To Make Your Lists More Productive, Make Them Way Weirder

What do heptads, Italian authors, the Book of Revelation, and Most Creative People have in common? They help us make much better lists.

To Make Your Lists More Productive, Make Them Way Weirder
[Image: Flickr user Robert Jinks]

While Umberto Eco might have been right when he said that the list allows us to make infinity comprehensible, we still can’t quite comprehend why we keep using lists in the same exact way: written in a line from the upper left corner and partly crossed out by the end of the day.


So how can we make our lists more effective? We’ve already dug into how (rightly applied) technology can leverage your listing. What we need, then, is a list-tip that’s a tad more novel, a touch more weird. We need to get miscellaneous, in other words.

Ben Schott has mastered miscellany. The author of Schott’s Original Miscellany has made a career out of gathering the weirdest and most wonderful things, a skill he parlayed into an epic, though now defunct, blog for the New York Times and subsequent Op-Arts. And writing at Real Simple, Schott’s collected a range of sundry strangenesses to help us reconsider the list.

The more help you ask for, the weirder the list can become.

When you’re looking for your office BFF–which you need if you’re going to survive your workday–you should pair up with someone whose weirdness is opposite your own. Why? Because a complimentary contrast boosts your productivity.

Especially if you have a strange task at hand. As Schott writes:

In 1964 Deborah, duchess of Devonshire, wrote to her friend, noted writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, to ask for his assistance in compiling a rather unusual list: whimsical titles for a set of fake book spines that would cover a secret library door in Chatsworth, the duchess’s stately home. Fermor obliged with a list that included Military Dilemmas, by Major Crisis; Consenting Adults, by Able N. Willing; and In the Soup, by A. Crouton. If a problem shared is a problem halved, a list collaborated on is a list enhanced.

Write it in sevens.

As you may expect from a guy who had a vocabulary blog for the Times, Schott exemplifies linguistic precision. A list of seven, we learn from him, is a heptad. And history is rife with them, he notes: You got your seven sins, seven virtues, Seven Seals, seven ages of man, seven seas, seven continents, seven days of the week, seven digits in your phone number.

Why all the sevens? Because, as a formative psychology paper by George Miller found, people best recall things when they’re arranged in sets of seven (or so). And why’s that? Scientists are finding that’s the number our neurons really dig. So if you want to remember your list, stick to a seven.


Free Yourself From Verticals

We don’t think linearly, so why do we place our lists along a line? if we want to think fluidly, why do we make our lists rigid? Schott has another idea:

Start in the center of a page and write items in spatial relation to one another, so that you create clouds of related tasks; draw a Venn diagram for party invitees so you can note how people will interact. During the 18th century, sailors in the British navy would sign petitions of grievance in a circle so that ringleaders could not be identified. (From this, the term “round robin” is derived.)

The cool kids–folks that talk about “design thinking”–refer to such freeflowing thought as mind-mapping. It’s a clever way to work around the tyranny of the straight line. As designer and Most Creative Person Greg Gunn told us, a mindmap lets you get “a lot of different ideas in play at once [and] you can get the ideas out quickly and figure out the structure and connections as you go.” So by plopping down the theme in the middle of the page, you allow the associated ideas to assemble around that mental rallying point–and you might see connections that would have otherwise laid latent.

Gunn’s account of what a school day looks like is full of such interconnections:

“What happens in the chaos of a regular school day”

The lesson here? Put reconsidering your list at the top of your to-do list. But don’t necessarily make that list a straight line.

Hat tip: Real Simple

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.