What your list-making technique says about you

lists
lists

Putting on my winter coat for the first time this season, I dug my hand into the pocket to find a treasure trove of detritus. A stale chocolate mini egg left over from Easter, an assortment of Lego pieces collected from around the house and a scrap of paper reading “chix, veg, milk, flour, o.oil”. A shopping list, of course – one of the many thousands I have penned over the years, on scraps of paper, in notebooks, on the backs of old envelopes, in my phone, on the back of my hand.

I have been making lists for as long as I can remember. As a tiny child, my “lists” were a way to emulate my mother – I would scribble on odd bits of notepaper in my best imitation of her spiky handwriting, adding random dots above and crosses on letters to make my own “shopping list” of gobbledygook. Once I learnt to write, my lists were for fun, or for inspiration: “Things I want to do when I grow up”; “Birthday list”; “What I want in a husband” (I kid you not, I found the list the other day and it was a ridiculous three sheets of notepaper focused mainly on said man’s surface appeal, detailing the sort of hair he should have, and the exact cheekiness of his smile).

At school there were lists of revision topics and history dates to commit to memory; at university the things I really needed to remember to do, like registering for my student loan. On my bookshelves at home are multiple notebooks I have carried with me at various times in my life. They are full of lists – of work tasks to do, food plans for the week, shopping lists, bills to pay, general to-do lists. I am able to pinpoint exact moments in time from the lists alone. One red notebook is full of all the lists I made (of things to order, contractors to follow up with, money to pay) during our house renovation (as well as the work, food shopping, child admin and other bits and bobs I was simultaneously juggling); it is both stressful and nostalgic to flip back through it. I still have a list on my phone of possible baby names for girls and boys (I have three sons); I have no plans to have another baby but for some reason I can’t delete the list.

Lucy Denyer says making to-do lists are the only way to keep a handle on the chaos of life
Lucy Denyer says making to-do lists are the only way to keep a handle on the chaos of life - Lorne Campbell/Guzelian

There was a brief period of time in my early 20s, leaving childhood behind and having to do proper adulting, when I made fewer lists – it felt too grown up and scary to quantify things. But then I realised that making lists brought with it a strange joy: the calm of committing tasks to paper rather than relying on memory; the satisfaction of crossing them off. These days, as a self-employed parent of three children at three different schools, lists are the only way to keep a handle on the chaos of life. As well as the list of tasks that runs constantly in my head (which I try to number if I can’t write them down, so at least I’ll remember how many things I have to do, if not the things themselves), I now have actual spreadsheets charting income, necessary expenditure and savings, as well as a dedicated notes page per child in my phone (to record birthday wish lists and subsequent thank-you-letter lists), packing lists for a range of holiday options (camping, skiing, summer, muddy half-terms), multiple shared “reminders” with my husband and, of course, the ubiquitous notebook.

Open the topic of lists and everyone has a view – on why they love them, what they use them for, how they do them, what the absolute rules are. One colleague swears by one taped to the front of her freezer recording its contents to reduce food waste (she is an excellent cook). Another has a never-ending Google doc entitled “Paul’s to-do list” (a doom-scroll endeavour if ever there was one). One uses the Trello app, a project management tool complete with task tracking, workflow and checking, for everything from work tasks to planning her wedding. My friend, Laura, uses colour-coded spreadsheets for finances and to keep track of her twice yearly shopping sprees, charting what she’s bought and what needs to be returned.

What your lists say about you

The back-of-the-envelope list-maker

You are quite possibly a working mother and your to-do list is not only long by never seems to become any shorter: from the second you wake up (and when you wake up in the dead of night) your brain is whirring with all the things that need to be done.

No sooner are they done than new tasks replace them. Because of this, your list-making is random and scattered, jotted down when something springs to mind on whatever surface is available – the back of a bill, your phone, a scrap of paper, your hand. Such lists will also inevitably feature an array of interestingly diverse and often completely unrelated tasks all jumbled together: buy broccoli, book plumber, email Sophie, remortgage. Surprisingly, despite the outward-seeming chaos, you are remarkably efficient, and generally manage to get things done (or most of the most important things, anyway).

The yellow-sticky-note-for-every-category list-maker

Whether you use Post-its or not, your lists are strictly divided by type: perhaps you divide the page of your notebook into sections for different things (work, house admin, etc); perhaps you have dedicated notebooks for each or a range of spreadsheets saved in a special file on your computer.

Either way, you know where to look when you want to remind yourself of the next work task, or what needs to be done before Christmas, and you never add things to a list just for the sake of crossing them off. You are likely to keep a record of your lists, and have permanent, regularly updated lists for things like holidays and godchildren’s birthdays. Your phone contacts not only include every person’s full name, address and email, but also the names and ages of their children. You disdain the back-of-an-envelope brigade, and wonder why they can’t be more like you (answer: either they’re juggling more, or they just don’t care).

The tool-dedicated list-maker

You wouldn’t dream of using a pen and paper – not when there are tools that will do it for you. You are fully signed up to Google’s Keep (a sort of digital pinboard with electronic Post-its), have multiple spreadsheets for every sort of financial transaction in your life, and a host of iPhone Reminders, colour-coded for different tasks and shared when necessary with your significant other.

You’re all over the festive season with the Christmas List app, which tracks everything including when you’ve bought, wrapped and delivered, as well as what you’ve given in previous years. A properly organised Trello board gives you almost sexual pleasure.

The visionary list-maker

A list is not merely a dull audit of what needs to be done, but an opportunity to quantify the meaning of life itself. Why stop with a shopping list when you can list-make your intention to lose weight and include what might get in the way of it and what the specific action plan is going to be?

Once you’ve worked out how you’re going to get to your ideal weight, the opportunity for another list pops up: the clothes you’re going to buy to dress your new body, the books you’re going to read to impress people at dinner parties who can see beyond the outward aesthetic, and the bons mots to research and record to add charming erudition to conversation. The possibilities are endless.

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Why the shopping list has become the ultimate shorthand document

Telegraph readers have been writing in their droves about lists of late and there are some classics of the genre. Georgina Nunn details the list her beloved late mother used to make every summer before taking Nunn’s three young boys to the Isle of Wight for a week: ginger beer, pork pies, plasters, valium, fags and whisky. “They had the same holiday for 10 years and all loved it. Nobody ever needed the plasters,” writes Nunn.

People make lists for work and lists for life, lists of things to do or things to buy. Our lives, in fact, often seem little more than one long list. “They’ve potentially reached their apogee,” says Dr Joanna Nolan, a professor of linguistics and author of a new book, Listful, which came out in September. “We think in lists; I talk to my children in lists and say a) We’re going to do this and b) We’re going to do that. Their brevity and efficiency means they crystalise what we really need to do. Writing a list starts you thinking in a more purposeful way because you’ve reduced it to its bare minimum already.”

That said, lists have been with us a long time. What are the 10 Commandments, after all, but a list? The first known lists were grain inventories in Mesopotamia in the 10th century; lists occur throughout history and religion. The most-read articles in a newspaper often take the form of a list: in the Telegraph it’s My Saturday, a reflection of the pace of life, and how we measure it out. Each person will have their own idiosyncratic method of listing, peculiar to them – which is what makes lists both universal and unique. As Dr Nolan puts it, “Lists are the only thing you write for yourself, by yourself.”

Dr Nolan started to explore lists and what they mean to us after realising that her shopping list was written in what was basically a language that only she could understand. Originally an academic project to explore the language of lists, the book soon became something bigger, after the fulsome responses of her interviewees. The vast majority of those respondents, says Dr Nolan, were women.

“The enthusiasm and bombardment was so disproportionate that [making lists] felt like a way more female activity,” says Nolan. She put this down to two possible reasons: “One, that for women – particularly of my age, wives running a house with families – the list of things they have to cover in a day is so diverse and multifarious that inevitably they need a list. Part two is that women relish making lists and ticking things off. There is science behind it – you have a tiny dose of dopamine every time you tick something off.”

Lucy Denyer says that making lists has brought with a strange joy to her life
Lucy Denyer says that making lists has brought with a strange joy to her life - Lorne Campbell/Guzelian

The shopping list, in fact, is a category all of its own. Depending on who is using it, it can be the ultimate shorthand document, or something more ordered (my mother in law writes her shopping lists according to supermarket geography, so all the fruit and veg will be listed together, then the meat, then the dairy and so on); either way, other people’s shopping lists are peculiarly fascinating.

Mary Ann Barton, another Telegraph reader, has collected shopping lists since the 1970s, picking them up from empty trolleys. “One had ‘new husband’. Another said: ‘please put the pussies outside, via the upstairs window and buy a 6v car battery for the VW.’” Ingrid Swenson is another such obsessive - she is the author of another recent book, called Shopping Lists, which is literally a collection of such items, all discarded lists picked up by Swenson in her local Waitrose on Holloway Road in north London.

“It was something I found really fun and captivating and engrossing”, says Swenson. “Like a little secret safari. It was like collecting shells at the seaside - more like mudlarking than social anthropology.” For her, says Swenson, it was more about the act of collecting the lists than what was on them, although “Viakal is more popular than I imagined it to be.”

Often, says Swenson, it was the back of a list that was the interesting part. “You can work out people’s profession - if it’s on the back of a drawing of a plan it might be an architect or designer or if it’s on a letter from a kid’s school that person’s a parent and often kids scribble on lists as well. It’s something private that gets lost and it opens up little windows onto big worlds.”

As ever in life, however, even a simple thing like a shopping list can be open to misinterpretation - especially when written by one partner and implemented by the other. “During our 49-year marriage it has been my duty to do the weekly shop, though my wife writes the list,” writes Wynne Weston-Davies to the Telegraph. “Recently, one item baffled me as well as the kindly Waitrose assistants, who did their best to find the elusive item: a small bag of mixed sausages. It turned out to be a small bag of mixed salad leaves.” Even a list, it turns out, is not infallible.

Why men are from Mars and women from Venus when it comes to lists

Someone else’s shopping list “opens up little windows onto big worlds”
Someone else’s shopping list 'opens up little windows onto big worlds' - Geoff Pugh

“Being overstretched is a fact of life for working mothers,” agrees The Telegraph’s Allison Pearson, author of I Don’t Know How She Does It, a novel in which Pearson documents the ongoing mental list of her heroine, Kate Reddy, in every chapter. “Basically, they’re doing two full-time jobs simultaneously, they have to remember all the domestic stuff – child’s dentist appointment, dog flea treatment, new school shoes, mother-in-law’s birthday – plus all the office stuff. It’s a recipe for madness, which is where The List comes in. Always has at least 23 items on it and never seems to get any shorter, but at least it gives the illusion you have things under control.”

“I feel more in control when I have a list,” agrees my friend Laura, who is not a mother but loves a list as much as any parent I know. “I even put things on a list when I’ve done them so I can tick them off.” She’s not the only one – I’m definitely guilty of, if not retrospectively adding items, at least putting a few easy-to-achieve tasks on there – “Change sheets” or “Book dentist”, for example (especially if that’s counterbalanced by more complex issues to sort, like researching a piece or deciding what to get my son for his birthday). I’m not quite as meta as one person Dr Nolan interviewed, who included “make list” on their list of things to do. But I’m not above simply erasing a task when enough time has passed to turn it from aspiration to impossibility.

My husband’s list, by contrast, is both task-oriented and boiled strictly down to the bare minimum of things he needs to do: “Collect dry-cleaning”, “Put up shelf’. He wouldn’t dream of wasting time adding something to a list that he’d done already, or putting something unachievable on. It seems that men are generally less consumed in their list-making with the existential angst of life (“be nicer, more patient person with Emily so she doesn’t grow up to be needy psychopath” is one item on Kate Reddy’s mental list).

“I have lists for most days,” says my uncle, Nick Jarrett-Kerr, a former lawyer and management consultant who is a self-confessed “Enneagram 3”, a personality type that loves lists: “We’re very task-oriented. Things have to be done and I have to make a list of them and I have to tick them off so I can organise myself and my mind.” As well as a short-term daily list, however, Nick also uses “Vision, Intention and Meaning” plans for the bigger things in life – weight loss, for example – which include why he wants to do something, what the intention is and what might get in the way of doing it, so he can embark on a specific action plan. Doubtless he would be horrified by the random nature of my own lists, which might include something like “Sort teeth?” alongside “Buy veg”.

How do you make yours?

Certainly the way in which one makes a list can be as telling as what’s on it – and that’s before you even get to the crossing off part. I’ve already mentioned spreadsheets, Trello and Google docs for different natures of lists, but some people will only make lists in a certain notebook, or with a certain pen, even with a particular type of pen nib. Nolan uses different corners of the paper in her notebook for certain things; family-related stuff top left; work top right; “boring house admin” bottom right; “and bottom left is more fun stuff. I will always have a proper piece of paper. I circle important things and scrub them out when they’re done, I don’t tick.”

Like Lucy, some people only make notes in a certain notebook
Like Lucy, some people only make notes in a certain notebook - Photographer's Choice RF

Others, says Dr Nolan, will tick a task when it is under way and cross it off when it’s done (there is much debate over whether a simple line will do, or whether it needs to be a thick black scrubbing out). I am a recent convert to the iPhone Reminders app, which allows you to create multiple lists and invite others to join them, as well as delete tasks when they’re done – so my husband and I now have a shared “Life admin” list and shopping list, so that whoever’s in Tesco can spot that we need plain flour, pick it up and cross it off the digital list.

Others swear by dedicated apps: Google’s Keep, a sort of digital pinboard with electronic Post-its; the Christmas List app, which tracks everything including what you’ve bought, wrapped and delivered, as well as what you’ve given in previous years.

There is actual power in writing stuff down, however – as well as creating a physical record on a page, it also generates (it’s literally known as the “generation effect”) a memory through the engagement of the senses: the contact of pen on paper stimulates a part of the brain that logs the thought. I tend to prefer a written to a digital list, although I’m peculiarly anti-specific list-making equipment such as those ‘shopping list’ pads that stick onto the fridge with a magnet; it feels too indulgent. A scrap of paper will do me just fine, or the back of a receipt, even, especially if it’s a list that can be instantly discarded once it’s fulfilled, like a shopping list.