When in Doubt, Make A List

My favorite trick when overwhelmed is to make a list. Lists do many good things for our psychology, memory and camaraderie if working with others. It’s worth remembering the adage: Make a (Fucking) List. When in doubt, just make a list. Sit down, shut up and start writing.

The expletive is a reminder not to be a dumbass. Many projects, despite how high-brow and complex they are, simply need someone to stand up, go to the whiteboard, and make a list of all the things that need to be done. We convinced ourselves we’re so amazing that if we’re stuck it must require a high powered and complex method to save us, but that’s hubris.  A well written list is the fastest way out of most problematic situations (See How to Make Things Happen). It’s true when working alone or with a team.

Since without a list:

  • It’s harder to make decisions
  • You can’t compare relative importance of different items
  • Work can’t be assigned or tracked
  • You can’t see how big or complex the project really is
  • It’s harder to share different people’s insights  

1. The first task is write a flat, unordered list

Writing things down is powerful. When thoughts are written down you can move them around, compare them, combine them, or divide them as your thinking progresses. If you’re working with others, lists force you to come up with a common language to describe tasks:

  • Land on Moon
  • Build Space Rocket
  • Build Lander Module
  • Invent triple warp drive
  • Make spaceship crash proof
  • Design tasty food to eat in space
  • Craft space uniforms that make everyone look hot

No matter how big the list is, everyone feels better once the list exists. Hey! You made something! Change of mood or mind starts with small things.

2. Now Thinking Begins

Once there is a list, pivotal questions can be asked: what should be done first? what’s hardest to do? Which thing isn’t understood well enough to know what to do with it?

The list can also be put into order by priority (or cost, or time to finish, or a dozen attributes):

  1. Build Space Rocket
  2. Build Lander Module
  3. Land on Moon
  4. Invent triple warp drive
  5. Make spaceship crash proof
  6. Design tasty food to eat in space
  7. Craft space uniforms that make everyone look hot

It can take hours to debate which things are more important than other things, but once you have a prioritized list you get magic powers: simply by always working from the top down you are guaranteed to always be working on the most important thing, no matter how much work you get done, or how long your list becomes. This means you can stop worrying about the bottom of your list, or how long the list is.

3. Priority 1 and 2

With an ordered list, you can divide between things that must be done (Priority 1) and things that are good, but you can survive without (Priority 2). It can take much thinking to divide a list this way, but once you do, you have clarity. You give yourslef the power to say NO to many things, creating space for the priority 1 things to be done well. You know you should not be working on Priority 2 items until all of the Priority 1 items are finished.

  1. Build Space Rocket
  2. Build Lander Module
  3. Land on Moon
    —————————————–
  4. Invent triple warp drive
  5. Make spaceship crash proof
  6. Design tasty food to eat in space
  7. Craft pretty uniforms that make everyone look hot

4. The Big Lesson

When in doubt, make a list. You’ll feel better, I promise.

9 Responses to “When in Doubt, Make A List”

  1. Jason Crawford

    Great advice—so useful in part because it’s so simple. I do this all the time.

    I learned this exact technique (among others) from Jean Moroney of Thinking Directions, whom I highly recommend: http://thinkingdirections.com/

    Another simple, but related technique I learned from Jean is just to start writing your thinking process down, in full sentences, like a diary or journal. Amazing how much faster you get to clarity, especially when you’re overwhelmed.

    These techniques are like shifting into low gear: you don’t go as fast, perhaps, but when you’re going uphill it’s the only way to make progress and not get stalled.

    (Disclosure: I’m not affiliated with Thinking Directions in any way, but Jean is a friend of mine.)

    Reply
    • Scott

      Thanks Jason. Keeping a journal has had many profoundly positive effects on my life. It’s one of my most important habits.

      Reply
    • Chris

      Great points Jason and Scott, when I’m overwhelmed, I get out my ever-present journal and write the list, then prioritize, then act.

      It’s great to put things in perspective, and the journal makes it easier to review weeks or months later to see what you missed and how unimportant some of those urgent, worry-some things really were.

      Reply
  2. Smaranda

    “You’ll feel better, I promise.” True story.

    Reply
  3. Lynne

    So agree: List making is simple but vital. Whenever I start to get ‘overwhelmed!’ palpitations I immediately grab a Sharpie and a pad of Post-its and start unloading all my tasks onto them. I love Post-its because I can then group, stack and re-order them by priority. Because I’m a massive ‘List Geek’ I usually then jump into Evernote (with it’s handy checkbox maker) and record it there, so the list is available across all my devices. I feel like the simple act of just getting things out of my brain somehow reduces the anxiety around them, and checking things off is also powerful.

    Reply
    • Ari

      You might want to take a look at Trello (trello.com). Sort of a digital version of your post-it system, with all the grouping & sorting you mention, plus more features that paper can’t provide. Also available across all your devices.

      Reply
  4. Alys Longworth

    Hi Scott,
    Great blog! I am a first time commenter. I’d like to heartily recommend Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. It delves into the details of this idea and how it helps us all manage our work with greater efficiency. Atul Gawande is a terrific writer (through lots of practice, by his own admission) and a contributor to the New Yorker etc.

    Cheers,
    Alys

    Reply

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