Analytical 30: Lists

28 September, 2018


Lists can be a great way of tracking things to do and random thoughts and ideas. But if they’re abused they can drag you down into list-hell.

Transcript available
[Music] Everything can be improved, iterated and refined. And if you don't think that's true, maybe you haven't analysed it enough. Calculated choices carefully considered. Absolutely analytical. Analytical is part of the Engineer Network and support our shows including this one. this one. Head over to our Patreon page and for other great shows visit today. Lists. Hang on, let me just put that on a list and I'll get right back to it. In episode 28 I talked about tools and I touched on to-do list apps, maybe a little bit flippantly, but the truth is that I've actually spent more time than perhaps I should have sinking time and effort into to-do list apps and to-do lists and I've thought a lot about lists over the years I've observed others' behavior, but I've also observed my own behavior too, or at least I've tried Now, I guess I look at lists a lot like a programmer looks at data coming in and out of a buffer or a stack The problem with that analogy is that with stacking, with push and pop, for those that know what I'm talking about, is there's an inherent assumption about the simplification that is push on, pop off. There's no re-evaluation of the sequence, it's just push it on, pop it off again when you need it. That's it. In which case, the list is used as a temporary storage area, a holding area. when you have a thought, whack it on the stack. And in that context, adding an item, any item, to a stack, I'm fine with that. Especially because I think that getting ideas off of your mind and adding an item to your to-do list or an idea list, it takes the weight off your mind. And that actually feels good because all of that cognitive processing to maintain that thought is removed. and there's a reduction of stress in your mind but the problem becomes if you do that as a pattern for absolutely every thought you have then that list will very quickly become a new source of stress. In fact if you do that even occasionally over many days weeks or months that list can become very difficult to track and even more difficult to ever action in any meaningful way or complete. So sometimes that's actually a worse outcome. So for lists to work as a form of temporary storage I suppose for whatever thoughts you might have I think you need to be a little bit more selective about what you choose to put down as a to-do list item and what you discard as a waste of your time. Ultimately writing everything down doesn't always help. In the GTD or getting things done methodology there's a concept of capture which is in essence I suppose pulling together all of your notes, tasks, items, reference materials and such and putting them in an inbox of sorts for you to for you to sort through. And whilst that might be a strategy you could take, would you need to do that if you'd been more discerning about what you put in your lists in the first place? There has to be a balance between not forgetting something that you do need to do and the overhead and time and effort that you're gonna need to sink into managing a huge list of items that you've created in the first place. So if you're adding things to a to-do list and then you find yourself just checking them off a few minutes later, I'd argue that the time that you spent recording it on the list in the first place wasn't probably the best spent time. I understand that there's a certain satisfaction to checking off a to-do list item, for sure, question maybe it's a tiny little dopamine rush yeah I achieve something yeah look at me that's great and if that habit comes with a little bit of a buzz oh well there's no question about that at least for me anyhow and I've observed others have that same reaction but is that does that make it effective because I don't I'm not sure it does I'd argue though you can look about this differently rather than just saying throwing everything on a stack and then and going to deal with it later, I would suggest you apply some pre-filters if you like. Anything that's a thing, a thought, an idea that you're gonna add to a list, ask yourself a few questions first. What type of list item does this idea fit into? If you put it in the right list first, you won't need to filter it between lists later. So, I mean, let's say you got two lists, assuming you only have two. One is for story ideas and one is for tasks to do at work. If you add it in the right list first, it's easier to find and track it later. Next question. Can you just keep it in your own memory buffer in your brain? You know, like in your head and just do it in the next few minutes? If you can, then don't write it down in a list. Just do it already. Just do it like Nike did. Just do it. Does the idea have gravity? And I don't mean that it's heavy. What I mean is, is it a seriously considered thoughtful thought through thought? Maybe I need to work on that a bit. So many ideas are random. They're fleeting, they're sporadic, spontaneous even. Thinking of more adjectives, that's probably enough. Some say, I think, that those fleeting random thoughts are the ones you do need to write down. But in my experience, they're actually the noise that you probably shouldn't write down. Or if you're going to write them down, put them in a list called "random thoughts" or something random, because they're just not serious thoughts with gravity. They're random. And ideas of gravity that once that you've thought over, chewed over, thought through, deliberated on, they're fully baked or they're more baked. They're not unbaked. Pick a euphemism. Doesn't matter. That kind of thing, right? So it is your idea that you want to write down as a habit of gravity. That matters. Of course, it doesn't matter what I say. In the end, you know, you do what you do. You want to put it in one list. You want to spread across a hundred lists. That's fine. What you do and don't put in a list is entirely up to you. But I'd like to consider that you are the author of your own destiny, quite literally in the case of lists. You write your own destiny and record what you want. But I would consider this. Oscar Wilde once put it beautifully. He wrote, "We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell." popular saying as an adjunct to that, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Now I mean to say that we start creating lists of things to help us remember with the best of intentions of being more productive, remembering more things, but in the end we just end up creating our own list hell. I'm not saying that you shouldn't create lists for different things, but just be careful that you don't create your own list hell in the process. Remember that. In fact, why don't you just write that down somewhere so you don't forget. Put in a list called "John said some stuff" or not. No, not. If you're enjoying Analytical and want to support the show, you can, like some of our backers, Carsten Hansen and John Whitlow. They and many others are patrons of the show via Patreon, and you can find it at or one word. Patreon rewards include a name thank you on the website, a name thank you at the end of episodes, access to pages of raw show notes, as well as ad-free, higher quality releases of every episode. So if you'd like to contribute something, anything at all, there's lots of great rewards, and beyond that, it's all very much appreciated. is part of the Engineered Network and you can find it at and you can follow me on mastodon at [email protected] or the network on twitter at engineered_net. Accept nothing, question everything. It's always a good time to analyze something. I'm John Chigi, thanks for listening. [Music] Take some notes, yo.
Duration 9 minutes and 58 seconds Direct Download

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John Chidgey

John Chidgey

John is an Electrical, Instrumentation and Control Systems Engineer, software developer, podcaster, vocal actor and runs TechDistortion and the Engineered Network. John is a Chartered Professional Engineer in both Electrical Engineering and Information, Telecommunications and Electronics Engineering (ITEE) and a semi-regular conference speaker.

John has produced and appeared on many podcasts including Pragmatic and Causality and is available for hire for Vocal Acting or advertising. He has experience and interest in HMI Design, Alarm Management, Cyber-security and Root Cause Analysis.

You can find him on the Fediverse and on Twitter.