The lists of life

Marketers, communications professionals and publishers understand the potency of a well-considered list, and its close contemporary, the listacle – a list in the guise of an article.

Consider, for instance, the examples of 1001 Movies to See Before You Die, or “13 simple was to improve your self-esteem”, “Seven things that made Week 3 of the 2018 NFL season awesome” or “Six tips for future-proofing your child’s education.”

We have an unquenchable appetite for lists, it seems. There is something appealing about their finiteness and their definitiveness.

How reassuring it is to understand that there are only a few incomparable locales to visit to be thought well travelled, or admirable habits one need cultivate to be fulfilled and self-actualised.

It’s the limiting, boundary-drawing aspect of this form of writing that is its beauty. And of course, lists are practical. Our brains are better at processing and synthesising information than they are at recording mere data (which is why it’s preferable for your waiter to write things down then risk muddling an order). For the rest of us too, getting things down is the best insurance against forgetting.

There have been lists for as long as there has been civilisation, so you could say lists are synonymous with culture, perhaps even a defining feature.

The earliest forms of writing found in Mesopotamia were lists of the “taxes” paid by farmers in what was a pre-currency economy in 10,000BC. The taxes were in the form of grains and farm stock.

Because these ”taxes” created more freely available food, not everyone had to cultivate their own; time was freed up to develop other skills. Job specialisation flourished, paving the way for the experience managers, dermatologists and glass blowers of today.

The Bible is full of lists: items that it is permitted to eat, injunctions, transgressions, family histories, monarchical chains, ship manifolds, and sundry major and minor laws.

According to the Book of Exodus, God gave to Moses 10 (not nine or 11) specific Commandments (aka the Decalogue) that could not be broken, under penalty of eternal damnation. The list – what else could you call it? – was at the centre of a moral code by which to live. A set of values and priorities.

There are some recurring numbers around well-known lists that have resonance.

You’ll find there are Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (White, Pale, Red, Black); Four Freedoms (freedom of speech and religion, freedom of want and fear); and Four Cardinal Virtues (justice, prudence, fortitude and temperance).

Even more potent is the number seven. It pops up in the form of Seven Cardinal (or Deadly) Sins (pride, lust, envy, anger, covetousness, gluttony and sloth); Seven Ancient Wonders of the World (the Colossus of Rhodes, the Pharos at Alexandria, the Hanging Gardens – and Walls – of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the pyramids of Giza, the Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus, and the Statue of Zeus at Olympia).

The Bible refers to Seven Seals.

There are Seven Seas, Seven Sisters, Seven Dwarves, seven secret herbs and spices, Seven Samurai, a Magnificent Seven hired guns, seventh heaven, and a seven-year itch.

Beware the seventh son of a seventh son.

Successful people, according to the best-seller, need only but acquire seven carefully prescribed predilections.

Seven seems to be that “just right” number for a list – not too many or too little.

A list is an act of curation, of editing – of inclusion of some items and the exclusion of others. It is an expression, therefore, of opinion but also of taste and erudition.

In his book The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness, Robert Winder offers a comprehensive (but not exhaustive) list of traits associated with Old Blighty.

“Even the briefest summary would have to include tea, beef, gardening, beer, curry, cricket, Shakespeare, toast, royal pageantry, military bands, washing the car, banging on about the war, stiff upper lips, Chinese takeaways, whingeing, saying “sorry”, home-made jam, queueing, road rage, stand-up comedians, tabloid headlines, plastic bags in trees, post offices, Big Ben, pillar boxes, supermarket trolleys, Choral evensong, poppies, village greens, brass bands, football hooligans, carols, dog mess, broken umbrellas, chewing gum, “Order! Order” and a thousand other things.”

Well, yes, especially since Winder included two types of brass bands, but not the Beatles, or Britpop, Sir Edward Elgar, nor for that matter class consciousness, hyphenated surnames, poor dental hygiene, bowler hats, toffy schools, cucumber and watercress sandwiches, Rolls Royces and Jaguars, Swinging London, Martin Amis, chavs, pykies, the Goodies, Dr Who, kitchen-sink dramas, Savile Row suits, Empire, pubs, hedges, fog, Sherlock Holmes, calling soccer “football”, and the Queen.

Heretofore the lists we’ve been talking about have been in the public realm: registers of things for wide knowledge and consumption.

Yet lists can be private too, none more so than the to-do list, which, depending on your work habits, can be statements of ruthless efficiency or articles of unalloyed optimism.

Stanford philosophy professor and self-confessed procrastinator John Perry advises a combination of these traits.

In his delightful tome, The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing, Perry suggests a successful to-do list – that is, one that helps procrastinators lead productive lives – needs a few key elements.

There should be a few easily achievable tasks (such as “wake up” and “turn on a coffee machine) to help create the feeling of making progress.

And he also advises including some super-aspirational tasks such as “learn Chinese” or “write a novel”, which of course are difficult and prone to creating avoidance.

The secret is to have a few somewhat important and urgent jobs below this to do while avoiding those assignments that are considerably more arduous. It’s all about productive procrastination – curbing one’s worst instincts to delay while getting things done, all the while enjoying yourself, and not feeling too guilty for those tasks left unfinished. They can, after all, go on the next to-do list. Or the one after that.

And by getting a reasonable amount accomplished you’ll stay off hit (and sh*t) lists, and put aside more time for your bucket list, the things you really want to do.