The case for digital list making

11 Aug

I am a list maker, daughter of a list maker and sister to a list maker. I suspect the tendency is more nature than nurture, a result of an inbred combination of flighty memory, mild OCD, and tendency to daydream. If you’re also a list maker, you’ll probably recognize some of these:

  • Laying awake in bed writing mental lists
  • The immediate release of anxiety when those things in your head are dumped out onto a written list
  • The experience of leaving something off a list — say, “water plants” — and forgetting to do it even though the withering plants are within your eyesight every day
  • The pleasure of pulling out an archived list when you need to repeat that event or task
  • Making sub-lists and sister lists to your lists
  • The horror of losing a list
  • Being teased by those poor misguided souls who don’t make lists

Though there are endless possible list topics, I’m not really thinking about journal-style lists: bucket lists, gratitude lists, dream jobs, etc. Those are terrific for introspection or developing goals, but I’m thinking about the practical lists that are part of managing our lives. To do lists, workout plans, shopping lists, task lists before an event, steps of a complicated project; those sort of things.

My frugal mother makes most of her lists on the back of envelopes from mail she’s received. These are handy because they also provide a pocket for coupons, gift cards, or other list-associated paraphernalia, but to me they are too sloppy and ephemeral. My brother uses paper notebooks. I admit to having a notebook fetish — I love the potential of a new book with crisp blank sheets — but once my messy handwriting spoils the pages, I lose my enthusiasm. For me, the answer for years was to use MS Word or Excel, printing or writing out copies as needed, because many tasks still require a paper list. Now I use Google Drive.

Digital lists, even simple ones, have many advantages. It’s easy to reorder items and there’s always more room. Archiving is automatic; my mother keeps accordion files of her old lists, but my digital list archive takes no physical space and is searchable. I can copy and modify old lists with many similar items. If I forget a list at home, I can access it on my smartphone. Sharing a list is just a matter of a few clicks, whether I’m inviting someone else to look at it or collaborate.

Last week I started planning Christmas gifts. Yes, I’m aware it’s the beginning of August, but since my mobility is still severely limited while my broken leg heals, I thought I should use my sitting time more productively. So, I went to my Old Misc Lists folder on Google Drive, made a copy of the Christmas 2014 spreadsheet, and got to work. I knew immediately who I gave gifts to last Christmas and what they were.

In Google Drive, I have packing lists and detailed itineraries saved for weekend trips, camping, and vacations. I have a list of things to do around the house before someone comes for an overnight visit. I have a list of goals and plans that I update annually.  Each week I make a list of what I need to accomplish day by day, which serves more as a guideline than rule. My basic grocery list is saved there, with items in the order you’ll find them walking through my local store. Some of my older lists live on our home network: lists of family contact information, investment accounts, budget information, and the timeline of tasks for hosting a Thanksgiving dinner.

There are a plethora of list apps and programs. I’ve tried some, but I still go back to the digital equivalent of a blank page, albeit a blank page I can access from any computer or my smartphone. I use Evernote for writing but not lists. I use my Amazon Echo as short term memory for items that will go onto my lists, as her capabilities are very limited.  The Echo can hold one To Do list and one Shopping list. I find her most useful when I’m in the kitchen and discover that something is running low. Yesterday I said, “Alexa, add sandwich bags to my shopping list.”  She replied, “I added sand bags to your shopping list.” Close enough. When I prepare for a weekly grocery trip, I’ll have her read back what I’ve told her throughout the week.  Her reply today is, “You have one item on your shopping list. Sand bags.”

Pinterest is basically a visual list site (search Pinterest for “lists” — so meta — and you’ll find lists of things as well as hosts of twee printables for any sort of list you might want). The way I organize my Chrome bookmarks sometimes has a list aspect, too.  I save links in folders with titles like “Christmas Baking 2013”, though if I were smart, I’d save those recipes elsewhere to avoid the inevitable 404 error when I look for that perfect cinnamon popcorn recipe from three years ago.

There are some advantages to writing lists by hand on paper. The items will be remembered more easily and if they are things like goals or resolutions, writing them out can be a commitment mechanism. I daydream about journals filled with orderly, neatly written lists, but even then I’d want to make a digital list first to put items in the perfect order before copying them carefully. I know, I know.


Posted by on August 11, 2015 in Digital Devices, Side Topics



5 responses to “The case for digital list making

  1. Kat Feldragonne

    August 11, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    I currently have 3 written lists in front of me, while I work on various projects. Others are saved in Google, in Word, and on my phone. Lists rule!

    • Kay

      August 11, 2015 at 12:12 pm

      Sing it, sister! 😀

  2. mothermi6

    August 11, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    I think my life is simpler (not necessarily in a good way) as I have very little family and an out-of-date passport. Your life – very different to mine – is therefore fascinating. Apart from the immediate shopping/to do list (paper) my lists are mental. Operating as a metaphorical ‘air traffic controller’ my brain stacks thoughts inside its memory cache, all week, finally to stream them on to this netbook at an internet café/pub (dongle if at home). I expect a lot of my brain’s memory and hope that all the use will act as an Alzheimer’s prophylactic! I will look up Google Drive however.

    • Kay

      August 12, 2015 at 8:08 am

      I really like the way you put that. My memory for useful things has always been terrible. I’m a killer competitor at trivia games, but it could take me half an hour to remember what I ate yesterday and at times I’ve completely forgotten surgeries I’ve had, people I’ve loved, and jobs I’ve held for more than a year. Lists are, in a real way, a memory supplement.

      Now you have me thinking how different my recall of the week might be if I compared a version written based on my lists and notes each day and one where I simply sat and thought back over it. Hmmmmm….

      (Get that passport updated! You never know when adventure might sneak up on you. 🙂 )

      • mothermi6

        August 13, 2015 at 4:04 am

        Will do re. passport. An adventure for myself is long overdue! E


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