Why do we like making lists?

Overwhelmed by modern life? Then try drawing up a list. 1) It will make you feel in control; 2) It's good for the brain; and 3) It will put you in league with historical figures from the Ancient Egyptians to Pablo Picasso, says Rhodri Marsden

Rhodri Marsden@rhodri
Wednesday 01 October 2014 08:11
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001

In the song "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover", Paul Simon teases us with the promise of a methodical rundown of all the potential ways to exit a failing relationship. But in the event, the short-changing scoundrel delivers only five to our eager ears.

1. Slip out the back, Jack; 2. Make a new plan, Stan; 3. You don't need to be coy, Roy; 4. Hop on the bus, Gus; 5. Drop off the key, Lee. The other 45 ways weren't even listed on the record sleeve for ease of reference, and since the record was released in 1975, this omission hasn't gone unnoticed by the list-obsessed.

For years, they have absent-mindedly tried to fill the void that Simon wilfully and intentionally created by neglecting his list-making duty, and for those of a certain mental disposition, it can be a productive way to while away an hour or so.

6. Fake your own death, Seth; 7. Get a facial tattoo, Lou; 8. Feign a health scare, Claire; 9. Hide in a cave, Dave.

Many people will have derived a curious satisfaction from mentally completing Simon's arbitrary list. It scratches an itch and, more importantly, it ticks a box. List-making is good for the brain. In an age of information overload, the list has become increasingly important as a means of coping with the world around us, but drawing them up is something that we've done for millennia; the oldest sets of sequential signs discovered by archaeologists were etched into rock in around 3200BC. That adds up to a hell of a lot of old lists, crying out to be anthologised into a list of their own, and Shaun Usher has made something of a start with his new book, Lists of Note, a sequel to last year's much-praised Letters of Note. It contains 125 beautifully reproduced lists, from excuses for workmen's absences recorded in Ancient Egypt ("suffering with his eye" / "drinking with Khonsu") to Christopher Hitchens' alternative Ten Commandments ("Turn off that fucking cellphone").

Usher is terrified to imagine a world without lists ("just a world full of things, muddled and overflowing, without a sense of purpose or collective identity") and so he tries, pretty successfully, to reaffirm their historical importance.

My own list-making is a well-rehearsed and instinctive procedure that kicks in whenever my mind becomes too crowded. Right now is a good example. A scrap of A4, folded and then torn in half, headed with the word "List", underlined right across the page, followed by a series of points I want to make, each preceded by a small arrow pointing to the right. (I hate to demystify the deeply fascinating creative process that's going on right now, but there you go.) And it's extremely soothing. Aside from heavy drinking, the creation of lists is the most effective temporary form of anxiety relief that I know of, and, as a bonus, it's substantially cheaper and results in far less nagging paranoia the following day.

Without wishing to sound evangelical, the list-averse should embrace the list. Many people will bemoan the prospect of packing for a trip, but packing isn't about packing, really. It's about making a list, and that can be a pleasurable process done over a cup of tea, during a period of relative calm. Once that list is made, the packing is, in effect, done. There's no lingering anxiety over forgotten items. You just bung everything into a case, ticking things off as you go. You've averted a minor crisis via the humble list, the "shortcut to accomplishment".

With a short-term working memory that can only hold around seven (give or take two) items, lists can be crucial aides memoir, and in recent years a whole industry has grown up around their construction. The American writer Sasha Cagen, who a few years ago labelled herself with the extraordinary moniker "todolistologist", will have watched her chosen field of study widen at an alarming rate, with app stores bursting with to-do list software such as Wunderlist, Teux Deux, Carrot, Todoist and so on. Usher picks a handful of to-do lists for his book, including Leonardo da Vinci's: ("Have Avicenna translated" / "Get hold of a skull") and Jonathan Swift's anti-list: ("Not to be covetous" / "Not to talk much"), but any retrospective analysis of a to-do list will always pose the same question: did it actually work?

There is a phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect, named after the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, which notes our tendency to have nagging thoughts about something that we started but didn't complete; to-do lists are perhaps constructed in the knowledge that they will prompt that effect, because the act of writing tasks down should prompt us to get them done. Our unconscious will nag us to complete things, simply because the list exists. But we can start with the best of intentions only to see them evaporate; New Year's resolutions are the perfect example of noble aspirations that are conveniently forgotten three weeks later. And, of course, we cheat, by including things on to-do lists that we have already done.

My own peculiar indulgence is to begin such lists with "1. Make List", which I can cross off immediately. We also, somewhat self-defeatingly, draw up to-do lists that we have no hope of completing. The relatively recent phenomenon of bucket lists (lists of things we hope to accomplish before we die) are frequently so aspirational as to be pointless. Visitors to dating websites will have observed the phenomenon where romantic hopefuls list the countries that they've already been to this year (Peru, Indonesia) followed by all the ones that they hope to set foot in before the year is out (Equatorial Guinea, Costa Rica, Vanuatu, Mongolia, Chad). These read less like aspirations and more like advertorials, lists of other people's experiences that look good on paper but are resolutely unachievable within the allotted timeframe. Bucket lists are often just that, and it is the more mundane, realistic lists that feel more compelling and revealing. Usher's book begins with one such to-do list from Johnny Cash: "Kiss June" / "Not kiss anyone else".

But the bucket list and its showcasing of potential experiences has ended up becoming a successful media trope. Albums to listen to before you die, waterfalls to gaze upon before you die, hotels to stay in before you die – these are accessible, bullet-pointed magazine articles, precise in their remit, authoritative in tone and broken down into digestible chunks. As the internet began to challenge us daily with the "paradox of choice" (too much stuff, not enough time), we gravitate towards this kind of reading material – snappy pieces that dovetail perfectly with the F-shaped way the human eye has been shown to scan web pages.

And so the listicle – "as much about psychology as editorial", as the writer Jack Marshall puts it – has thrived by purporting to separate the interesting stuff from the dross. As a strategy, it may now be on the wane; "23 Life Changing Ways to Eat Chocolate Chip Cookies" does not a compelling prospect make. But Usher demonstrates that the roots of the listicle go back centuries; in Lists of Note he includes a 1592 pamphlet extract entitled "The Eight Kindes of Drunkennes" by Thomas Nashe ("The thirde is swine drunke; heauie, lumpish and sleepie..."), which is essentially Elizabethan Buzzfeed, and no worse for it.

Some forms of documentation are not necessarily constructed as lists, but just happen to adapt themselves perfectly into list format. The most moving of these in Usher's book is "How My Life Has Changed", by Hilary North, who used to work in the south tower of the World Trade Center but was not there on the morning of 11 September 2001. It's a simply stated list of things that North can no longer do, following the death of 176 of her co-workers. "I can no longer complain about Gary," she writes. "I can no longer trade voicemails with Norman." It's a mundane series of observations, but when listified it becomes an astonishing document of loss. The French novelist Georges Perec, meanwhile, intended to provoke no such emotion with his Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four, but it's still an extraordinary catalogue of one man's potentially gout-inducing consumption during one year, including 14 entrecote steaks and one orange. All these lists may be constructed line by line, bullet-pointed or numbered, but they are rarely ranked in any meaningful way.

Indeed, Usher dedicates his book to "1. Karina 2. Billy 3. Danny". But he's not suggesting (at least, one doesn't imagine so) that he's less fond of his second-born son than his first. But the ordering of phenomena, people and objects into lists of what are notionally deemed "best" is another reason for the surging popularity of the list in recent years. The first list of best-selling books was printed in the literary journal The Bookman in 1895, best-selling music was first documented by Billboard in 1930 and The Sunday Times Rich List was first published in 1989. But today, we're less interested in facts and figures and more in arguing with critical assessments of art or achievement. Every list that is published of the 100, 200 or 500 "Best Albums Ever" will be accompanied by scoffing at "that ridiculous list", and contempt for the idea that The Smiths' The Queen is Dead is better than The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, or vice versa. Our list, we reckon, would be way better than their list, but it doesn't make their list any less compelling. (Lists of Note, by the way, contains Picasso's handwritten list of top European artists alive in 1912. Art historians may want to rip it to shreds.)

A few years back, the Italian author Umberto Eco curated an exhibition at the Louvre entitled "Infinity of Lists". "We have a limit," he wrote, "a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death." He saw lists as a way in which we shrug off the finite nature of life and embrace the infinite, while also making it somehow comprehensible.

I don't share Eco's view; my own to-do lists – those ones that begin with "1. Make List" – very frequently end with something along the lines of "14. Rest of Life; 15. End". Less a celebration of the infinite, more a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the finite. But that is no less reassuring for an atheist like me, living in a world characterised by chaos. Blessed be the listmakers.

'Lists of Note', by Shaun Usher (Canongate, £30), is out on Thursday

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