saying since day one that he’s innocent. Is he telling the truth? Listen to the 12-part week-by-week real-life murder investigation as they go down the list of who’s who, who’s saying what, and try to figure out what happened that fateful day. I love – LOVE! – the new podcast, Serial, from the This American Life folks. Nine episodes in, three to go, and all are free.

article buttonThe simplest advice is often the best. Here’s how declutter expert Karen Kingston describes a list technique offered to steel magnate Charles Schwab in the 1930s that turned his business into the largest in the world.

book icon2Advice such as “help others” sounds weightless in its dual simplicity/enormity, but is elevated when part of a bigger list, as illustrator Monica Sheehan does in her whimsical book, Be Happy. You can see some of her work collated here in this short charming video:

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