Check It Twice: The B&A Staff Reveals the Way They Make Lists

”… putting something on a list legitimizes it and increases the likelihood that it might actually happen, whether you’re talking about getting a new job, having another baby, or buying Cheerios.”

Holiday lists, to-do lists, grocery lists. With the end of the year come the holidays, and holidays are usually a time for … that’s right … making lists. Take a look into the process (and obsessions) of list-making from our staff. Have a sparkling holiday season and may all your lists come true.

From the staff:
Holiday cookie list
Holiday music list
Palm lists
Online lists
Mantra box list
Buy-Me and open checkbox lists
Refrigerator lists

Holiday cookie list
Every Christmas, from as far back as I can remember, we’ve made Christmas Cookies for Santa (and us!).

If one kind is left out—even if most folks don’t really like them—there is an uproar. Tradition is important in our house, and more than ever now that my daughter Amelie has joined the world. This is one list I have to check twice!

  • Frosted sugar cookies
  • Almond pretzels
  • Pinwheel or bar shortbread cookies
  • Cream cheese spritz (colored animals and shapes)
  • Chocolate (kisses) filled bon bons
  • Meltaways (which resemble Mexican wedding cookies)
  • Bourbon balls

These last two are my favorites, and the recipes for them are here, written in my mother’s hand.

Hol-list2005-07

-Christina Wodtke

Holiday music list
I am a teeny bit obsessed with using iTunes to make playlists. I cannot describe how much I love music mixes. Putting together a bunch of songs in an unexpected way to set a mood or match a particular occasion just makes me all giddy. This pursuit used to take hours (when I was finding songs on record albums and taping them). Now it’s merely a matter of going through my library and dragging songs to a playlist. Such joy.

Hol-list2005-01

For your listening pleasure, I’ve made a new playlist in honor of the holiday season. It’s not really full of holiday songs, although there are a few–it’s more about the feelings, good and bad, that this time of year evokes.

  1. Merry Christmas, Baby / Otis Redding

    Otis just has soul. He’s one of my all time faves, so I thought I’d use his best holiday songs to bookend this list.

  2. Money (That’s What I Want) / Barrett Strong

    To get everyone presents.

  3. In My Life / The Beatles

    During the holidays I typically start thinking about the big stuff.

  4. Turn Turn Turn / The Byrds

    We sang this at my sixth grade holiday concert.

  5. It’s Getting Better / Cass Elliot

    I have to believe it too.

  6. Baby It’s Cold Outside – Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan

    It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s romantic.

  7. December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night) / The Four Seasons

    What a very special time for me.

  8. Blue Christmas / Elvis Presley

    Some of you may know I have a teeny teeny thing about The King. This tune is Elvis incarnate.

  9. Day By Day / Godspell

    More spiritual than religious. Besides, it’s groovy.

  10. He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother / The Hollies

    I’m just getting all mushy now.

  11. Little Drummer Boy/Silent Night / Jimi Hendrix

    I’ve come back to my senses. Jimi tears into some holiday faves.

  12. Where Have All the Flowers Gone / The Kingston Trio

    I can’t help thinking about our soldiers overseas now.

  13. The Morning After / Maureen McGovern

    She sang this on New Years Eve just before the ship turned over and that guy crashed into the skylight.

  14. He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands / Nina Simone

    Yes He does.

  15. Put Your Hand In The Hand / Ocean

    Another groovy ‘70s happy peace and love song.

  16. Joy To The World / Three Dog Night

    I couldn’t avoid putting this one in. Kind of had to.

  17. What a Wonderful World / Tony Bennett & K.D. Lang

    At least I try to think it.

  18. Get Together / The Youngbloods

    Try to love one another now.

  19. White Christmas / Otis Redding

    I’m dreaming of it too.

Get Dorelle’s Holiday Mix at iTunes, and at Y! Music.

-Dorelle Rabinowitz

Palm lists
The best thing about holidays is traveling, and whenever you travel, it’s critical to bring the right gear along with you. So this is a time when lists come in handy, to help you make sure the right luggage is there.

I have a small application in my Palm Pilot that lets me make all sorts of checklists. I use Checklist by Handmark, which allows me to make several lists, sort the items, and even beam lists to my wife. Once you check an item, it can disappear, shortening a list until it’s done without the need to scroll down.

Hol-list2005-06

My longest list is for doing groceries, but I rarely use it–paper and memory are handier for daily stuff. But the lists I force myself to use are my packing lists. I have one for weekend escapes, holiday vacations, and another for camping trips.

Of course, they all include my camera gear, the difference is made by the food and cooking supplies, travel documentation, and kinds of clothes needed for the situation. Using these lists, it is safer to drive away without the feeling that you have to find out what you left home before it’s too late to turn around.

My camping list is:

  • Tent
  • Hooks for tent
  • Sleeping bags
  • Air Mattress
  • Flashlight
  • Pans
  • Stove
  • Fuel for stove
  • Knife and big spoon
  • Swiss army knife
  • Utensils
  • Matches
  • Cups/mugs
  • Dishes
  • Tea
  • Toilet paper
  • Cooking oil
  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Pepper
  • Boniculars
  • Outdoor soap (the one that doesn’t need water)
  • Camera
  • Film
  • Sunblock
  • Chapstick
  • First-aid kit
  • Candles

-Javier Velasco

Online lists
Ta-da Lists, a free service from the good folks at 37 Signals, are a great way to create and manage lists online. (Really–it’s free). After a painless registration, you can create as many lists with as many items as you need. Just check an item and it moves to the bottom of the list, signaling it’s completed. Editing lists is effortless, but reordering items is a little clunky. You can also share lists with others, email them to yourself, and even set up an RSS feed.

Hol-list2005-04

I tend to use online lists for longer-term inventories of things like gift ideas, repairs around the house, and music I want to buy. Think of a great gift for someone six months before his or her birthday? Jot it down online. Or, if I read a review of a CD I eventually want to investigate, I’ll add it to my “Music” list. This way you can snowball ideas, thoughts, and catalogs of things over time.

Hol-list2005-03

The portability of Ta-da Lists is key. Anytime you’re online you can access your stuff. OK, it’s no Memex, but it can help you recall things. If you travel a lot or move between computers, it’s quite handy to have a single record. You get a simple URL in the format “yourusername.tadalist.com”–very easy to remember.

Daily to-do lists are better on paper, close at hand, in my opinion. So it’s a combination of old-fashion, handwritten to-do lists and online list management that helps me keep track of things.

-Jim Kalbach

Mantra box list
2005 was a challenging year for me; big changes in my life have forced me to reexamine some of my values and objectives. As part of this process, I’ve been trying to become better attuned to my inner voice—to approach important decisions in a more intuitive manner. One tool I’ve used during this time is what I call my “mantra box:” a list of phrases and words that I’ve come across in my reading, or in interactions with others, that resonate deeply with me.

Here is how it works: I keep a stack of 3” x 5” index cards and a Sharpie marker with me most of the time. When I come across a phrase that “calls” to me, I immediately write it on a single card in large block letters. It goes into my mantra box—one of those cheap card boxes you can find at drugstores.

I try to keep my “judging mind” out of the collection process; some phrases are trivial, obvious, or tacky. Others are quotes from personal heroes. Still others are somewhat mysterious at first; the full reason for their attractiveness is only revealed to me at a later time, when I’m in a more contemplative mood. All of them go into the box—the sole criteria for admission is having struck a deep chord in me.

Sometimes—when I’m feeling introspective—I review the contents of the box. If a particular mantra feels relevant to my current situation, I copy it to my day planner where I can refer to it frequently, and bring it into my daily life. (I don’t throw out mantras: it may turn out that even the stupid ones have a reason for being there.)

Here are, in no particular order, some of the phrases and words that have spoken to me—and merited a place in my mantra box—in 2005:

  • Simplify
  • He who owns little is little owned
  • Smaller, smaller
  • Do only what you love, love everything that you do
  • Collaborate
  • Underpromise, overdeliver
  • Embrace constraints
  • Less
  • Business is personal—not an abstraction
  • Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
  • Context
  • Honor your mistake as a hidden intention
  • Disrupt business as usual
  • Convert talent into code
  • Anchor
  • Yes or no?
  • Eat like a bird, shit like an elephant
  • Axis thinking
  • Tenacity
  • Style—happiness—emotional appeal
  • Disorganize (for renewal and innovation)
  • Storytelling
  • As simple as possible, but not simpler
  • Nobody knows what they really want before they get it

-Jorge Arango

Buy me and open checkbox lists
Every day, I use at least two lists:

1. The Buy-Me method
While I pretend not to be cautious about music, I do tend to try a track or two before I buy an album. About once a month, I view the handy “Buy Me” smart playlist I created in iTunes. In it, neatly sorted by Play Count, are the tracks I’ve been listening to most often. No need to think about value of the purchase or an album’s potential for pleasuring. Chances are, if I’ve listened to a track at least once every three days for three weeks (roughly), I should buy the album. The Buy-Me recommendations are often a surprise to me, which is kind of a fun by-product of the system (no pun intended).

Hol-list2005-09
Smart playlists do the list making for me

2. Open checkbox method
Although I’ve tried all kinds, paper-based to-do list works best for me. Even though it’s analog, a consistent visual vocabulary helps me get things done. Here’s how it works:

When I need to get something done, I create a new list item. Each list item gets an open checkbox and a name. Other variables might include:

* Checkbox and asterisk: Indicates open task that is urgent
* Checkbox and “f/u:” Indicates an open task that needs additional follow-up before I can complete it.
* Checkbox and circled letter: Indicates that an open task needs to be performed in a specific location. Adding the location makes the list easy to scan to chunk potential errands. (“T” below indicates that the three tasks must all be performed at Target, for example.)

Hol-list2005-10

When a task is complete, I put a check in the checkbox, allowing the satisfaction of crossing something out without rendering the item illegible. Oftentimes, I must refer back to completed items, so I prefer to have them available. Sometimes, a task is still unchecked after a significant period of time or several pages in the notebook. In these cases, a strikethrough is necessary, and the unchecked item gets moved to a new page. When an entire list is complete, I put a strike through the entire page.

-Liz Danzico

Refrigerator lists
I write lists for lots of things, though I wouldn’t call myself obsessive. I like the legitimacy of putting something on a list. It means a commitment of some sort—something to be bought, a task to be completed, a thoughtful intention to do something.

I have the daily-weekly-monthly lists for work, but for the rest of my life, I mainly make lists for must-dos such as groceries, Christmas gifts, and errands. There is no formality to my lists. They are as basic as can be—words on paper. Often they’re written on small scraps or Post-Its with whatever I can get my hands on, pen if I’m lucky, pencil crayon if I’m not.

The grocery list is my most formalized list. It lives under a magnet on the side of the fridge. It’s simple, accessible. Everyone in my house knows what it is, and why it’s there. And to my great annoyance, I’m the only one who uses it. That means that even after a $300 grocery bender, I can still come home to someone asking why I didn’t buy Cheerios. “Because you didn’t put it on the list!!” Big sigh.

Hol-list2005-05

My favorite lists are ones I do most infrequently—life goals and ambitions. The list of big dreams. I’ve done these off and on for years, and they follow a fairly strict format. Things can’t be as simple as “win the lottery.” Items on this list have a certain amount of thought behind them that address the particulars of how to make something happen. My practice has been to spend time creating these lists, and then promptly forget about them. I now tend to save them on my computer, which means I could look at them occasionally, but I never do. Since I’m rather disorganized elsewhere in my life, these lists are usually lost, then turn up accidentally while I’m going through old notebooks or papers and files. The best thing about these occasional findings is remembering what I dreamt about long ago, and what I can check off.

Much to my surprise, I seem to have had a plan for how I wanted things to be. I have the two kids, a house by the ravine, work I can do from home, a Master’s degree—all things that have appeared on my life’s grocery lists over the years. I think it comes back to the notion that putting something on a list legitimizes it and increases the likelihood that it might actually happen, whether you’re talking about getting a new job, having another baby, or buying Cheerios.

-Pat Barford

Posted in Big Ideas, From the Editors | 10 Comments »

10 Comments

  • Donna Spencer

    December 19, 2005 at 11:17 am

    I love Jorge’s Mantra box list – both the idea and the contents. I’m going to create one to go with all the other lists in my life.

  • Justin G. Mitchell

    December 19, 2005 at 3:00 pm

    I like really like the mantra box idea as well. I have a couple of notecards I keep a list of phrases on to inspire me but not a whole box. I also keep refrigerator lists. I love them due to the fact they are in your face every time you get something from the fridge.

  • James Craig

    December 22, 2005 at 7:53 am

    I love Pat’s closing paragraph. It was a great end to a great article. Thanks.

  • Joe Lamantia

    January 11, 2006 at 11:41 pm

    looks like someone’s showing a little Moleskine :)

  • daria slivka

    January 13, 2006 at 9:58 pm

    I agree: when committed to a list, it’s like a contract, something with a higher likelihood of getting done. *** Like Jorge, I have *3 x 5 index cards* all over the place to help capture story lines, dialogue, gift ideas, intentions, even found objects. I dump them into an old tin, and every so often I read, sort, toss, file, or act on them. *** Jim’s mention of the *Ta-da Lists* is just what I was looking for to manage my reading, listening and watching lists. Can’t wait to check out the site. *** And like Pat, I also run across old to-do lists when pulling an old book or journal off the shelf. It’s like running into myself backwards. *** Thanks to all the contributors for their inspiration-information and pics.

  • Stephanie L. Trunzo

    January 19, 2006 at 2:19 am

    It’s funny what a sick bunch we are, but isn’t it nice to feel at home in an article about to-do lists. :-)

    For more cozy at-home feelings, check out Getting Things Done by David Allen. I listened to it on audiobook during my drives to and from work. I recognized myself in all of his organization techniques, but I enjoyed hearing WHY I do the things I do…

  • Dan Kalafus

    January 20, 2006 at 12:39 am

    I’ve always been a fan of paper-and-pencil to-do lists… but once about half of the items are crossed off, it becomes harder to pick out the remaining items. Liz Danzico’s open-box lists are a great solution – it’s easy to scan the list for open boxes, even when most of the items are checked. Thanks Liz!

  • Daniel Jewett

    January 31, 2006 at 8:21 pm

    Follow-up to the closing paragraphs about life’s lists and such… Emmit Smith, the great Dallas Cowboy running back, had the best statement about lists that I every heard. It was in an interview where he talked about the things he had accomplished and how he approached the game and his life.
    His quote was something like:

    “It is a dream until you write it down. Once you write it, it becomes a goal and you can then achieve it.”

  • noaddedsugar noaddedsugar

    March 2, 2006 at 5:38 pm

    Increasingly I find myself working on multiple machines in multiple environments and I am currently trying to keep lists in one place, but in all places, Google, Yahoo and the like all offer global repositories for lists and notes – but I am still not convinced. As a fan of GTD I used to use a Palm for lists etc. But have returned to pen and paper in a moleskin for it’s sheer ‘scribblibility’.
    Interesting article, thanks.

  • Jacqueline Bannerman

    April 2, 2006 at 4:41 pm

    Please add a few large trash bags to your camping list. I have found them invaluable for surprising rain storms, taking wet things to the laundromat, and serving as immediate rainwear. Thank you for a terrific list!
    This is a great site – I plan to implement Jorge’s Mantra box today!
    Thanks!!

Sorry, comments are closed.