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Posts Tagged ‘lists’

That’s it. You don’t need to read the post – it’s all in the title.

What a great phrase! We all know those management and self-help rules: that getting anything done requires you to make priorities, that you need to make decisions about what you are not going to do as much as about what you are going to do, that often you need the courage to say no, etc.

I got the phrase from Tom Peters, The Little Big Things, who got it from someone else.

In Peters’ words at the end of this section:

So, top of your “to-do” list for today is immediately beginning work on your “to-don’t” list!

And he quotes John Sawhill, who took over the strategic thinking for a huge environmental charity called Nature Conservancy, and asked the question:

What areas should the Conservancy focus on, and more important – what activities should we STOP? [Peters’ italics]

Profound stuff…

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There is a lovely online debate going on about how best to organise your bookshelves. It falls under that more general heading of ‘cataloguing disputes’ or ‘making lists about lists’.

Here are Stephen Moss’s reflections:

Ah, how to organise one’s bookshelves? One of life’s central questions, and well done Alexander McCall Smith for raising it on Twitter yesterday. Perhaps not everyone would consider this a vital topic, but for me it is. Just as Casaubon in Middlemarch is trying to find “the key to all mythologies” (the title of his unfinished book), so I believe that if I can arrange my library properly, everything will be solved. Who needs the Higgs boson? The real key is where to file The Iliad. Poetry or history?

I have about a dozen categories. Fiction is the largest. It is arranged alphabetically by author and then chronologically where I have several titles by the same writer. There are sections devoted to poetry, memoir, biography, essays, travel writing and plays, all organised alphabetically. Books in these categories have a better chance of surviving than novels, which tend to be culled first. There are smaller sections, more loosely organised, devoted to dictionaries, reference works, art, music, sport and chess. I also have a shelf of foundation texts – the Bible, the Qur’an, the Mahabharata, Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and the modern philosophers. I admit this shelf is very inaccessible.

History is a large section. It begins with general histories, and then takes a predictable course from Sumeria and Egypt to the Third Reich. There is a problem with a book such as Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1972, because I don’t have a separate Irish section and can’t decide whether it should be in general histories or in chronological sequence. For the moment it sits awkwardly in the 17th century, next to Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches. Clearly I need to spend the rest of the day assessing this. One day, when I build my book annexe, all these questions will be resolved. Then, the whole of existence will be mapped, classified, ordered, and I can die happy. George Eliot was unnecessarily cruel to Casaubon. He was definitely on to something.

There are some lovely comments below his piece:

melymnn: I organize my books by publisher and colour and I’m not even ashamed to admit it. Come at me, bro.

Gdhsyerehdjsue: I have colourbetised my books and it looks great.

Mark Barnes: My entire collection is organised by Dewey, and catalogued on LibraryThing.com. Perhaps I need to get out more. That said, not only can I easily find my own books, but I now know exactly where to go in most libraries I visit.

msmlee: The WORST way to organise bookshelves is by an immediately discernible order to the untrained, non-bibliophile eye — you are not running a public library, you are arranging your bookshelves as a means of self expression, why do it so that others could find your books easily without having acquired your particular history of book encounters??? No, the right way to shelve books is not alphabetically, not chronologically, and certainly not by colour. I can stomach somebody’s bookshelves arranged broadly by subject, but that is only elementary level to book organising. You have to organise books in such a way that ONLY YOU know the rhyme and reason for these books being together, and really showed that you have actually READ the books to know what they are about before filing them.

ontheotherhand2010: Not trying to sound aggressive or anything, but… Who cares. Get a life. As long as you can find them, why does it matter? FYI I have mine in about half a dozen fairly broad categories or so (not alphabetical), which is enough for me to know roughly where they are located. I stopped being pedantic with the exact location of my books in my late teens. Maybe you should give it a rest as well…

To this last commentator I’d reply: If you can’t understand why someone wants to catalogue and sort and order and list and arrange and argue and shape and obsess and file and group and re-group and on and on and on, without it having to be explained to you, then you never will. It’s part of being human. Maybe the obsessiveness isn’t, but the impulse is.

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I have a new guru: David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. At first glance, it’s just another self-help/management book, with a lot of sane advice about keeping the desk tidy, looking at your diary at the beginning of the day, and putting in place some kind of reliable filing system. Some of his best tips are simple enough to put on a post-it note. How do you empty your in tray? ‘Do it, delegate it, defer it, or drop it.’

But there is an idea at the heart of Allen’s strategy that I have found enormously helpful and psychologically quite profound. Most of us feel anxious and stressed about the never-ending list of things we have to do. We think that this stress comes from having too much to do, and if only we could get through the list and finish all the jobs, we’d find that peace that we long for on the other side.

Allen takes a different view. He says that most people live within a great cloud of half-acknowledged and ill-defined responsibilities. There is all this ‘stuff’ (a technical term for Allen) that we want to do, or ought to do, or promised to do, or feel pressured into doing. We can’t deal with it all, so we push it to the back of our minds, where it festers. The anxiety and panic come when this stuff forces itself back into consciousness — either because of an internal prompt (a thought, a memory) or an external reminder (a phone call, the discovery of a handwritten note). And even then, when we are staring into these responsibilities, we are still paralysed, because we haven’t worked out how to take things forward, how to act – so we push them into the background again.

The secret, says Allen, is first to acknowledge all these hidden demands, to ‘collect’ them. And you do this by writing them down. Simple! The writing down and the keeping an unmissable note in front of you means that this ‘stuff’ is out of your mind and on the table. Immediately, you feel a bit less stressed and a bit more in control.

Then, you need to decide for each of these responsibilities, big or small, what is the next physical action that will allow you to move this forward just one step: making a phone call, going to the shop, sitting down to think, or whatever. So the stuff on the table in front of you is not just an amorphous cloud of open-ended responsibilities, it is a collection of manageable activities.

You haven’t actually done anything yet! But you know what needs doing, and you know how to begin doing it — one step at a time. And you feel a new peace about what you are not able to do, because you are forced to consciously put it on hold, or to make that hard decision about dropping it completely.

As I write this, it sounds a bit simplistic and a bit artificial. But I have felt a great sense of relief from working through his book. I’ve looked into this ‘cloud’ of things that need doing, and forced myself to make some realistic decisions about what steps I need to take to move them forward. And now, as Allen promised, I am feeling more energised and enthusiastic, not less, about getting things done. Because at heart I do actually enjoy doing things!

Buy the book. And remind me to post about this in two months to see if it has really made a lasting difference.

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I have a fetish for lists, and anyone following this blog will know that it runs the risk of turning into a compendium of other people’s lists: “Greatest films… best books… tallest buildings…” I regret not buying a book I stumbled upon when I was doing the Christmas shopping called something like The World’s Top Ten. It was a lavishly illustrated hardback, very like the Guinness Book of Records, filled with nothing but lists of the ten biggest, best, smallest, quickest, oldest… whatever. It could have kept me blogging for decades.

757/767 Mechanical Checklist - Takeoff by Fly For Fun.

Mechanical checklist for flying

Anyway. The point of this post is to defend my fascination with lists. Oliver Burkeman has an article about the importance of making checklists – whether in cooking or in heart surgery:

The Checklist Manifesto, by the journalist and medic Atul Gawande, takes as its starting point the astonishing things that happen when hospital doctors are required to tick off items on checklists as they carry out routine but critical procedures. In one trial, the rate of infections from intravenous drips fell from 11% of all patients to zero simply because staff were compelled to work through a checklist of no-brainer items, such as washing their hands. Many doctors grumbled: it was more paperwork, it wasted time and it insulted their professional judgment by implying that they needed reminding of stuff they’d learned in the first month of medical school. But it worked. A more recent study, which included UK hospitals, suggested that wider use of checklists might prevent a staggering 40% of deaths during treatment. Airline pilots, of course, already rely heavily on them, but Gawande suggests checklists might have impressive effects if adopted throughout business, governance and beyond.

Besides, the stepwise structure of checklists has the salutary effect of narrowing your focus to the next action. When it comes to large undertakings, dwelling on the big picture can be paralysing, and a distraction from the next step, which is the only one you can ever actually take. As they say, I’m told, at Alcoholics Anonymous, where they preach it as a survival strategy, all you have to remember is to “do the next right thing”. Then the next, and the next, and the next.

And just to go up an intellectual gear or two, Burkeman himself put me onto this wonderful interview with the Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco, who believes that list-making is at the root of all human culture:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.

At first, we think that a list is primitive and typical of very early cultures, which had no exact concept of the universe and were therefore limited to listing the characteristics they could name. But, in cultural history, the list has prevailed over and over again. It is by no means merely an expression of primitive cultures. A very clear image of the universe existed in the Middle Ages, and there were lists. A new worldview based on astronomy predominated in the Renaissance and the Baroque era. And there were lists. And the list is certainly prevalent in the postmodern age. It has an irresistible magic.

So I think I am now justified in posting a culturally significant list at least once a week…

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