There are a lot of lists flying about these days. The top 30 ways to better manage time. The top 20 things great leaders do. The top 15 things you should never do. And the list goes on.
How on earth are we supposed to remember twenty things? Can there really be a top twenty? Doesn’t that seem like a lot? Was the author simply unable to decide in the end what really was most important?
We make lists for all sorts of reasons. For the groceries, to pack for a trip or note our key to-do’s for the day. I’m definitely a list-maker. I probably couldn’t function if I didn’t make lists of all things I had to get done. My brain simply can’t hold all that information. And in all honesty I don’t want that junk rattling around in there.
Lists are essentially functional tools. They remember for us so we don’t have to remember all those little things we need to buy or pack or do.
And herein lies the problem. When we apply the list approach to richer, more complex information or experiences that we genuinely want to process and assimilate into our psyche, then long lists simply don’t work. No one remembers them.
Our brains aren’t wired to remember a long list of things (without extensive training that is). Most of us mere humans are limited to holding between five and nine items in short term memory (Miller). In other words those who are good will retain nine, those not so good retain 5 and the average is 7. Actually even 7 seems like a lot of hard work.
What we really remember best are relationships – the connections that link items together in more meaningful ways (Minto). These linkages help us and others get to the heart of a subject, draw out its theme or essence. They also help us to assimilate more of the important detail.
We exist in a world where we are bombarded with data and information. It screams at us from televisions, tablets, mobile phones, laptops, billboards, shopping malls, buses, bosses, train stations, airports, and every corner of our existence.
It’s so noisy.
Lists are helpful here. They help us get through the day by shutting out some of the noise.
Yet those days where we lurch from task to task mechanically working though a long list until we get to the end of the day feel laborious, unrelenting and unrewarding.
What makes something memorable are the connections we make. What makes it meaningful is a sense of connecting what we do with our purpose, our essence. When we do this the rest of the detail falls more effortlessly into place.
This is true for a complex subject around which you want to engage others or simply our every day experience.
It starts with the connection we make to ourselves. What are we aiming to do? What are we really trying to say or share? How does that link to our purpose?
It unfolds with the connection we make to the subject itself. Can we be fully present with the moment and the task at hand and give it our full and undivided attention and positive intention? Can we take the time to reflect on the detail so we can identify the themes we want to draw out or linkages we want to make?
It deepens with the connections we make to others. Can we set our ego aside and go and ask for help or input? Can we commit to taking feedback on board without resistance or resentment? Can we genuinely engage with and explore perspectives different to our own and without judgment?
So next time something you’re working on starts to look like a long list;
Take a few slow breaths.
Then ask yourself, is the subject important to you?
If it is, try instead to draw connections between the details, distil the essence and share something more lasting, meaningful and memorable for you and your audience.